The Trump administration is on the verge of losing its first war. Will we admit it?
America's war in Yemen began during the waning years of the Obama administration as a sop to Saudi Arabia, to soften the blow of our nuclear deal with Iran, and to reassure them we were neither abandoning the region nor switching to Tehran's side in their rivalry with Riyadh. While it wasn't clear whether Iranian support was a particularly important factor in the Houthi rebels' initial success, the Saudis feared any Shia foothold to their south, and the United States was keen to assuage those fears even at the risk of being sucked into yet another Middle Eastern quagmire.
And sucked in we most certainly have been. Though Trump ran for president in part on opposition to America's failed wars in the Middle East, from the beginning of his administration he gave Saudi Arabia essentially unconditional support to prosecute its war in Yemen as vigorously and brutally as it saw fit. That brutality has resulted in an epochal humanitarian disaster for Yemen's population; it has also ultimately strengthened the Houthi movement and pushed it ever closer to Iran.
Trump's war has roused notable opposition at home. Pulling out of Yemen is one of the few foreign policy items on which all the contenders for the Democratic nomination agree, as well as one of the few where the Republican Senate has been willing to rebuke the administration. But until now, the administration could at least argue the war had united America's regional allies in an important fight to contain Iran. It could posture that while some had lost the stomach for what it took to win, the president was determined to hold out for victory.
The last couple of weeks have made that posture preposterous.
Saudi Arabia and America's Yemen war is now on the verge of collapse. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia's major ally in the war, pulled its troops out of the fight, giving separatists who had been fighting alongside the Saudi-backed government the green light to open a new front against their former allies. Those separatists have seized the port of Aden, and the partition of Yemen into two states — a Houthi-dominated state in the north and a breakaway south backed by the UAE — or a collapse into a variety of warring statelets, is a real possibility.
Either outcome would be a complete and utter failure for Saudi policy — and, therefore, for the policy of their American backers. But is America capable of recognizing that fact?
Historically, Americans have shown a remarkable ability to deny outright military failure. We killed millions of civilians in North Korea and North Vietnam in an effort to turn, in the first case, stalemate into victory and, in the second, defeat into stalemate. Both efforts ultimately failed. In our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, we initially claimed victory, inasmuch as we ousted the Taliban, killed Osama bin Laden, overthrew Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, and precipitated the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. The failure in each case to "win the peace" after success in battle has more often been chalked up to poor planning or to tactical mistakes rather than to the unwinnable nature of the conflicts themselves.
If we follow our historic template with Yemen, then, we can expect America to respond to failure by taking a larger direct role in the conflict, supplanting Saudi Arabia, conducting a campaign of destroying Yemen in order to "save" it. But in the case of Yemen, there is virtually no American position to save, and little purchase for an argument that the cause has been lost because of unwarranted restraint. Yemen was a mailed fist from the first; we never bothered with the velvet glove.
Moreover, while Trump has been blithely unconcerned with the collateral costs of conflict, he has a distinct aversion to bearing those costs himself. While America likes to dig in stubbornly and refuse to accept defeat, he prefers to cut and run and blame someone else. Who, though, can he blame? His national security advisor, for being too obsessed with the Iranian threat? His son-in-law, for painting too rosy a picture of his Saudi princeling counterpart? It's hard to find anyone involved who wasn't hand-picked by the president himself.
For America, though, the important reckoning is less with Trump's incompetence than with our own. Over the past four decades, we have pursued a variety of different strategies to maintain a dominant position in the Middle East, from offshore balancing to counterinsurgency to regime change. None of these have delivered anything resembling "victory," nor even stability. It's well past time to admit these are goals we simply don't know how to achieve and conduct a foreign policy in a duly chastened spirit, rather than make further millions pay the price for our inability to acknowledge our limits.