Photo Credit: Nasser al-Sane/Human Rights Watch
As war flares in Yemen, the civilian victims are among the first to feel the difference between President Obama’s Middle East war policy and Donald Trump’s. In Sana’a, the capital, thousands of people marched in protest this week calling for an end to the Saudi airstrikes that have been supported by the U.S. military for the past two years. Saudi Arabia is seeking to oust a government dominated by the Houthi tribe, who are mostly Shia and more loyal to Iran than to Saudi Arabia.
At least 4,125 civilians have been killed and 7,207 injured in the Saudi offensive, according to the United Nations. With just under half of the population under the age of 18, children have constituted a third of all civilian deaths.
“Words cannot capture the extent of the suffering of the Yemeni people,” said Red Cross Middle East director Robert Mardini. “Their resilience has reached a breaking point.” Medea Benjamin reports that “Twenty people are dying every day, many of curable diseases because only 45 percent of the health facilities are functioning.”
While President Obama put certain limits on U.S. intervention in Yemen, Trump has removed them. In his first 45 days in office, Trump approved at least 36 drone strikes or raids—one every 1.25 days, most of them in Yemen.
According to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, Trump’s war has included three drone strikes in Yemen on January 20, 21 and 22; the botched January 28 Navy SEAL raid in Yemen; more than 30 strikes on March 2 and 3; and at least one more on March 6.
The Pentagon says the most recent strikes targeted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): “fighters, heavy weapons systems, equipment infrastructure and the group’s fighting positions.” Residents say at least one strike hit civilian homes in the southern Shabwah province, killing an unknown number of civilians.
The Trump administration is also reportedly stepping up military assistance to Saudi Arabia. The State Department recently approved a proposed sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh worth about $390 million, according to Foreign Policy. These are sure to be used in Yemen, where they are likely to kill more civilians.
The battle for Yemen, an impoverished desert country of little strategic importance besides the presence of AQAP fighters, is not just a counterterrorism fight; it is a proxy war fought between two rival Islamic powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Trump’s escalation is just the opening phase of what Saudi Arabia (and Israel) hopes will be a regional offensive against Iran. The Saudis, whose dominant faith is the austere doctrine of Wahhabism favored by al-Qaeda, are contemptuous of the Iranians and their Shia faith. With a restive Shia minority, Saudi Arabia also fears Iran’s political influence.
The Saudis are disturbed that Iran backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, helping him turn back a fundamentalist insurgency, which has been covertly funded by Wahhabists in the Persian Gulf oil emirates.
Saudi Arabia’s most dynamic leader, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recently visited the White House to encourage the Trump administration to take the fight to Iran. The Saudis are pleased that their country has been spared from Trump’s Muslim travel ban, and more pleased that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support.
In a recent memo to national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Mattis reportedly said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—including a planned offensive to retake a key Red Sea port—would help combat a “common threat”—namely, Iran.
Mattis and McMaster are sometimes lauded as the “adults” of the Trump administration, and it is true they are not completely inexperienced nor visibly incompetent like the foreign policy advisers in Steve Bannon’s secretive Strategic Initiatives Group. Whether or not Mattis and McMaster have more wisdom than their undistinguished colleagues is less clear.
After meeting with Trump at the White House, Saudi Gen. Ahmad Asiri, spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, told the Washington Post, “What we heard was that they would increase cooperation in all the dimensions” of military support and provide new weapons.
Like the little kid on the playground who picks a fight and then hides behind his big brother, Saudi Arabia is coaxing Washington into a fight of its own making.
“Saudi Arabia is prepared to work with the United States and its allies to restrain Iranian conduct, just as we have helped to stabilize the Arabian Gulf and its energy supplies since World War II,” Asiri wrote in a piece for Fox News.
Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu also supports the idea of a regional coalition against Iran, which makes escalation in Yemen even more palatable for the Trump administration.
The U.S Interest
While the Saudis and the Israelis stand to benefit from a U.S. confrontation with Iran, the United States does not.
According to the administration’s ideologists, the United States has to stand up to Iran to stem “radical Islamic terrorism.” But what the Trump administration doesn’t say is that the terrorist threat facing the United States comes almost exclusively from Wahhabist militants, financed and supported by governments and individuals in the Persian Gulf. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia. By contrast, virtually no terror attacks on Americans since September 11 have been traced to the Islamic Republic. Indeed, Iran is the sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The emerging Trump strategy—confronting Iran while vowing to “bomb the sh*t” out of ISIS and promising not to deploy more U.S. ground troops in the region—is more of a fantasy than a plausible policy. Yet that is what the U.S. national security apparatus is now recommending.
Once again, the U.S. government is misreading the realities of the region. In the past 15 years, U.S. war fighters have failed to achieve U.S. policy goals with expensive and bloody expeditions into Afghanistan and Iraq. For the Trump administration now to embark on a policy of renewed confrontation with Iran, the region’s most populous nation (whose people are the most culturally pro-American in the Middle East) is not only folly; it is a sign of systemic failure in Washington that cannot exclusively be blamed on the new president.
As Zenko notes:
U.S. counterterrorism ideology is virulent and extremist, characterized by tough-sounding clichés and wholly implausible objectives. There has never been any serious indication among elected politicians or appointed national security officials of any strategic learning or policy adjustments.
President Obama modulated U.S. doctrine without changing its essential and extremist mission of military domination. Obama renounced torture while expanding the drone war and resisting calls for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. Obama’s one significant change to U.S. strategy—and it was significant—was to coerce Iran into accepting an international inspections regime to delay its nuclear weapons program by at least a decade.
Trump is pursuing Obama’s policy without restraint, and without engaging Iran. That makes him the third post-9/11 commander in chief to pursue a set of militarized U.S. policies that have fostered failing states in Afghanistan and Iraq, killed thousands of civilians, failed to reduce the number of fighters flocking to al-Qaeda and ISIS, and actually increased the jihadists’ appeal to self-radicalized supporters willing to mount attacks from San Bernardino to Orlando to London.
The fact that Trump’s newly aggressive policy toward Iran is supported by the best minds of the Pentagon and the National Security Council demonstrates that when it comes to losing wars in the Muslim world, Washington has forgotten nothing, and learned nothing.