Obama’s most unforced error

Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh (Wikimedia)

The story of America’s war the American-enabled war in Yemen took another twist yesterday, when former Yemeni president and current Houthi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared to invite Russian intervention into the conflict:

A newly-formed governing council in Yemen could work with Russia to “fight terrorism” by allowing Moscow use of the war-torn country’s military bases, Yemen’s former president said on Sunday.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former counter-terrorism ally of the U.S. who was toppled by mass protests in 2011, told state-owned channel Russia 24 that Yemen was ready to grant Moscow access to air and naval bases.

“In the fight against terrorism we reach out and offer all facilities. Our airports, our ports… We are ready to provide this to the Russian Federation,” Saleh said in an interview in Sanaa.

Now, Saleh likely has no real authority to make this offer on his own, so either he’s talking out of school or he has the support of the Houthi rebel leadership behind him. Either way, it’s probably unlikely that Russia would get involved in Yemen right now and potentially risk a confrontation with the Saudis and, therefore, the United States. Moscow wouldn’t be able to use the justification it’s using to intervene in Syria–defending the country’s legitimate government against terrorists–because Saleh and the Houthis overthrew Yemen’s legitimate government in the process of their rebellion. Whatever else you may want to say about Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi or the uncontested election that confirmed his presidency in 2012, he is the internationally accepted head of the Yemeni state, and he’s at least as legitimate in that office as Saleh ever was. And no ad hoc Houthi “parliament” is really going to make anybody think otherwise, no matter how many displays of public support it might get (the Saudis, of course, promptly bombed that rally, no doubt part of their ongoing effort to minimize civilian casualties).

But if you’re looking to blame somebody for the fact that the door is even slightly ajar for the Russians to swoop in and complicate things in Yemen, you can lay that blame right on the front stoop of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC (though I’d clear it with the Secret Service first). It’s the Obama administration that elected to support the Saudi mission to annihilate liberate Yemen, and, you know, I can almost see the rationale for it. The Saudis are, like it or not, an ally, and Hadi, again like it or not, is also an ally. Yemen is strategically positioned in the Red Sea and is important for counterterrorism purposes because al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is there. The Saudis didn’t make too many waves about the Iran nuclear deal but they needed reassurance that the United States wasn’t abandoning them in favor of Tehran, and Yemen was important to them. And all the usual reasons for mucking around in the Middle East–oil, stability, weapons sales–applied as well. I can see the case for supporting the Saudi operation. It’s not a great case, but it’s not totally inexplicable either.

But whatever benefit America might possibly have accrued by getting involved in this catastrophe of an intervention has long since been washed out by the cost. Obviously I could talk about the intervention’s appalling moral cost, but since morality and US foreign policy haven’t been on speaking terms for decades, let’s instead focus on the strategic costs: a resurgent AQAP, an even less stable Yemen, any hope of a negotiated peace seemingly farther away than ever, and now maybe another potential US-Russia flashpoint. It’s not as if American aid has moderated the Saudi air campaign–in reality, it’s American logistical assistance that keeps the campaign going at all. The Obama administration has chosen to allow that air campaign to continue, and the list of possible reasons why–oil prices, weapons sales, comforting the tender feelings of the Saudi royal family–is, in toto, embarrassingly unworthy of the price that’s already been paid.

There are plenty of people–Barack Obama among them–who will say that the biggest foreign policy fuck-up of this administration was Libya. There are plenty of other people who would argue that it’s the failure to Do Something (More) in Syria. But Yemen, while it might not be Obama’s biggest fuck-up, may very well be his most unnecessary one. And now that the specter of Russian involvement has been raised, with Hillary Clinton opting to base large parts of her presidential campaign on American fears of a resurgent Russia and the Kremlin’s supposed ties to Donald Trump, you may very well see the US doing even more to help the Saudi intervention–at the very least, it’s even more unlikely that the administration will decide to stop aiding the intervention, as it should have done months ago.


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