Nobel Peace Prize recipient Barack Obama is now facing some tough decisions about two countries he is bombing in the Middle East. Watching the demoralizing carnage in Syria and an uptick in the hostilities in Yemen, an itchy press corps and policy class are starting to demand that Obama sack up and really fight. They warn him that he is the president who did nothing while Iran burned down the Middle East. But listening to that advice could radically shape Obama's legacy for the worse.
Saudi Arabia's ongoing war with Houthi-controlled Yemen recently reached a new low. Saudi coalition forces repeatedly bombed a packed funeral home in Sanaa. It is claimed that Houthi forces in Yemen responded by ineffectively firing a missile at a U.S. warship. (The Houthi government of Yemen denies this). In any case, it would be a logical target in that the U.S. has been providing the Saudis with arms, helping them with logistics, and refueling their planes. After the failed attack, the U.S. Navy engaged in what the Pentagon called "limited self-defense strikes" against radar targets in Yemen. The Wall Street Journal and hawkish foreign policy writers are calling the Houthi attack an "act of war" to which the U.S. should respond more forcefully. The idea that the Houthis have only "just" been ushered into hostilities with the U.S. is good for a dark chuckle, because it is insane.
On Friday, President Obama also met with top U.S. officials to discuss more military options for Syria. There Russian forces allied with Bashar al-Assad's government have been bombarding the positions occupied by U.S.-allied "moderate rebels" and by al-Nusra, an al Qaeda offshoot that fights alongside them in Aleppo. The human cost of this war is astonishing, and it has been increased many times over by the willingness of nearly all the regional and great powers of the world to join in the fight, but not to join it in a way that is decisive.
There are many similarities between the two conflicts. In both, the U.S. proxies are fighting Iranian proxies. And in both Yemen and Syria, there is no reasonable prospect of installing the kind of regime that would meet all the checkmarks for Western policymakers. In both cases, the U.S. not-so-secretly longs for a stable government that is Sunni-dominated and amenable to our ally, Saudi Arabia, but also has no trace of theocratic radicalism, or embarrassing association with terror groups. Everyone knows this is like asking for an airplane that is also a submarine, and so the U.S. has in both countries intervened just enough to try to avoid worst-case scenarios, like a clean win for the players that are allied with Iran.
And in both the wars in Syria and Yemen, U.S. military forces have joined in the fight without anything like an explicit war authorization from Congress. In 2013, President Obama went to Congress asking for just such an authorization for Syria. Congress punted because it was massively unpopular with the American public. But Obama continued covert and increasingly overt military action there. When pressed, the executive branch argues that military actions in these countries fall under the post 9/11 Authorization of Military Force. This is almost a cosmic joke in that in both Syria and Yemen, official U.S. allies and proxies are themselves increasingly allied with al Qaeda, the target of the very same AUMF. In reality, the U.S. military is conducting these wars under the authority of the American public's indifference and disinterest. Who could possibly bother educating themselves about Yemen when our own presidential election is turning into a reality-TV show that allows us to indulge in maximal self-hatred?
Increasing U.S. involvement in each of these civil wars contains huge risks, and for what possible gain? To have yet another Middle Eastern regime that can hardly support itself within its own borders? If an American plane is shot out of the sky, or the next missile fired on a ship inflicts casualties, how will Obama explain himself to the American public? Just as in Somalia in the 1990s or Lebanon in the 1980s, U.S. troops are operating in a theater that the American public hardly knows or understands. Does Obama really want to pass on an even messier set of foreign wars to an egomaniac like Donald Trump, or to Clinton, whom he once accused of getting "the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War" wrong?
These are two wars the American public would not support if consulted. That should be reason enough not to escalate them.