The Role of the United States in Yemen

 /  Dec. 15, 2017, 12:13 a.m.

Trump and King Salman

According to UNICEF and the WHO, the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis” is currently playing out in the small Arabian gulf nation of Yemen between the internationally recognized Hadi government and Houthi rebels, with thousands of civilians having fallen victims to violence, starvation, and easily preventable diseases in the past three years. Since October 2015, the United States has been supplying weapons to the Saudi-led coalition backing the Hadi government. But US actions in Yemen have been the subject of much controversy both at home and abroad. Republican Senator Rand Paul has denounced the American government’s role in supporting the coalition, and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy has gone so far as to accuse the United States of being complicit in war crimes. On November 13, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution condemning the humanitarian atrocities occurring in Yemen and declaring the US military role in the war “unauthorized.” Internationally, Human Rights Watch asserts that there has been a failure on the part of the coalition to “credibly investigate violations by their own forces” and a draft U.N. resolution alleges that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for 65 percent more deaths of children than its Houthi opponents. Given the fact that the United States has no apparent endgame in backing this seemingly anti-human rights coalition in Yemen—other than to appease Saudi Arabia and “reduce the threat” of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—the United States should suspend its backing of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen immediately.   

None of the arguments in favor of staying involved with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen hold validity. One possible argument is that though American action has arguably exacerbated the conflict, American withdrawal from the conflict could end in catastrophe. Such a policy could result in a repetition of the mistakes made during interventions in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, when premature US withdrawal from these countries created a power vacuum to be filled by insurgent groups. Given that AQAP is thriving on the continued chaos in Yemen, such a move on the part of the US military could have these same adverse effects because, similar to the Iraqi and Afghanistani governments, the Hadi government in Yemen is currently unable to stand on its own and protect the country from further infiltration by insurgent groups. This argument, however, does not take into account the fact that the United States is not acting as a stabilizing force in the conflict. Unlike in the other cases, US involvement in the Hadi/Houthi conflict has only been indirect, with the supplying of munitions and logistical advice to Saudi Arabia. Thus withdrawing from this particular dispute would not leave the country vulnerable to a so-called power vacuum.

Though some cite US support of Saudi Arabia as a way to help the the United States’ gulf ally in its proxy war against Iran, a prioritization of such a war over humanitarian issues is morally repugnant. The coalition has conducted airstrikes in noncombatant locations, “raining down bombs on civilians” as described by Amnesty International. Further, the coalition has refused to conduct investigations as to the legality of their actions. The United States should not prioritize the support of  a Saudi proxy war over the well-being of Yemeni civilians.  

It could be argued that, because AQAP thrives on Yemen’s instability, the United States should do everything in its power to stabilize the country. Yet, because of the lack of direct US involvement in the country, by backing the coalition the United States is not actually reducing Yemen’s volatility—the United States is not currently in a position wherein it would be able to stabilize the country. Further, the military operations fighting against AQAP in Yemen are different from those involved in the Hadi/Houthi conflict and removing itself from the latter does not exclude the United States from fighting in the former. Thus, by withdrawing its support of the Saudi coalition, the United States would be able to better shift its focus to fighting AQAP in central Yemen.

This is not to say that the best American policy on Yemen is no American policy on Yemen. Rather, the United States should focus on the suffering Yemeni populace, instead of the politics of the Saudi-Iran proxy war. In addition to increasing military operations against AQAP, the United States should increase humanitarian support to the Yemeni people. Though this support reached approximately $600 million in the 2016 fiscal year, there are still millions of Yemenis at risk of falling prey to starvation and disease. A continuation of the current US policy in Yemen would signal that the United States values a conflict from which it is two-degrees removed more than the unnecessary suffering of Yemeni civilians. Such a move is hypocritical, and the United States should look to other means to maintain its interests in Yemen than support of the Saudi coalition.

Molly McCammon is a Staff Writer for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate.

The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original can be found here.

Molly McCammon

Molly McCammon is a second year double majoring in Public Policy and Sociology. This past summer, she interned in the South Asia program at the DC-based Hudson Institute and spent 8 weeks in Morocco studying Arabic on a FLAG grant. On campus, she helps facilitate ESL classes and tutoring for Syrian refugees living in Hyde Park and is a Research Assistant studying transitional justice with Professor Monika Nalepa in the Political Science department. Molly enjoys cross country skiing, running, and baking excessive amounts of baklava.


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