Making Unnecessary Enemies in Yemen

The Saudi-Israeli tandem is trying to pull the U.S. and other militaries into the Yemeni civil war by arguing that the Houthi rebels are Iranian proxies. But the reality is much more nuanced and the American interest may go in a different direction, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A strong Manichean streak runs through American perceptions of the outside world.  That streak involves a habit of seeing all conflict and instability in binomial terms, a presumption that one of the perceived two sides is good and the other bad, and an urge to weigh in on the presumptively good side.

The influence that these tendencies have had on U.S. policy has varied over time. The influence was readily apparent, for example, during the George W. Bush administration’s days of “you’re either with us or with the terrorists.” The Obama administration has tried to move in a less Manichean and more realist direction, especially in conducting diplomacy with Iran and in so doing opening a door to a more fruitful all-azimuths diplomacy in the Middle East generally.

Saudi King Salman bids farewell to President Barack Obama at Erga Palace after a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi King Salman bids farewell to President Barack Obama at Erga Palace after a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

But the current administration still operates in a political environment in which the old perceptual habits set limits on what the administration can do, or perhaps push it into doing things it might not otherwise have done.

There have been ample demonstrations throughout the Middle East of how inaccurate and inapplicable the Manichean perspective is. There is Iraq, where the United States and the Iranian bête noire are on the same side in countering the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. There is the even more complicated deadly brawl in Syria, where the people who from the viewpoint of the West are the closest thing to good guys are opposing the same regime that also is opposed by ISIS and the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

At least as clear a lesson both in the fallacies of the Manichean perspective and the mistake of the United States taking sides in such conflicts is found in the current strife in Yemen. But the lesson does not seem to have been learned, as reflected in U.S. support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Three major features of the conflict in Yemen are pertinent to that lesson.

One is that the conflict is at least as complicated and multidimensional as any others in the Middle East. It is impossible to draw a line that would put everyone worth supporting on one side and everyone worth opposing on the other, or even to come close to doing that.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, often considered the most capable Al-Qaeda affiliate today, is completely at odds with, and a confirmed enemy of, the Houthi forces who are the principal target of the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention. One of the most significant allies of the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who for three decades was America’s guy as ruler of Yemen.

Second, this war is, as Adam Baron has put it, “by and large, an internal Yemeni political conflict” that “remains deeply rooted in local Yemeni issues.” This fact has been obscured by those who, intent on depicting Iran as a dangerous wide-ranging regional renegade, portray the Houthi rebellion as part of some Iranian expansionist plan. It is nothing of the sort.

The Houthis have been driven for years by grievances involving the distribution of resources and power within Yemen, and their more recent gains have mostly reflected the sympathy for those grievances among other Yemeni elements who have been similarly displeased and disadvantaged by the most recent Yemeni regimes.

Third, the motivations of outside actors intervening in this conflict are not ones that the United States ought to associate itself with. One set of motivations is sectarian. There is no advantage at all, and lots of disadvantage, for the United States to be seen identifying with one side or another in sectarian disputes within the Muslim world.

Another set of motivations, rooted in decades of Saudi-Yemeni strife dating back to when the expansion of the Saudi kingdom first led to seizure of traditionally Yemeni provinces and to lingering border disputes, involves a Saudi desire to exercise dominance over the Arabian Peninsula and in particular this part of it.

Graham Fuller observes, “Riyadh has always loathed Yemeni feistiness, independence, its revolutionary politics, and even its experiments with democracy.”

The Saudis publicly play up the Iranian angle, but what they really don’t like about the Houthis is that they haven’t been able to buy off the Houthis as effectively as they have many other Yemeni elements. The Saudi objective of maintaining this kind of overlordship over its neighbors is also not an interest that the United States shares.

And yet the urge to take sides and intervene persists, as reflected in recent remarks about the Yemeni case by John McCain. The urge pays insufficient heed either to what is in U.S. interests or to what is effective. McCain asserted that the Saudis did not seek advance coordination with the United States concerning their intervention “because they believe we are siding with Iran.”

Actually, according to a senior officer at U.S. Central Command, “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think, that it was a bad idea.”

We know that the Obama administration is feeling the need these days to appear supportive of the Gulf Arabs because of angst related to the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. And if catering to that angst is one of the prices that has to be paid to get the agreement and, through it, to get closer to liberating U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East from rigid side-taking in the future, then this policy may turn out to be on balance worthwhile.

But the Yemeni conflict itself still ought to serve as a lesson in the multiple reasons the United States would be better off to resist its side-taking urge.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Making Unnecessary Enemies in Yemen

  1. Andrew Nichols
    April 19, 2015 at 20:32

    It’s simple. In the big bully schoolyard he USA is now an friend of Big Al Kyder who was its enemy last week. They’ve found a new sickly kid to beat up on.

    I just wonder what the 911 families make of it all….allies of the organisation that killed their loved ones. I suspect though like so many loyal americans…they just cant make the connection…

  2. Bill
    April 19, 2015 at 16:34

    What, Barack Barry Hussein Soetoro Obama has stopped bowing down to the Saudi king?

  3. Robledal Pedregoso
    April 18, 2015 at 19:57

    Sanford reply spot on- why in tarnation does this government keep the insane strategy for dealing with police actions/insurgencies etc as the only one to use? Did we learn nothing from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq etc? The amateurish comments re Kobane and recently Ramadi indicate the military brass and their civilian Commissar overlords and the POTUS advisors need intensive training on Systemic(not just ‘Systems’) Science Design in the context of dealing with socio-political ‘messes’ ( see Ackhoff, Buckley, etc.). We are Manicheans with ADD and historical Alzheimers and unlike Kindergartners we don’t clean up our own messes because we have the tendency to wimp out- i.e. Korea, Lebanon etc..- thus endowing future generations with more messes to deal with! In addition, it seems that the top heavy military Commissar minions are the result of deep mistrust of our military and with the novice academic advisors of the POTUS leads to disgrace, defeat and criminal aggression. There is also Anglo-Centric superiority complex that creates deadly blind spots in our ability to meaningfully know and anticipate events- we desperately need a national educational policy that requires at least two world languages for high school graduation and at least a course in Systemic Design for all non Arts majors- those who study/know the uncommon languages should be given stipends/ extra pay. Lastly, I propose that all intelligence/counterintelligence be under direct miltary supervision after the Pentagon Commissars are retired/transferred and the Defense Secretary is a rotating position from the Joint Chiefs. Otherwise, our march towards Orwell’s nightmare world will continue- compare our dystopic geopolitical map and the one he described in 1984 – what do you see?

    , etc

  4. F. G. Sanford
    April 18, 2015 at 18:17

    Of course, it’s impossible for us mere mortals outside the intelligence community to dowse with certainty into these murky issues. But when the dots revealed don’t exactly line up, there’s always room to speculate about the surreptitious nature of what’s afoot. The link to the Graham Fuller article is one of those dots. “If the Saudis had asked us, we would have told them it was a bad idea.” Knowing what it is possible to know with a $60 Billion intelligence budget, and given the fact that multiple sources confirm that U.S. prepositioned munitions are being dropped on Yemen, and that the U.S. has been surveilling and providing target coordinates, and that the U.S. has had naval assets standing by to rescue Saudi pilots at sea, and that the U.S. has provided refueling tankers for Saudi fighter jets, and that the U.S. has conducted an ongoing drone war against Yemen for years, that seems a rather ingenuous dodge. Fuller is right about some things. The whole plan seems a bit “schizophrenic”. He is, after all, in a position to know. He’s one of the guys who penned the memo laying out the particulars for implementing the Iran-Contra affair. He’s also an early exponent, perhaps even the founder, of the doctrine which argues that “Islamic evolution” may be guided by selective manipulation of sectarian elements in order to achieve foreign policy objectives. That’s how the Mujahideen morphed into Al Qaida, and he was proud of that accomplishment. Fuller’s low profile at the Rand Corporation was briefly interrupted when it was discovered that “Uncle Ruslan” was his former son-in-law. Figure the odds against THAT connection! Some may recall that Kubrick made light of the “Bland Corporation” in his film, “Dr. Strangelove”. Strange, indeed. It certainly does look like a proxy war, but not one proxied by an amorphous coalition of senile Arab potentates. Maybe it’s true that, just like in the Baltics, we’re trying to “reassure” our allies against Russian-ahem-Iranian “aggression”. That seems rather ingenuous too. I’d suspect there is another “ally” we’re trying to reassure. But if Graham Fuller has any skin in this game, my guess would be that his primary motivation is laying out the think-tank case for plausible deniability.

    • John
      April 19, 2015 at 06:43

      Ingenuous = frank, guileless, innocent. May have meant “disingenuous” here.

      • F. G. Sanford
        April 19, 2015 at 06:54

        I meant “lacking artfulness”, but your point is well taken. The disinformation campaign now waged against Americans eschews any sense of need for nuance. They realized that if we’ll believe the Warren report, we’ll believe anything.

  5. thecelticwithinme
    April 18, 2015 at 16:53

    Too late.

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