Do our military interventions in the Middle East create more terrorists than they kill?
That question was raised by Senator Rand Paul at a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in the case of the small Middle Eastern nation of Yemen, Paul suggested the answer was “yes.”
A civil war has raged in Yemen since early 2015 between a coalition of Arab nations marshaled by Saudi Arabia and an insurgency known as the Houthis. President Obama muddled America into this conflict, providing the Saudis with aerial and logistical support, as well as boots on the ground, and since then, Yemen has collapsed into a quagmire that’s swallowing our foreign policy whole. The Saudis are still bogged down, the Houthis still control the capital, Iran is all too happy for this to transpire, and the only beneficiary has been Yemen’s local al-Qaeda chapter.
On that last point, Paul noted that because feckless Saudi pilots are dropping bombs on civilian targets—everything from a bustling marketplace to a somber funeral—and because those bombs are often conspicuously American-made, this has soured Yemenis on the United States and driven many of them into the arms of al-Qaeda. He also wondered: By immersing ourselves in yet another Middle Eastern war in which we push back one side (the Houthis), couldn’t we could end up creating a vacuum that provides maneuvering room for terrorists?
It’s a good question, but I have a slight quibble with Paul here. It isn’t just possible that our misadventure in Yemen will make al-Qaeda stronger. It’s already happened.
According to a report from the International Crisis Group released earlier this year, whereas before the civil war al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was a “sideshow for most Yemenis,” today it is “stronger than it has ever been.” ICG assesses: “AQAP and, later and to a much lesser extent, a new outcrop of the [Islamic State] emerged arguably as the biggest winners of the failed political transition and civil war that followed.” The only way to foil this terrorist menace in the future, the group says, is “an urgent yet measured response, focused on bringing the civil war to a negotiated end.”
And that’s exactly it. To crush AQAP, considered one of the most lethal terrorist operations in the world, and determined to attack the American homeland, President Trump will have to cool Yemen’s concurrent civil war, which is aiding the terrorists at the same time we’re fighting them. The illogic of Obama’s involving us in both conflicts is staggering. The Houthis, who the Saudis and by extension the United States are fighting, are Shias who have long clashed with the Wahhabis, devotees to an extreme strain of Sunni Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia and heavily influenced the development of al-Qaeda.
Put in English, the Houthis hate al-Qaeda just as much as we do. Meanwhile, our nominal ally Saudi Arabia has been relatively hands-off when it comes to the terrorists, focusing almost exclusively on Houthi targets. Bomb the Houthis, support the Saudis, and you get a recipe for rapid al-Qaeda expansion, which is precisely and predictably what’s happened.
It’s a policy only a masochist could get behind.
Donald Trump swept into power pledging to end America’s self-defeating wars of choice in the Middle East and focus singularly on the terrorist threat there. Yet his record on Yemen has been exactly the opposite. Instead of reining in Riyadh, Trump has already approved a weapons deal to Saudi Arabia, one that even the Obama administration saw fit to block. And whereas Obama insisted that the Saudis not blockade at least a couple of Yemen’s western ports so food and supplies could get in, Trump has removed even that protection, which will result in more civilian strife, more famine, more deprivation—and more fertile recruits for al-Qaeda.
I doubt Donald Trump swept into the Oval Office hell-bent on making Yemen suffer; more likely is his advisors counseled him poorly and ahead he went. Washington’s foreign policy establishment is as error-prone and subject to groupthink as ever. Trump should ignore the gurus who have been wrong about so much and extract America from this dirty and shameful war. Prostrating ourselves before Saudi Arabia isn’t worth giving a leg up to our enemies.
Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities.