After a close brush with anarchy following its Arab Spring revolution in 2011, Yemen stabilized itself by replacing strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh with his vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
In those heady days, before the hopes of liberal democracy extending across Arabia were dashed by the spread of chaos and reversion to autocracy, the transition was hailed as a success. This was a superficial assessment that ignored the country’s continued tribal and political divisions. These schisms crippled the new government’s ability to address Yemen’s structural problems and moribund economy.
Thus, it’s little surprise that Shia Houthi rebels, supported by Iran and Saleh loyalists, are once again ascendant. In recent months, the uprising has seized the country’s capital, Sanaa, forcing Hadi to flee the country. Sunni Saudi Arabia, fearing a Shia Iranian puppet state on its southern border, is now leading a coalition of nine other Arab states in “Operation Storm of Resolve,” aimed at degrading rebel forces through airstrikes and possibly a ground invasion. If they can force the Houthis to make a deal, it would help stabilize Yemen and prevent al Qaeda from running amok.
The U.S., while in support of the operation, is remaining largely on the sidelines, providing only logistical and intelligence support. Naturally, this has fed hawkish narratives of a U.S. “retreat” from the region and capitulation to Iran in exchange for a nuclear deal. The hawks are right that we are distancing ourselves from the Middle East. They are wrong that this is a bad thing.
We should in fact welcome this overdue display of Arab ownership of their security interests. This will diminish our ability to dictate policy in the region, but it is high time we abandon our overly paternalistic posture in the Middle East that ultimately empowers terrorists.
For the past decade, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been locked in a regional cold war, with both countries vying for the supremacy of their respective brands of Islam: Sunni and Shia.
The Saudis perceive the Yemen crisis—accurately or not—as their Cuba moment, with their archrivals intending to set up shop in their backyard. While Iran has denied supplying weapons and intelligence to the Houthis, honesty rarely factors into its foreign policy. It also has a long record of supplying weapons to paramilitaries as a lever of influence. While the Saudis risk overplaying their hand, the United States will have to respect their right to act on feelings of apprehension towards Iran as the price for adopting a more limited role in the whole blood-soaked region. Arab regional ownership means the U.S. abdicating total decision-making control, but it also means fewer flags draped over coffins.
This operation is a first test of Saudi multilateral leadership, and we must do our best to ensure it is successful. Our satellite imagery and in-air refueling capabilities will prove a meaningful contribution, but when this operation inevitably leads to a ground invasion, we can’t be expected to step in. The Houthis, like the Islamic State or any organized group of combatants, can’t be defeated with airpower alone. Soldiers must ultimately decide outcomes in the field, as demonstrated in Bosnia, where a combination of NATO air power and a joint Bosniak-Croat ground offensive forced the Serbs to make a deal. Last week, Egypt’s president announced the formation of an Arab League joint military force to be used in regional conflicts, and Yemen will likely be the first test of its viability.
Talking points on the operation have been scattered. Presumably, its goal is to protect Saudi Arabia’s southern border, curb Iranian influence, deny al-Qaeda a safe haven, and protect Yemen’s “legitimate” government.
The contradictions are obvious. Namely, governments that don’t govern aren’t legitimate, and Egypt’s democratically elected president Muhammad Morsi sits in a Cairo jail cell.
From a security perspective these are irrelevant. Democracy promotion must sometimes take a backseat to stability, even if this means occasionally rescuing men like Hadi. Syria has made it painfully clear that the only thing worse than a despotic government is no government at all.
Additionally, it is unrealistic to think that we should continue our disastrous policy of “leading” in the region, as this has merely bought us more extremism at the price of our blood and treasure. This means allowing the Saudis and Arab League to largely steer policy in the region, a notion that makes neocons tremble, but the emergence of a cooperative, assertive Arab bloc capable of stabilizing the region would be a godsend.
We should embrace this development and not allow idealistic delusions or insecurities about leadership keep us from continually stirring the pot in the Middle East.