Ignored almost entirely by most of the press, and ignored by me because I was at CPAC, was an important piece by Ryan Cooper at The Week concerning Donald Trump’s strategy in Yemen. A war has been raging there since spring of 2015 between a coalition of Sunni nations led by Saudi Arabia and a Shiite rebel group known as the Houthis, and as you’ve probably already guessed, it has more to do with sectarianism than anything remotely connected to America’s national interests. Barack Obama dragged in the United States anyway, providing the Saudis with intelligence and selling them weapons that were used to slaughter civilians.
Today, like so many other nations we’ve meddled in, Yemen is a failed state and a veritable YMCA for terrorists. The Saudis obstinately bomb on, oblivious to the quagmire they’ve created. There was some hope that Donald Trump, who campaigned vigorously against wars of choice in the Middle East, might give Saudi Arabia an ultimatum or at least cut off American assistance. Nope. Not only is Trump continuing to fuel the war in Yemen, he’s actively amping it up, going to lengths that even Barack Obama wouldn’t touch.
Cooper writes at The Week about the port of Al Hudayda, one of the few entrances into Yemen that’s remained open for humanitarian assistance:
The Saudis have been itching to obliterate the Al Hudaydah port for years now, so as to better starve out the Houthis. In a characteristic move, President Obama applied strong pressure to stop them. The overall war was fine by his lights, apparently, but allowing the war crimes to become too blatant couldn’t be allowed.
But now Trump is backing away from even that mild restraint, and in response the Saudi blockade is re-routing commercial and aid ships away from the the Al Hudaydah port. As [Jessica] Schulberg and [Ryan] Grim report, this is already causing serious supply disruptions — and shows every sign of being a preparation for attack. And with western Yemen already suffering a severe humanitarian crisis, this could easily tip the region into famine. It might even be considered an act of genocide.
There’s been little reliable reporting on what’s happened to Al Hudaydah since, but the significance of this development should not be downplayed. The Saudis, like their supposed bête noire Bashar al-Assad, have used starvation as a weapon of war, blockading ports to prevent desperately needed food, water and medicine from reaching Yemen, the Middle East’s most impoverished country even in better times. Consequently, Yemen is slowly dying, with UNICEF warning that a famine is imminent and that half a million children are at risk. Now, with Donald Trump’s stamp of approval, the blockade is about to get even worse.
But even if the suffering of the Yemeni people doesn’t move you, consider the Saudis’ nasty little war from a security perspective. Riyadh has focused all its fire on the Houthis, leaving mostly alone Yemen’s native al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), regarded as one of the most cunning terrorist franchises in the Middle East.
Resultantly, according to a report from the International Crisis Group released earlier this month, whereas before the Saudi campaign al-Qaeda was a “sideshow for most Yemenis,” today it is “stronger than it has ever been.” AQAP has capitalized on the instability wrought by the war and the consequent hatred of America that’s simmered there, as desperate Yemenis welcome the terrorists as the only monied advocate they have left. Riyadh, as it so often does, is using one hand to provide us with assurances that they’re fighting terrorism and the other to actively empower jihadist groups.
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The reason Trump is backing this act of geopolitical masochism is likely because he views the Saudis as an effective bulwark against expanding Iranian power—the Houthis have received weapons from Tehran, after all. But the insistence on fighting both Iran and Sunni jihadism simultaneously always ends up knotting us in contortions. In Yemen, our putative Houthi enemies despise al-Qaeda and ISIS, arguably even more than we do, since, as Shias, both groups regard them as at best undesirables and at worst heretics to be wiped out.
So to recap, Donald Trump’s anti-terror strategy in Yemen is to further a policy of weaponized starvation while backing a nation that’s actively abetting al-Qaeda in a sectarian war that’s been a bow-wrapped gift for jihadists. Bonus checks for everybody. Those libertarians and paleocons who backed Trump as a peacemaker are due for a reckoning, are they not?