Neoconservatives don’t like to talk about Yemen. The war there, which has seen Saudi Arabia play a year-and-a-half-long game of whack-a-mole with Shiite Houthi rebels, doesn’t jive with their dogma that holds American power to be a perennially beneficent force and the world’s problems to be caused by a lack of Western muscle-flexing. Well, President Obama has acted in Yemen, supplying and providing logistical support to the Saudis, and the result has been mass starvation, the empowerment of al-Qaeda, and the immiseration of the Middle East’s poorest country. Hands up, AEI scholars: who wants to tackle that one?
So when hawkish Commentary writer Max Boot decided to make a maiden voyage into Yemen, I straightened my posture. The background was the firing of two ballistic missiles at the USS Mason, an American destroyer, stationed off the Yemeni coast. The missiles were shot down and the Houthis were promptly blamed, though they’ve officially denied involvement. Here’s Boot:
U.S. warships do not routinely come under attack. When they do, it’s called an act of war. So someone has committed an act of war against the United States. …But the Houthis are hardly lone actors. They do not manufacture their own missiles. They get them from Iran. That suggests this could be seen as an act of war by Iran against the United States. …Obama would be wise to heed Senator Lindsay Graham, who calls on the administration to retaliate “swiftly and decisively” and to make clear to the Iranians that they will be held accountable for the actions of their proxies.
The Houthis fired the missiles and Iran has supplied the Houthis: ergo, according to Boot, America should stick it to Iran and also, he later suggests, shoot down Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes. Draw a couple more lines on the Glenn Beck chalkboard and you’ll be at war with Kevin Bacon before Christmas.
The problem is that the connections extrapolated by Boot aren’t there. First, to repeat, the Houthis deny that they targeted the Mason, and it would have been boneheaded of them to do so—more likely is that a couple rogue rebels initiated the attack. Further, the Houthis are not a proxy of Iran. Tehran has supplied the rebels, but that doesn’t make them Yemen’s Hezbollah, marching to orders from ayatollah central command. Iran sees the Houthis as a well-placed stick that can poke Saudi Arabia in the eyes, nothing more.
Boot also wholly ignores the context looming behind the attack on the Mason: America helped bomb a funeral. On Saturday, Saudi jets using America ordnance blew up a mourning ceremony in Yemen, killing 142. This is hardly the first time Riyadh has sidled into the territory of war crimes—the Saudis have bombed, among other things, a village marketplace, an apartment complex, and four different Doctors Without Borders hospitals—but the latest atrocity sparked particular outrage in Yemen, where funerals are sacrosanct. The missiles fired at the Mason were almost certainly retaliation for the funeral attack, a reckless howl of rage against America’s involvement in this charnel house.
Boot can prattle about “an act of war” all he likes, but the fact is that America declared war first, on the Houthis when it backed and supplied the Saudi incursion into Yemen beginning in March 2015. He can demand that nations be held accountable for the proxies they arm, but he should proceed with caution: that’s also an argument for war crimes charges against American officials.
There are lessons to be gleaned from staring into Yemen’s sun-baked carnage, about how air wars can cost you the hearts and minds battle, how civilian casualties can abet terrorism, how the Saudis aren’t always good actors. Boot instead uses his unwavering faith in American power to obscure the events of an entire war, and then forages an illogical path towards pretext for further aggression against Iran.
How naive. How cynical.