Yemen watchers were disappointed last week after President Trump vetoed legislation designed to curb U.S. involvement in the Yemeni civil war. While an important achievement, particularly at such a divisive time, the legislation was at best symbolic and at worst misleading, as it threatened the worst outcome: reducing the perceived need for action to solving the human and national security crisis on the southern Arabian Peninsula.
Even if the president had signed the bill, the legislation would have had no impact on U.S. involvement in Yemen or the course of the conflict. Moving forward, policymakers and Democratic presidential candidates should be thinking about an approach that would actually shorten the conflict and recalibrate the U.S. strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The legislation, at the very least, did send an important and overdue signal to Saudi Arabia and its primary partner in the war, the United Arab Emirates, that Congress is impatient with the course of the war, mounting civilian casualties, and dire humanitarian situation. In invoking the War Powers Act, however, the bill is built on the premise that the United States is currently involved in hostilities related to the conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed Yemeni forces. However, the United States is not involved, and, according to non-partisan civil servant lawyers under both the Obama and Trump Administrations, it never has been.
There is a lot of bad information out there about what the Department of Defense is doing in Yemen, and that is fodder for a separate post, but the bottom line is that U.S. military activity inside Yemen is focused on curtailing the threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen and maintaining the free flow of commerce through the Bab al Mandab strait. U.S. support to Saudi Arabia outside of Yemen is pretty minimal and focused on shoring up Saudi border security. For the Department of Defense to legally comply with the new legislation, it could have simply maintained the flawed status quo. Instead of mourning the veto, policymakers should demand a new approach.
A New Approach
First and foremost, it is time to reexamine the U.S.-Saudi partnership. The Trump Administration seems to support the Saudis unconditionally while some Democrats are calling for total abandonment of the relationship. The best course of action is probably somewhere in the middle; the relationship doesn’t provide the United States the same national security benefits it did 20 years ago, but Saudi Arabia’s value to the United States is not zero. There is still some utility in counterterrorism cooperation, as well as some small benefit from Saudi funding and policy support for an array of regional initiatives, including Iraq reconstruction, stabilization in Syria, support for Jordan, and military planning in the Gulf region. The Trump Administration needs to calibrate its support for Saudi leadership accordingly, and Democrats would be wise to leave the door open to at least some form of cooperation in a future administration.
Second, the U.S. national security apparatus needs to make it painfully clear that the ongoing conflict has not made Saudi Arabia or the region any safer. Ongoing airstrikes provide Iran with a useful foil and grounds for maintaining its military relationship with the Houthis in a way that continues to erode the security of the Saudi-Yemeni border. The conflict also allows Iran, through the Houthis, an inexpensive avenue to bleed the Saudis of political capital, life, and treasure. Saudi Arabia must make major concessions to reach an accord with the Houthis to end the fighting, not only because it’s the moral thing to do (a message that has not resonated with Saudi leadership), but because it is fundamentally in Saudi Arabia’s national security interests to do so.
Third, and relatedly, the administration needs to spend some political capital. It’s no secret the Trump Administration has a close relationship with the Saudis. This diplomatic capital should be exploited! The administration should be delivering tough messages privately on everything from weapons sales to the UN peace process. Most critically, these messages must be delivered by the very top of the administration, ideally by Saudi Crown Prince-confidant Jared Kushner, so that they resonate with Saudi leadership.
Finally, Congress can and should continue to debate the utility of selling weapons and defense materiel to Saudi Arabia. A singular focus on this tactical element of the relationship, though, undermines the pursuit of a more balanced strategic relationship. We all know the Saudis can go elsewhere to buy weapons — a U.S. decision on security assistance is unlikely to alter the conflict and could nudge Saudi Arabia into the open arms of a U.S. competitor. The emphasis should be in debating the utility of the relationship and then thinking through the types of capabilities Saudi Arabia should have according to U.S. regional interests.
Why It Matters
Much has rightly been written about the human toll of the conflict in Yemen, but less has been said about why the war is problematic for U.S. security interests. In addition to delegitimizing Saudi Arabia in a way that has made the partnership less useful to the United States, the chaos of the civil war makes it more difficult in many ways for the U.S. military to target AQAP and ISIS-Yemen. Finally, and importantly, through cooperation with the Houthis, Iran is now better positioned to challenge the free flow of commerce through the Bab al Mandab than ever before. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis understood these threats, but the Trump Administration in its current form seems to, inexplicably, lack any urgency in bringing fighting to a close.
The run up to the 2020 election provides policymakers and candidates a timely opportunity to articulate a new direction for the U.S.-Saudi partnership and influence the direction of the conflict in Yemen. It is important to look beyond symbolism to find practical levers to improve regional security and end the suffering of the Yemeni people, while recognizing the important ways that Saudi Arabia impacts regional security.
Jennifer Bird is a Security Fellow with Truman National Security Project and former staffer on the House Armed Services Committee and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy. Views expressed are her own.