Trump copied Obama’s failure in Yemen
President Trump campaigned against Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, but he often seemed to govern against former President Barack Obama, touting differences between the two administrations long after Obama’s departure and blaming Obama’s past record for present problems (including some it is chronologically impossible for Obama to have caused).
Yet there is one point, at least, on which Trump has not only refrained from dismantling Obama’s legacy but actually entrenched it further: U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war.
This war began in late 2014 between Yemen’s Iran-linked Houthi rebels and its internationally recognized government in Sanaa. A Saudi– and United Arab Emirates-led coalition intervened several months later — the war is now widely regarded as a proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran — and the United States backed the coalition from the start.
The Obama administration never sought approval from Congress for this intervention, rendering the entire project unlawful under the Constitution and the 1973 War Powers Act. Nor did the Obama team make a case that vital U.S. interests were at stake. On the contrary, as Gen. Lloyd Austin revealed to Congress in early 2015, the administration didn’t seem to have a clear agenda in Yemen beyond supporting Riyadh. “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success,” said Austin, who is now nominated for secretary of defense by President-elect Joe Biden.
Austin’s comments make sense given the reality now, as then, that U.S. defense does not require this entanglement. Our country has no significant interests at stake here. Who governs Yemen will affect us little, if at all: It is a very poor and small country half a world away, and the Houthis have local ambitions. Contrary to the suggestion of an ill-advised Foreign Terrorist Organization designation the Trump administration is currently considering, the Houthis are not international terrorists in the style of al Qaeda. Whether they or the recognized government ultimately prevails is not integral to American security.
Insofar as U.S. support has enabled and prolonged the coalition campaign, however, and in doing so made peace negotiations less urgent, our intervention itself is harmful to U.S. security. The local branch of al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is an international terrorist group, has flourished in the power vacuum of civil strife. Meanwhile, the American arms supplied to our partners in Yemen have not stayed exclusively in the hands of their intended recipients — far from it. Through both losses and deal-making by Saudi and UAE forces, Washington has armed AQAP and other U.S. enemies in Yemen.
That is far from the only unintended consequence of the U.S. role here. The coalition’s contribution to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, considered the worst on the planet for several years, is significant — and it would be impossible on this scale and duration without American facilitation. Saudi- and UAE-led forces have been consistently careless about civilian life in their attacks. They’ve created famine conditions with a naval and air blockade that starves this desert nation that overwhelmingly relies on food imports. Desperately needed medical supplies are kept out too, straining a medical system already overtaxed by war injuries and epidemic cholera exacerbated by the coalition’s destruction of water treatment plants.
And Washington helped with all of that, refueling Saudi planes midair in the early days so they could make more strikes in a single flight, conducting air strikes of our own, helping to enforce the blockade, handing over intelligence and a constant supply of weapons — bombs, small arms, ammunition, vehicles and more. A U.S. bomb was used in the infamous school bus bombing. U.S. bombs launched by coalition troops have hit a steady stream of civilian targets including weddings, funerals, markets, schools, homes and more.
I’ve described all this without specifying dates because — aside from the midair refueling, which the Trump administration dropped amid popular uproar over the school bus strike — it’s been the same during the Obama and Trump administrations. In Yemen, Trump picked up where Obama left off, and he has overwhelmingly maintained that status quo throughout his tenure. He even fought Congress to maintain it, issuing half of his eight vetoes to keep backing the Saudi-UAE-led coalition over bipartisan congressional objection.
As Trump’s term comes to a close, he leaves Yemen largely as Obama left it — in a policy sense, that is. In a humanitarian sense, Yemen is far worse now than four years ago, having suffered through another four years of epidemic illness (now including COVID-19), starvation, blockade and violence. Trump has failed in Yemen exactly as Obama did, by unjustifiably and illegally supporting an intervention that does innocent Yemenis deep harm and does the United States no good.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Defense One, among other outlets.