We should correspondingly demand from Washington an immediate end to U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict.
Jewish Americans, maybe more so than other Americans, have reason to pay close attention to U.S. foreign policy. Were it not for U.S. intervention in World War II, the Nazi genocide of European Jewry may have continued unabated. Without Washington’s assistance in the Yom Kippur War, Israel may not have been able to so soundly defeat its Arab neighbors, a precursor to its current regional security and continued occupation of the Palestinian territories. So, Jewish Americans should understand the folly of Washington’s ongoing support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. We should correspondingly demand from Washington an immediate end to U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict.
While the war in Yemen started in 2014 between the separatists of the Houthi movement and the central government, it soon grew to include Iran (which backs the former) and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (which back the latter). Ongoing aerial bombings and blockades have caused widespread maiming and starvation of millions of civilians — the U.N. has called Yemen “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.”
Since Saudi Arabia began aerial strikes in 2015, Washington has provided intelligence and, until 2018, in-flight refueling of Saudi bombers. That Washington is backing unhumanitarian regimes is not in itself wrong; the U.S. actively supported authoritarian regimes, from Turkey to Taiwan, throughout the Cold War because competition with the Soviet Union was preeminent. But to support such immoral actions as the Saudi bombing of Yemeni school buses and weddings for no strategic benefit is as appalling as it is senseless.
Washington should be focused on containing its main great-power rival, China, or addressing international issues such as nuclear proliferation, climate change and disease. Assisting Saudi Arabia (which, despite being a U.S. “strategic partner,” killed and dismembered a U.S. resident in 2018) in its faraway, unproductive expedition drains effort and taxpayer dollars from these more pressing problems.
In addition to crowding out higher strategic priorities, the Yemen conflict actively impedes the desirable and long-sought extrication of the U.S. from the Middle East. Supporting Riyadh only makes Tehran more convinced that the U.S. is attempting to tip the scales of power in the region; it turn, Iran acts more aggressively. Thus, by providing essential support to Saudi operations in Yemen, the U.S. sowed the seeds for Iran’s alignment with the Houthis.
Some warn that abandoning the Saudis will drive Riyadh to simply turn to other patrons, eliminating U.S. leverage. But it does not appear U.S. arms sales to Riyadh have translated into any real leverage so far.
Of course, the prospect of a Houthi-controlled Yemen may provoke fears of a terrorist haven similar to pre-9/11, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But this simple formulation ignores the countless other factors that enabled al-Qaeda’s rise, including Washington’s dual containment strategy and stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia. The supposed alternatives to U.S. involvement in Yemen — a more hostile Iran and a breeding ground for extremists — are in fact products of interventions like the current one. Ending involvement would thus further American security.
Given how counterproductive U.S. involvement in Yemen has been, one may wonder how it has managed to persist. The answer can be found in the decline of institutional checks on misuse of power. Congress’s constitutionally-mandated power to declare war has been significantly eroded in the past century. Attempts to reverse this development, such as 1973 War Powers Resolution, have failed to prevent presidential misadventures in Yemen; last year, Congress for the first time fully invoked its powers under this law to roll back support for the Saudis, only to see President Donald Trump veto the measure.
With such sparse congressional oversight, it is unsurprising how far America’s Yemen policy has blurred the line between corporate and national interests. Last summer, as part of my work with the Forum on the Arms Trade, I watched, first in the House and then the Senate, as members of Congress asked Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper why the State Department had overridden a legal congressional freeze on sales of laser-guided bombs (for use in Yemen) to Riyadh.
It was known at the time that the State Department’s legislative affairs team was led by a former lobbyist from Raytheon, which manufactured much of the bombs sold in the arms deal. It was not at all clear from Cooper’s testimony what Americans gained from the sale of an additional $8.1 billion worth of munitions to Saudi Arabia, but it was abundantly clear what Raytheon gained from the policy. We should not doubt the danger of America’s Yemen policy simply because it fails to benefit the country as a whole. Some Americans are benefitting handsomely from it.
America’s Yemen policy should worry any astute observer of U.S. foreign policy. In addition to compounding the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis, U.S. involvement in Yemen has sapped efforts to address more pressing foreign policy priorities. Far from alleviating concerns over a hostile Iran or terrorist havens, U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition has made these outcomes more likely. That such a senseless policy has persevered is unsurprising if we consider the unconstitutional distribution of power and perverse financial incentives at play. Tradition implores Jews to question authority. If American Jews are serious about their country’s behavior abroad, they should reject Washington’s foolish and immoral adventurism in Yemen.
Ethan Kessler is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is currently working on a political campaign in Michigan.