The Yemen conflict will either serve as the point-of-no-return or the turning point for US foreign policy in the Middle East. Since 2001, US foreign policy has taken many schizophrenic twists and turns on its road to complete and total failure. In 2001, the US government invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government and eliminate “safe havens” for terrorism. Today, dozens of terrorist organizations operate throughout the country, with Taliban affiliates making several pushes into the city of Kunduz in 2016. Soldiers are still being killed by Taliban fighters 15 years later. After the invasion of the relatively stable country of Iraq in 2003, the US fought a brutal counter-insurgency operation, losing more than 4,000 troops before turning the keys over to the Iranian government in 2011. Despite this massive failure, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had their eyes on toppling the Syrian and Libyan governments before the US military could even leave Iraq. By 2012, Muammar Ghaddafi and Ambassador Stevens were a year in the ground while the President authorized more than $1,000,000,000 a year for a CIA program to train and equip Sunni Syrian rebels to overthrow the Assad Regime. The US now faces another critical decision concerning how to handle their alliance with KSA and the conflict in Yemen. The US military is at a low points in its history, struggling with toxic leadership, outlandish suicide rates, as well as manning and culture crises that are without question tied to the 15 years of perpetual warfare in the Middle East and Africa. Full-scale involvement in Yemen could greatly exacerbate these problems and could spark a whole new set of terrorism threats against US interests both domestic and abroad. With Donald Trump set to be sworn in on 20 January 2017, it is surprising that the media has not called much attention to this important foreign policy issue.
Donald Trump has been schizophrenic on the issue of US military intervention in the Middle East, having wisely denounced regime change operations in Iraq while simultaneously proclaiming a need to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. His choice to make retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn his National Security Advisor is concerning as Flynn is convinced that the US is at war with a radical component of Islam, calling it “like a cancer.” Indeed, many of Trump’s cabinet selections and advisors have been outspoken in their beliefs that the US is fighting a cultural struggle against “Islamism,” or “radical Islam,” or as soon-to-be CIA director Mike Pompeo put it, a struggle between modernity and barbarism. While it is certainly true that many of the world’s biggest terrorist organizations unify their ranks under Islam and that many are utterly barbaric, the theory that the US is at war with an idea is recipe for never-ending conflict against an “enemy” that cannot be killed. In fact, this “enemy” feeds on corpses and devastated infrastructure. Such simplified memes and slogans concerning the nature of these conflicts obfuscates the complex yet concrete political objectives of terrorist and insurgents while simultaneously underplaying the role of US foreign policy in the exacerbation of these threats to the American people. “War on Terror” or “War on Islam” slogans are cop-outs for military leaders and policy makers, who would rather keep Americans terrified of what could happen if the US suddenly withdrew from Iraq or Syria than seek true understanding of the nature of the actors in these conflicts.
Despite the foreboding rhetoric from Trump’s cabinet members and advisors, all hope in this matter is not yet lost. Donald Trump and his cabinet and advisors have not spent a single day in office. One benefit to the lack of media attention on this topic is that there has been no media pressure for the establishment of a concrete policy concerning the Yemeni Civil War. Trump’s cabinet would be wise to use the Yemen conflict as the impetus for fundamentally changing the dynamics of the US and KSA alliance. Exiting Yemen could and should be a loud and clear signal to KSA that their counter insurgency operation in Yemen and proxy wars with their regional competitor Iran are their own responsibility, and that the US will no longer be underwriting KSA’s security and hegemonic plans with American blood or treasure. If America continues to assist in KSA’s efforts in Yemen in their current capacity, it will not be enough to overcome the tremendous advantages held by the pro-Houthi forces in Yemen. The US will still be effectively “on the hook” for having assisted KSA in gutting the already paltry infrastructure of Yemen as well as the widespread starvation now facing the country due to trade embargos imposed by KSA’s coalition. While many politicians might want Americans to believe otherwise, blowback is a legitimate and often ignored factor in foreign policy decision making. The US will not avoid blowback from this conflict by avoiding direct involvement in favor of material support to KSA. The US military and economy are teetering on the edge of catastrophe, making a full-scale US intervention highly unadvisable. While Yemen may or may not be as complicated as the Iraq COIN operation, it will not be a walk in the park for an exhausted military. Having troops in Yemen only further exposes US interests to direct attack by adversarial actors, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Iranian Irregular warfare initiatives. The benefit from such an action would be almost solely KSA’s, as the US can maintain strategically important access to the Bab-al-Mandeb straight using the 5th fleet as it has done for decades.
Given the outlook for these options, the US should end its current strategy of perpetuating the Yemeni conflict, and seek to restructure its relationship with KSA and Iran. There are three concrete steps that must be undertaken in order to achieve this end state. The US must immediately cease providing lethal and non-lethal aid to the KSA coalition operating in Yemen. Continuing to arm either side of the hostilities will make it impossible for the US to begin the process of limiting its exposure to the liabilities of those conflicts. The rockets fired at a US Naval Destroyer in October of 2016 being one example of said liabilities. The US must also seek to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran. Without some ability to influence Iranian policy through diplomacy, the US has no leverage in mediating the larger struggle between the Iranian and the Saudi governments. While the Houthis and Iranians may claim that there is currently no direct support link between them, that says nothing about their future relationship in a post-conflict environment. Iran would love nothing more than to have a Houthi government at KSA’s southern border and given their ideological similarities such an alliance seems inevitable. With the US government’s enormous cache of economic incentives for Iran, there remains no excuse for intransigence between the two nations. Finally, the US must restructure its relationship with KSA, even if that opens the US to short term economic woes from retaliatory economic measure such as KSA flooding the market with crude oil. The long-term effects of maintaining the alliance with KSA, and the economic weapon that is the oil market, have been detrimental to US foreign policy and economy. KSA’s regional liabilities can no longer be mutually held with by the US, whose military and economy are stretched to the breaking point.
Becoming Neutral in the Conflict
Given the Houthi rebels proximity to KSA soil, overwhelming advantages in geography and terrain (discussed in Part Two of the series here), it seems likely that KSA’s advantage in firepower and technology will not be enough to secure Sanaa for the long term. The Zaidi population that makes up the base of the pro-Houthi forces is only a slight minority, and their popularity now extends well into the Sunni population. If KSA were to put Hadi back in power in Sanaa it would be a bloody and expensive struggle to keep him there. KSA’s coalition lacks the capability to sustain COIN operations once the bombing phase concludes. Simply put, the rebels will outlast KSA’s resolve. The US should aid KSA in coming to the realization that they cannot win their COIN fight. A swift cessation of all US aid to their war effort is an excellent way to communicate this idea. The US should avoid official recognition of either the Hadi or the Houthi government of Yemen until hostilities have ended. Picking sides before stability begins to emerge will be a critical mistake for the US Department of State (DOS) as these conflicts never conclude in storybook fashion.
If the US wants to play the active role of honest broker between all sides, then it should focus its efforts on targeting legitimate terrorist threats such as AQAP members in southern Yemen. The US should work through both the Houthi and Hadi sides of the conflict in doing so. AQAP has much more freedom of maneuver as a result of the civil war; their rivals are now killing one another while leaving AQAP unchecked in some parts of the south. “We are just here for the Counter-Terrorism” should be the undying mantra of the US DOD assigned to the Yemen crisis. In truth, the US has no other legitimate reason for being involved in land operations in Yemen to begin with. The US working with both sides of the conflict to conduct legitimate targeting against AQAP could add to the foundation for the arrangement of a ceasefire, as neither the Houthis, the Hadi government, or KSA are politically inclined to give the impression that they are inhibiting the targeting of terrorist organizations. Considering the Department of Defense training programs in Yemen ended as recently as 2015, there are still professional connections between US Special Operation Forces (USSOF) and fighters on both the Houthi/Saleh coalition and the Hadi sides of the conflict. Situations such as this are the precise reason why such training programs exist, and re-establishing these relationships should be the first step in the US effort to help both sides find common ground.
What cannot occur is the rehashing of the highly contentious drone program the US utilized prior to the civil war, a program that resulted in the extra-judicial murder of Anwar al-Alawki and his 16-year-old son. The US government’s counter terrorism efforts must be conducted “by, with, and through” the government and other power players of Yemen. If it takes 10 years to work through the Yemeni conflict and develop effective partnerships towards this end, then so be it. There is no “easy button” for addressing the terrorism threat, a threat that is greatly exacerbated by the US regime change operations and using the “easy button” far too often. The detrimental effects of hammering wedding parties with drone strikes are far too great for the US to ignore. If it wants to develop reliable targeting partner out of the next stable government of Yemen, the US must play “hands-off” in the struggle between the rebels and the former government while ensuring that the targeting program doesn’t devolve into the illegitimate program of days past.
One would be naïve to believe that the US can simply march into Yemen, declare itself neutral, and form a coalition to defeat terrorism: The End. The US has furiously shoveled itself into a very deep hole with its comedy of foreign policy errors, and it will not simply climb out of that hole overnight. Becoming a neutral party in the Yemeni civil war is one step of that process. Seeking cooperation from all sides in the targeting of mutual threats, such as terrorist organizations, makes the US outcome independent in the conflict and offers the potential for the development of useful long-term relationships.
Changing the Iran Paradigm
The United States and Iran have suffered an adversarial relationship since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis that lasted more than 400 days. During the crisis, US president Jimmy Carter utilized sanctions against the new Iranian government in order to force the release of the hostages. This strategy did negatively impact the Iranian economy, but it did not result in the release of the hostages. By 1995, the United States backed heavy restrictions on Iran in the missile and arms industry, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), nuclear industry, banking, energy and petroleum, the central bank of Iran, shipping industry, international trade, insurance, and foreign firms trading with Iran. The implementation of sweeping sanctions did not motivate Iran or the US to come to a peaceful understanding about their differences. Nor did it prevent Iran from having a negative impact on US operations in the Middle East. US sanctions on Iran had the effect of isolating the Iranian and US economies completely, which eliminated the leverage that the US hoped to gain from the sanctions in the first place. Once Iran was independent of the US, nothing short of a military invasion or Iran’s own foolish regional ambitions could threaten the Iranian government’s survival. This is the typical outcome of economic sanctions. Unfortunately, sanctions are the politically expedient answer to complex foreign policy issues, allowing politicians to “do something” about a perceived problem without formally declaring war.
As the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began, Iran ramped up its irregular warfare tactics against US forces, their allies, and their surrogates throughout the region. Iran conducts disruption operations in Afghanistan by sponsoring the efforts of anti-government forces to frustrate US COIN operations. In Iraq, Iran uses its close ties to Shia militia members and fighters to be a perpetual thorn in the side of the US COIN efforts, especially in central and southern Iraq where the Shia concentrations were highest. Iran’s ties with the Iraqi Shia are so strong that Baghdad is a virtual annex of the Iranian government. Iran’s control over Lebanese Hezbollah and its connections with the Palestinian Authority in the occupied territories are constant problems for Israel, the US government’s chief ally of the region. Iran also maintains a close alliance with the Assad government of Syria, utilizing IRGC advisors and Lebanese Hezbollah surrogates to prevent the US supported regime change operation that fueled a violent civil war there. While Iran pushes to expand its sphere of influence in the region, the US, KSA, and Israel become more closely aligned in their desire to curb Iranian expansion. In a bizarre twist, KSA and Israel are de-facto allies in the struggle against Iran. It should be apparent that the 40 year US/Iranian strategy has been a total failure of US policy makers, and that a significant change in strategy is overdue.
Trade is the most obvious common ground between the US and Iran, and should serve as the focal point of attempts to rebuild a diplomatic relationship with Tehran. Iran as the 27th largest GDP in the world and sits on the 4th largest proven oil reserves. Their primary export targets are China ($24.9B), India ($10.3B), Japan ($5.55B), South Korea ($4.12B), and Turkey ($1.48B). China, India, Japan and South Korea are also in the top 25 US trading partners while Turkey is the 5th largest export destination for US producers. The direct economic ties between the US and Iran are paltry, with 2016 showing only $238,000,000 in total trade for 2016. Given that a direct-trade relationship is almost non-existent, there is plenty of room for growth. The US lifted some economic sanctions in 2016 after Iran met the conditions of a deal in which Iran agreed to limit their nuclear aspirations. Unfortunately, the nuclear deal did not cause the economic feeding frenzy that some hoped for. The “snapback” provisions left many investors cautious to build infrastructure in Iran. An expensive investment could easily be steamrolled at the whim of fickle politicians. The vague language of the deal, powerful Israeli and Saudi political lobbies, and continued US regime change operations that threaten key Iranian allies are massive red flags for investors looking towards Persia for returns on their money. A savvy investor might note that the vague language of the nuclear deal could serve as political ammunition for a direct military action against Iran, which would no doubt destroy any investments there.
The US should reduce its presence in the Middle East for many reasons that do not revolve around Iran. However, rolling back support for the overthrow of Assad in Syria, the COIN effort in Yemen, and scrapping the nuclear deal for something more concrete opens large windows for establishing diplomatic and economic ties with a regional foe. Diplomatic relationships allow the US to maintain situational awareness, collect intelligence, and act as a vessel for the US to maintain valuable military to military relationships with the host nation. These are important consideration if the US government wants Iran to remain incapable of creating a nuclear weapon. Such an arrangement reduces the incentive for Iran to create weapons program while increasing the US ability to fully understand Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Economic ties with Iran, facilitated by a reduction in sanctions and hostilities, could open the US export and import markets to a resource-rich economy of 77 million people. The mutually beneficial relationships between US and Iranian investors offers an incentive for wealthy firms in both countries to support politicians and leaders who are less likely to threaten those relationships. These might seem like suicidal policies in the context of the present course, yet this is precisely the opposite of the truth. The US risk in such an arrangement is practically zero. The Iranian threat to the US is directly tied to the US desire for regional hegemony, not a practical or direct threat to US national security. Iran has no realistic method for seriously damaging US national security if the US withdraws its pieces from the board.
Reframing the US and KSA Alliance
The US/KSA alliance is built largely upon KSA’s ability to manipulate the scarcity of the world’s oil market and therefore impact prices on the world market. As discussed in part three of the series, this capability is considered an economic tool of national power that has potential to be devastating to centrally-planned economies that depend heavily on oil revenues. The price that the US pays for this alliance is much deeper than can be calculated in dollar-per-barrel terms. As with all international alliances, both parties must consider the impact of policy decisions on the other party. Likewise, both parties are at least partially liable for the actions of the other. Considering KSA’s track record with human rights abuses and their ties to terrorism, this is a net negative for the US. This arrangement has driven the US to adopt a pro-KSA’s anti-Iran strategy that has been extremely unsuccessful. KSA’s desire for regional hegemony is firmly rooted in ensuring Iran, its primary economic competitor, does not achieve its full economic potential. US and international trade embargos from 1979 through 2015 were a large component of that strategy, no doubt at least partially influenced by KSA’s distinction of having one of the largest lobby organizations in Washington DC. US ties with KSA are further deepened by the US arms industry that directly benefits from tens of billions of dollars in business that result from the alliance between the two nations. In 2010, the Obama administration gave the thumbs up for US manufacturers to sell KSA more than $60,000,000,000, in aircraft and maintenance services. Arms industry lobbyists are without a doubt firmly in support of KSA’s regional aspirations, and they are willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to ensure that politicians do not threaten the alliance. Due to KSA’s ability to manipulate the scarcity of oil on the world market, the US energy sector is incentivized to ensure that the US maintains a strong relationship with KSA. While many assume that oil producers in the US are competitors with Iran, this is false. US producers participate in what amounts to an oil cartel in which KSA has the largest vote in determining the price per barrel of crude oil. The powerful lobbies of KSA, the arms industry, and the energy industry have significant influence over the behavior of elected officials of the US, and work together to maintain the status quo.
The first step in formulating a sane relationship with KSA is to eliminate arms sales to KSA and stop subsidizing KSA’s security. The US has armed KSA to the teeth, and has allowed KSA to run amok with the knowledge that big brother has their back. Supporting KSA’s regional aspirations with lethal arms while acting as KSA’s muscle in the region has led to an astonishing amount of violence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. These forays have and will continue to generate blowback for the US in the region and at home, while they have no generated one penny in revenue. The incoming Trump administration should immediately terminate arms deals to KSA as a first step in establishing a less destructive alliance with KSA. There will undoubtedly be much wailing and screaming from the arms industry and KSA lobbies, but there exists more than ample evidence that the alliance with KSA has been far more detrimental than beneficial to the US and to Americans. The recently declassified 28 pages of the 9-11 commission report have been strangely underreported by the US media, while US politicians have quiet on the matter. In fact, many politicians, such as John Kerry, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and President Obama, have moved to block legislation that would prevent victims from suing KSA for their alleged involvement in the attack. Donald Trump’s admin should be dusting off the 28 pages and utilizing them as leverage to reduce the power of KSA’s allies in the US government. The US divestiture from KSA will by necessity carry with it a significant draw-down in US military presence in the region, including several joint military bases in KSA. Such a draw down would not only reduce expenses in the US budget and risk to US forces abroad, but would also act as a zero-risk gesture to Iran that the US is no longer bound to underwrite KSA’s regional aspirations. Ending the antagonistic relationship with Iran must begin by ending lethal aid and security subsidies to KSA.
The US possesses the largest oil reserves in the world. There has never been a better time to ween the US from the KSA alliance than now. KSA might be able to negatively impact the US energy market by flooding the market with crude oil and thus lowering prices, but it cannot afford to lose revenue while simultaneously providing for its own defense, fighting proxy wars with Iran, and maintaining employment among its populace. KSA is an extremely wealthy nation with enormous oil resources, but their financial situation is far from perfect. KSA is a centrally planned economy, with more than three million of its 5 million workers employed by the government. KSA quite literally pays its citizens to be loyal the monarch. In 2015, Saudi King Salmon paid more than $30 billion dollars to his subjects to revitalize confidence in the crown and boost the economy. The entire KSA economy revolves around oil production and government pay checks. A prolonged valley in oil prices would devastate their economy and shake their already tenuous confidence in the government. If KSA were to use oil prices as leverage to maintain its alliance with the US, it would break its own back before achieving its goal. There does exist the possibility that the KSA-led OPEC could reverse strategy and create artificial scarcity in the world’s oil markets. This would be particularly damaging to US consumers, as prices would rise sharply and US oil producers would be unable to offset the reduction in KSA’s production due to excessive government regulation in US oil reserves. The US Minerals Management Service (MMS) regulates oil production in all of the offshore oil fields and thus artificially reduces the production of oil in the US. There are more than 1.7 billion acres of unexploited fields in the US government controlled outer continental shelf that contain at least of 86 billion barrels of oil. Only a tiny sliver of this oil is currently exploitable. Lifting the restrictions on drilling these underwater oil fields could offset any attempt by KSA to create artificial market scarcity in an effort to influence US policy makers. Considering these factors, it becomes clear that KSA has no feasible long-term strategy for conducting an economic war on the US. While they could severely damage the US economy with an artificial energy crisis, such a move would be far more damaging to KSA, as the US is KSA’s number one export target. The Trump administration would do well to call KSA’s bluff in the event of an economic war.
The war in Yemen is but the latest in a long line of signals that US foreign policy in the region is doomed if it continues its current course. Preventing further US involvement in Yemen must be couched within a far more expansive strategy of changing the US government’s relationship with regional powers Iran and KSA. Americans should resist viewing the conflict in Yemen in isolation. Doing so creates the illusion that something can be done in Yemen that will have a net positive impact on US strategy in the region. This is equivalent to treating the symptom and not the cause of the disease, something the US has excelled at for many decades now. Withdrawing from the Yemen conflict in full would be an incredible feat for the Trump Administration considering the depth to which the current Middle East strategy is entrenched in the US political system. If withdrawing from Yemen is considered difficult, then redefining the relationships with Iran and KSA may be near impossible in light of US history in the region. Unfortunately, it will be the only solution for establishing a sane foreign policy and rescuing the crippled US economic situation.