by Christopher Magana
Last month, Foreign Affairs published an essay by Michael Knights, Kenneth Pollack, and Barbara F. Walter-a renowned scholar, expert on civil wars, and UC San Diego professor-that calls for the United States to continue supporting the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen. Walter and her co-authors argue that this conflict will be resolved with either one side winning a decisive victory or a negotiated settlement, the latter being how most intrastate wars in the Middle East and elsewhere have ended. Therefore, if we truly want to alleviate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the authors argue that the United States must continue to support Saudi Arabia and the Gulf coalition so they can force the Houthis and their Iranian backers to the negotiating table. Once there, the United States can pressure the two sides to accept a reasonable peace plan.
This is a provocative argument, and the authors know it. They attempt to walk a fine line by claiming that the most humane course of action—or, as they concede, “the least worst option” —is for U.S. policymakers to hold steady in their support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. They argue this despite increasing political opposition domestically, harm to U.S. credibility internationally, and a humanitarian crisis that is only deepening with each passing day. The authors ask their readers to “get real,” framing themselves as the voice of strategic reason and moral clarity.
However, what Walter and her co-authors fail to address are the consequences already wrought by the policy they are advocating for. They avoid the uncomfortable truths behind the profound suffering the Yemeni people have endured, choosing instead to give a misleading characterization of Saudi Arabia’s role in creating the crisis and of the United States’ complicity thereafter.
More Than Exacerbating The Crisis
The authors note a recent cease-fire, that opened the Port of Hodeidah, as an example of a concession from the Houthi rebels that was only achievable with U.S. support and which, they claim, will help to alleviate the crisis. They do this without acknowledging it was Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen’s ports and other measures of economic war that plunged much of the country to the brink of famine, starved to death an estimated 85,000 children, and triggered the largest cholera epidemic in recorded history. Knights, Pollack, and Walter do not attempt to defend the use of starvation as a tool of war, opting instead to downplay Saudi Arabia’s role to merely “exacerbating” the crisis. The authors then shift their focus to a different aspect of the conflict - the Gulf Coalition’s devastating air campaign.
The authors imply that U.S. military aid has only marginally contributed to the humanitarian crisis, while simultaneously arguing that said assistance is essential to the Saudi war effort. They note that American support has “largely consisted of intelligence and logistical assistance,” a framing that minimizes the United States’ role in some of the most egregious human rights and humanitarian violations, including airstrikes on a school bus, a wedding, a funeral, and numerous medical facilities. They even place faith in the United States’ ability to prevent future atrocities by the Saudi coalition. This is despite the fact that the Obama administration’s attempts to employ a strategy of conditional support often failed to moderate Saudi Arabia’s behavior. For its part, the Trump administration, which will direct U.S. policy for at least the next 19 months, has sycophantically bent to Saudi interests and displayed a callous disregard for human rights.
The authors never mention Trump by name, an admittedly prudent choice given that in the weeks after their article was published, the President joked about shooting asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and has reportedly moved to pardon accused war criminals.
Obscure with Analogy
Knights, Pollack, and Walter also attempt to compare U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen to the NATO campaigns against Serbia in the 1990s, which is particularly problematic. Ostensibly, this comparison shows how negotiated settlements like the Dayton Peace Accords can resolve civil wars. However, their comparison is also a thinly veiled attempt to reframe Saudi Arabia’s intervention as humanitarian in nature.
The U.S. led NATO interventions against Serbia were deemed legitimate because they protected those fleeing and suffering from a genocide. The authors omit this context, choosing instead to portray the two parties – the Croatians and Bosnians, and the Serbs – as equivalent actors in the civil war, ignoring that the vast majority of human rights violations were committed by Serbian forces. They blur the stark ethical contrast between Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and Croat and Bosniak Muslim resistance against Serbia. It is incredibly misleading to imply that the United States’ roles in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and in the Bosnian Civil War are similarly justifiable. Perhaps an apter historical analogy would be U.S. support for Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War - a comparison that confers far less moral legitimacy.
The authors also point to the Syrian Civil War as a cautionary tale for those advocating for U.S. withdrawal in Yemen, noting that the United States’ refusal to militarily confront the Assad Regie did not mitigate the conflict’s carnage. It is true that Assad’s forces, with support from Russia, are responsible for nearly 90 percent of civilian deaths in Syria. What Walter and her co-authors do not acknowledge is that this dynamic is mirrored in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Coalition are responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths and have committed violations of International Humanitarian Law that rival the depravity of the Assad regime. How does the United States critique, with any legitimacy, Russian intervention in Syria when U.S. allies are essentially doing the same in Yemen?
Moralist Rhetoric vs Realist Motivation
Despite the authors’ use of humanitarian rhetoric to justify U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Yemen is being waged in the pursuit of U.S. national interests, although the actual strategic value of the campaign is debatable at best. At its core, Knights, Pollack, and Walter’s essay is another manifestation of the consequentialist tension between moralist rhetoric and realist motivation that shaped the Obama administration’s own justifications for supporting the war in Yemen. The authors posit that assisting Saudi Arabia is the “least worst” of the available options for the people of Yemen; more accurately, it is the least worst of the options that align with Saudi Arabia’s and the United States’ interests. In this calculation, the Yemeni people are collateral damage who will suffer what they must. That is increasingly a politically untenable position, so the authors frame continuing the policies that created the crisis as humane, merciful, or even benevolent given the circumstances.
The decisions facing U.S. policymakers can be unenviable—often forcing them to choose between the terrible and the horrible—and U.S. power does have a limited ability to alleviate humanitarian crises. However, acknowledging those limitations should not serve as a shortcut for justifying the perpetuation of profound suffering in the name of U.S. national interests.
U.S. Department of State