Foreign policy has played little role in this election cycle, and recent polling shows voters rank it at or near the bottom of their most pressing concerns as they choose our next president. It makes sense that more immediate issues like jobs and health care taking precedence across party lines during a pandemic and recession. But matters of war and peace deserve our attention, too, and the future of US military intervention in Yemen is among the most important and most neglected issues the next president will be faced with on day one.
So far, President Trump has committed himself to prolonging US entanglement in Yemen, going so far as to issue the second veto of his presidency to kill a bipartisan resolution to extricate us from the Yemeni civil war last year. (In fact, four of Trump’s eight total vetoes stopped resolutions that would have lessened US involvement in Yemen.) Biden — though part of the Obama administration when it initiated US involvement in Yemen in its present form in 2015 — has said he’ll do what that resolution tried to accomplish. Whatever else we make of a possible Biden presidency, that is a prudent plan. The approach former President Obama started and Trump has continued is fostering chaos and suffering, running afoul of what the American people want, and doing worse than nothing for US security.
The past five years of US involvement in Yemen has, in part, been characterized by direct counterterrorism, which the Trump administration escalated, a report published last week by British watchdog organization Airwars showed. Airstrikes and direct US-caused civilian casualties spiked to record highs during Trump’s first year in office, returned to Obama-era levels in 2018, then declined over the last two years.
The result is severe food shortage, a cholera epidemic now topped by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an overloaded medical system unable to cope with an onslaught of malnutrition, infectious disease, and war casualties.
The best-known target here is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a newer branch of the terror group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Unlike some extremist groups in the Middle East, AQAP has ambitions to execute attacks on US soil and indeed has done so already, perhaps most notably the “underwear bomber” of 2009 and, more recently, the December 2019 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
But US military intervention in Yemen isn’t an effective means of suppressing AQAP — quite the opposite. Years of civil war, lengthened by US involvement, have created a power vacuum in which AQAP has flourished and acquired American weaponry. Yes, US airstrikes occasionally take out high-ranking AQAP leaders, but they are swiftly replaced, and attacks like the one in Pensacola don’t require a localized planning base like Yemen. In fact the shooter in that attack was on the base as a member of the Saudi military.
And speaking of Saudi Arabia, the more visible part of Washington’s involvement in Yemen is US support for the coalition of regional powers meddling in the Yemeni civil war, an arrangement Trump has maintained thanks to an indefensibly close relationship with Riyadh. The coalition is led by oppressive, theocratic dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and it stands widely accused of war crimes for its contribution to what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It blockades Yemen’s airports and seaports, strangling aid and trade to a country that relies on imports for the vast majority of its food and medicine. It has destroyed civilian targets including hospitals, weddings, school buses, and water treatment facilities.
The result is severe food shortage, a cholera epidemic now topped by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an overloaded medical system unable to cope with an onslaught of malnutrition, infectious disease, and war casualties. The United Nations Children’s Fund reported that “[a]cute malnutrition rates among children below five years old are the highest ever recorded in parts of southern Yemen,” with over half a million Yemeni children now estimated to be suffering from acute malnutrition this year.
Meanwhile, satellite imagery suggests Yemen’s COVID-19 caseload is far higher than is being captured by extremely scarce testing resources. And a new report out from the Yemeni Archive, another watchdog group, finds the US-backed coalition has “systematically targeted bridges, considered key for the survival of civilian populations” in its air campaign.
All this happens with Washington’s help, first under Obama and now under Trump, despite opposition from the American public and the irrelevance of Yemen’s civil strife to vital US interests. This is at most a conflict of regional import in which the US role has been to protract hostilities, facilitate unconscionable treatment of innocents, and unintentionally benefit the very terrorists we oppose. However our presidential election turns out, it is time to end US military intervention in Yemen.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.