Accomplice to Carnage: How America Enables War in Yemen

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By Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper – first appeared in Foreign Affairs |

Editor’s Note: After this article went to press, the Biden administration announced a number of measures that align with recommendations it made, including reversing the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, appointing a special envoy for Yemen, curtailing support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition in the conflict, supporting the UN-led peace process, and offering assurances to Saudi Arabia regarding the defense of its territorial integrity. Also after the article went to press, one of its authors, Robert Malley, was appointed U.S. special envoy to Iran.

In late March 2015, Saudi officials came to the Obama administration with a message: Saudi Arabia and a coalition of partners were on the verge of intervening in neighboring Yemen, whose leader had recently been ousted by rebels. This wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue. The Saudis had been flagging their growing concerns about the insurgency on their southern border for months, arguing that the rebels were proxies for their archrival, Iran. Still, the message had what Obama administration officials characterized as a “five minutes to midnight” quality that they had not quite anticipated: Saudi Arabia was going to act imminently, with or without the United States. But it much preferred to proceed with American help.

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President Barack Obama’s advisers looked on the decision facing the administration with queasiness. Both of us were serving in senior positions at the National Security Council at the time, one advising on Middle East policy and the other on human rights and multilateral affairs. Everyone in the administration knew the checkered history of U.S. interventions in the Arab world, most recently in Libya, and was well aware of the president’s strong distaste for another one. From Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, officials knew how hard it was to defeat an insurgency—how promises of a quick victory over a determined group of rebels have a way of disappointing. In this case, there was extra reason to be skeptical. U.S. officials thought Saudi Arabia was exaggerating Iran’s role, and they had no illusions that the Saudi armed forces, although well supplied with modern U.S. weapons, were a precision instrument. In short, there was plenty that could go wrong. As a former senior official would later tell one of us, “We knew we might be getting into a car with a drunk driver.”

And yet the United States climbed in anyway. Thinking that it could offer sober guidance and grab the wheel when necessary, Washington shared intelligence, refueled aircraft, sold weapons, and provided diplomatic cover. Now, almost six years after the Saudi intervention, the war in Yemen is nothing short of a disaster. It has further destabilized the Middle East, empowered Iran, and sullied the United States’ global reputation. Above all, it has devastated the Yemeni people, who are now experiencing the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Close to a quarter of a million people have died as a result of the conflict, according to the UN, roughly half from indirect causes such as malnutrition and disease. Many millions more are starving or homeless. And with power fragmented among a growing number of Yemeni actors on the ground, the conflict has become even harder to resolve.

The United States has had a major hand in Yemen from the beginning and thus must answer for its part in the tragedy. For reasons both moral and strategic, the Biden administration should make it a priority to disentangle the United States from the war in Yemen and do what it can to bring the conflict to a long-overdue conclusion. But to prevent history from repeating itself, the administration should also make it a priority to learn from the conflict’s sad lessons. The story of U.S. involvement in the war is one of entangling partnerships, wishful thinking, and expediency. Seeking to avoid a rift with a close ally, an administration that was determined to steer clear of another war in the Middle East ended up becoming complicit in one of the region’s most horrific ones.

OBAMA’S CHOICE

How did the United States get pulled into this wretched mess? The tale begins in 2011, with the fall of Yemen’s aging, corrupt, and authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced by protests to hand over power to his vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi was supposed to serve as a bridge between the old regime and a brighter future, but it didn’t work out that way. A nine-month “national dialogue conference” delivered an aspirational, if flawed, blueprint for political reform in January 2014. But by then, the economy was near collapse, and a group of rebels that had been fighting the central government for the past decade was making rapid territorial gains. These were the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), followers of the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam who were based in the country’s north, near the Saudi border. In September 2014, riding a wave of antigovernment anger, the Houthis seized control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and eventually chased Hadi to the southern port city of Aden.

Saudi Arabia feared that its neighbor would be completely taken over by Iranian surrogates. In early 2015, it rallied a coalition of nine mostly Sunni Arab states, the United Arab Emirates chief among them, and prepared to launch a military intervention to restore Hadi to power and counter what it perceived as an expanding Iranian threat to the region. The decision came on the heels of a power transition in Saudi Arabia that resulted in the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, who would become the face of the war in Yemen.

That was the context in which the Saudis made their request for American help. U.S. officials scrambled to consolidate their views and make a recommendation to the president. Many had concerns about the coalition’s possible heavy-handedness and were of mixed minds about whether MBS should be seen as a potential rising star or a worrying hothead, but in the end, the decision was not an especially close call. Obama’s senior national security team unanimously recommended proceeding with some measure of assistance for the Saudi campaign, and the president concurred. The White House announced that he had authorized “the provision of logistical and intelligence support” to the coalition and that the United States would work with its new partners to create a joint planning cell in Riyadh that would “coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.”

Almost six years after the Saudi intervention, the war in Yemen is nothing short of a disaster.

Why the Obama administration did this had much to do with Hadi. In its view, he was the legitimate leader of Yemen and a vast improvement over his much-disliked predecessor. Hadi was also seen as a reliable counterterrorism partner, someone who gave the United States wide berth in its operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which many U.S. officials rated as the most dangerous of al Qaeda’s franchises. When the Houthis, who were vehemently anti-American, ran Hadi out of Sanaa, the U.S. government saw their triumph as an affront to its interests in Yemen and to international law. For reasons that seemed to it both principled and pragmatic, Washington hoped for a restoration.

That was not all. U.S. officials also sought to improve relations with the Saudis and with Washington’s other Gulf partners, most notably the United Arab Emirates. For decades, the United States had viewed its partnerships in the region as key to protecting its energy and security interests, and in the spring of 2015, those ties were under strain. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies saw the Iran nuclear deal, then nearing completion, as giving Iran a leg up at their expense. But they were nursing other grievances, too—notably about U.S. policy during the Arab Spring, particularly toward Egypt, where they thought the Obama administration had been too quick to abandon President Hosni Mubarak and then too willing to normalize relations with the Muslim Brotherhood government that replaced him. The Gulf states also believed that the United States was withdrawing from the region, leaving them vulnerable to Islamist attacks.

Thus, the watchword of U.S. policy became “reassurance.” This meant reinforcing to the Saudis that Washington would stand behind a decades-old security assurance to defend their country against certain external threats, as well as spreading some of that feeling of steadfast support to other regional partners. When U.S. officials were planning a summit of Gulf leaders at Camp David for May 2015, they had one major deliverable in mind: a communiqué affirming the United States’ readiness to come to their countries’ aid in the event of external aggression. Now, the Saudis felt threatened by an Iranian-backed militia on their southern border. Giving them a flat no would have been off message, to say the least.

Another reason U.S. officials decided to support the Saudi-led coalition in 2015 was that they thought Washington could act as a moderating influence. The support that Obama authorized came with limits, caveats, and safety features. Obama’s guidance was that American help should serve the purpose of protecting Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity, making the assistance essentially defensive in nature. The administration also hoped that the joint planning cell would act as a forum where American advisers could professionalize their Saudi counterparts, learn what they were doing, and, when necessary, rein them in.

REINING IN THE SAUDIS

As soon become apparent, and has since become incontrovertible, the United States greatly underestimated the challenge it would face in curbing Saudi operations and minimizing both humanitarian damage and civilian casualties. The coalition resorted to brass-knuckle tactics early on. First, it prevented imports from entering Houthi-held areas, strangling the flow of commodities into the country’s largest and most important port, Hodeidah. Then, it bombed critical infrastructure, such as container cranes and food-production facilities. Strikes hit residential neighborhoods and weddings. In several instances, U.S. officials worried that the coalition was acting intentionally, perhaps perceiving these strikes to have a tactical benefit.

The U.S. response was to try to fix the problem. American diplomats backed an import-verification regime to help persuade Saudi Arabia to ease its restrictions on goods going into the country, but the flow of goods grew only slightly, and Yemenis struggled with increasing hardship. To reduce civilian casualties from the bombing campaign, U.S. officials developed “no strike” lists for Saudi pilots, but there was a giant loophole: the lists applied only to preplanned strikes, not to ones decided on while a pilot was in the air. As for the joint planning cell in Riyadh, the personnel that the Pentagon assigned to it tended to specialize in logistics and intelligence, not in techniques for avoiding civilian harm during airstrikes. On top of that, most (if not all) of them were seated away from the operations floor where targeting decisions were made; they were either on a separate floor or in a separate building. The State Department eventually sent its own expert to work with the cell, but after a spike in civilian casualties in August 2016, it reversed its decision, worried that the adviser’s presence would give an American imprimatur to irresponsible targeting practices.

Amid this blur of effort to contain a worsening humanitarian disaster, what the United States did not do was walk away. American planes continued to refuel Saudi jets on their way to bomb Yemeni targets, without necessarily knowing what those targets were. Washington provided intelligence, shipped weapons, and sent contractors to help keep the Saudi air force flying. It did all of this in part out of deference to the same interests that had led to its involvement in the conflict in the first place, and in part because it continued to believe that its position at the coalition’s side allowed it to do some good—steering the coalition away from even worse decisions than it was already making and coaxing it to the negotiating table.

The U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, March 2015
The U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, March 2015Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

In its last six months, the Obama administration took a number of steps that several former officials later said they wished it had taken earlier. In August 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry pushed peacemaking efforts into high gear by moving away from the unrealistic framework that had guided earlier diplomatic pushes. (A 2015 UN Security Council resolution had insisted that the Houthis hand over their heavy weapons and allow Hadi’s government to return to Sanaa to rule; Kerry offered the Houthis and their allies a role in a power-sharing arrangement in return for handing over weapons and territory.) After an October 2016 airstrike on a funeral hall in Sanaa killed 155 people, the Obama administration also rethought its approach to arms sales to the Saudis. In December, it announced that it was halting a planned sale of precision-guided munitions.

It was too little, too late. For several months before this decision, as the U.S. presidential election loomed, it had become harder for U.S. diplomats to motivate the Saudis to focus on the peace plan. When Donald Trump won, it became impossible. The Saudis suspected that the administration waiting in the wings would be both more supportive of its anti-Iranian agenda and more willing to look the other way on civilian casualties. The suspension of weapons sales, for its part, barely stung. The Saudis correctly predicted that the Trump administration would reverse it. By the time the Obama administration started to toughen its approach somewhat, it was time to pass the torch to its successor. The worst was yet to come.

A BLANK CHECK

The Trump administration saw the Middle East through very different eyes. It shared the Saudis’ fixation on Iran, and Trump himself displayed a particular affinity for strongmen in the mold of MBS. Although some senior U.S. officials, such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, had little appetite for the conflict in Yemen, seeing no feasible military solution, the new administration’s priorities were clear, and they did not include peacemaking. The Trump team cared much more about making Saudi Arabia an even bigger purchaser of American weapons and a partner in a notional Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and turning Yemen into a front in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Under Trump, the U.S. approach to the war in Yemen zigged and zagged. At first, attention to the peace process withered, as it was left in the hands of subcabinet officials, while operational support for the military campaign grew. The United States opened the taps on sharing intelligence that enabled strikes on Houthi targets, and in June 2017, the Trump administration unlocked the delivery of arms that the Obama administration had suspended. Trump’s team also sent mixed signals about whether it might approve of a renewed attack on the port of Hodeidah—this time by land rather than sea—something that the prior administration had said was categorically unacceptable. In a particularly jarring act, in September 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally notified Congress that the coalition was doing enough to protect civilians, a prerequisite for continuing refueling operations, mere weeks after an errant Saudi strike hit a school bus and killed 40 children.

U.S. policy took another turn after the Saudis murdered the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at their consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. With Congress outraged, the Trump administration pushed for renewed peace talks between the Hadi government and the Houthis. Thanks in part to personal outreach by Mattis to members of the coalition, in December 2018, negotiations took place outside Stockholm under the auspices of the UN. These talks resulted in a cease-fire around Hodeidah and created what might have been a foundation for a broader effort to reach peace. But later that month, Mattis stepped down, and U.S. attention to the peace process once again waned.

The United States has had a major hand in Yemen from the beginning and thus must answer for its part in the tragedy.

As time passed, the confluence of an escalating conflict in Yemen and intensifying U.S. pressure on Iran turned the war into an increasingly central arena in a regional power struggle. On one side were the United States and its regional partners, and on the other were Iran and its allies. How much the Houthis depend on Iranian support and to what extent their actions reflect Iranian desires have been matters of intense debate. But two things seem clear: first, that Iran saw the conflict from the start as a low-cost, high-reward opportunity to bog down and bleed its Saudi rival, and second, that as the war has persisted, ties between the rebels and Tehran have deepened, with the Houthis becoming progressively more willing to turn to Iran for succor, whether in the form of training or material assistance.

Thanks in part to this support, the Houthis upped their drone and missile attacks against Saudi territory. Iran itself seemed to jump into the fray. In September 2019, a complex drone attack was carried out against oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. Although the Houthis claimed responsibility, the sophistication of the strikes and the flight paths of the drones suggested an Iranian hand. In part, the attack was Iran’s way of responding to Washington’s maximum pressure campaign and discouraging Gulf countries from participating in it. The war in Yemen has given Iran both the motivation and the opportunity to flex its muscles, and it has obliged.

Over the course of 2020, Saudi Arabia recognized that the quick war it envisaged had turned into a long slog, coming at a heavy cost, both materially and reputationally. MBS has been keen to repair his seriously damaged standing in Washington, which has suffered as a result of the Khashoggi murder and the brutal campaign in Yemen. In the wake of the drone attack on its oil facilities, Saudi Arabia revitalized talks with the Houthis, and Riyadh has worked hard to bring the fissiparous anti-Houthi bloc under a single umbrella. But ending the war has proved far more difficult than launching it. As of January 2021, the Houthis had consolidated their control over northwestern Yemen, with 70 to 80 percent of the country’s people falling under their rule, and were threatening the government stronghold of Marib, near the northeastern corner of their zone of control. The rest of the country is a political patchwork, variously dominated by government forces, sundry militias, and local authorities.

THE CASE FOR CARING

Joe Biden has signaled that the issues he will focus on as U.S. president will be those with tangible domestic impacts: climate change, the pandemic, China. Why, given his overflowing plate, should he even care about solving the crisis in Yemen?

Three reasons stand out. First is the United States’ responsibility in what has unfolded. Saudi Arabia almost certainly would have intervened in Yemen even if the Obama administration had rejected its call for help, and it may well have prosecuted its campaign with even less regard for the laws of war absent the United States’ defective supervision. But without U.S. support, Saudi Arabia would have found it harder to wage war and, arguably, would have been more eager to find a way out. Washington has a responsibility to help clean up the mess it helped create.

Second is the sheer magnitude of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. According to UN statistics, as of mid-2020, some 24 million Yemenis, 80 percent of the country’s population, needed some form of assistance. Roughly 20 million were teetering on the brink of starvation. In November 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that Yemen was “now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.” The conflict is not alone to blame—Yemen was the region’s poorest country even before the conflict began—but the collapse of the economy and the loss of access to or the closure of airports and seaports, all byproducts of the war, are primarily responsible.

Third is the potential for regional spillover. As long as the conflict endures, so does the risk that it could provoke a direct confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a candidate, Biden committed to steering the United States away from adventurism in the Middle East. But such commitments can be difficult to keep at moments of crisis. Should conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia begin to escalate on the Arabian Peninsula, the Biden administration could come under enormous pressure to get involved, despite its better judgment. That risk alone should be reason enough for Biden, at the beginning of his administration, to both disentangle the United States from the conflict in Yemen and seek to end it.

There’s one big problem with this plan, however: it may not work.

GIVING PEACE A CHANCE

Biden faces a conundrum in Yemen. Senior members of his team, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, signed a letter in 2018 (which we also signed) acknowledging the failure of the Obama administration’s Yemen policy. As a candidate, Biden himself pledged to “end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” He has also vowed to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran. Those moves will inevitably raise tensions with Saudi Arabia. Yet the Biden administration is also committed to ending the war in Yemen and negotiating a follow-on deal with Iran on regional issues, steps that by definition will require working closely with Riyadh. Further complicating matters, the administration will have to somehow make sure that the Houthis, who are likely to feel as buoyed by any reduction in U.S. backing for the war effort as Saudi Arabia will feel forsaken, nonetheless come under enough pressure to agree to a peace deal. Deft diplomatic juggling will be needed for the United States to do several things at once: step back from the war while helping end it, squeeze Saudi Arabia but not overly alienate it, and engage directly with the Houthis without excessively emboldening them.

Any U.S. official trying to navigate this terrain might construct the following road map. First, Biden would reverse the Trump administration’s last-minute decision to designate the Houthis a terrorist organization. Far from creating leverage over the Houthis, as Trump officials maintained, that move triggered sanctions that could have catastrophic humanitarian implications and severely complicate diplomatic efforts. Second, he would announce a halt to U.S. military assistance to the Saudi war effort. To avoid estranging Riyadh to the point where it refuses to cooperate, Washington would also reiterate its commitment to help the kingdom and its partners defend their territorial integrity, while making clear that this promise applies only to threats of a certain magnitude. In Sullivan’s words, the goal should be “to balance anxiety with reassurance.” The administration might also make clear that the direction of bilateral relations would depend in large part on whether the Saudis worked with it to come up with a practical way to end the war. In parallel, Washington would intensify its support for the UN-led peace process and perhaps name a U.S. special envoy for Yemen to that end. Finally, on the margins of discussions with Iran over a mutual return to the nuclear deal, the administration would press Tehran to convince the Houthis to cease hostilities and show flexibility in peace talks—not as a condition for rejoining the deal but as a step that would lower regional tensions and build trust.

Fighting near Aden, Yemen, May 2015
Fighting near Aden, Yemen, May 2015Stringer / Reuters

Among the items on the new administration’s Middle East to-do list, Yemen is one of those that may be ripest for progress, although that is not the same thing as saying that the effort will succeed. One likely problem involves calibrating how much reassurance Washington should extend to Saudi Arabia and its partners. History suggests that the very concept of reassurance invites trouble. After all, that was the rationale that led the Obama administration to support the Saudis’ campaign in the first place. As much as the Biden administration should try to make clear what it is and isn’t willing to do, with a shooting war underway, that exercise is sure to be fraught.

That is largely because it will be challenging to figure out which elements of U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign to continue and which to halt. What constitutes defense, and what offense? On what side of the line does interdicting arms shipments to the Houthis fall? What about sharing intelligence that the Saudis could use to target Houthi missile launch sites, or helping the Saudis maintain their aircraft? The Houthis have crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and control territory there. When Washington provides intelligence or weapons to counter the Houthis, is it fulfilling its commitment to defend Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity or merely entangling itself further in the war in Yemen? Deciding to end support for the war in Yemen doesn’t answer these questions. It is just another way of posing them. It is sobering to remember that Obama also sought to draw such distinctions yet ended up getting sucked into a broader fight anyway. But the Biden team at least has the benefit of seeing what did not work for the Obama administration, and it can prepare itself to be far more restrained about the circumstances in which it is prepared to lend assistance.

Moreover, however much the Saudis may cooperate on the peace process, at this late date, it may prove insufficient. Obstacles to peace abound. The Houthis will have to accept that given the resistance of large portions of the Yemeni population, a viable deal will not simply convert territorial realities into international recognition of their rule. But having been ascendant for the past two years, they are unlikely to show interest in compromise. Hadi will have to accept that his demands for a return to power in Sanaa through a Houthi surrender are wholly unrealistic. But the embattled president has proved remarkably stubborn, and he is likely to see the formation of a new government as a sign that the tide is finally turning in his favor. The United States and Iran, for their part, may find themselves struggling to come to an accommodation on Yemen even if they reach agreement on the nuclear deal. Although the end of the maximum pressure campaign should diminish Iran’s incentive to act aggressively in the Gulf, it might not be reason enough for the country to seriously pressure the Houthis to compromise—something it might not even be able to do anyway.

A final obstacle: Yemen is no longer the country it was when the war began. As the conflict has ground on, power has become diffused across a multitude of armed actors on the ground—not just the Houthis and the Hadi government but also separatist forces in the south and militias under the authority of Tareq Saleh, a nephew of Hadi’s predecessor. The war now rages on multiple fronts, each with its own political dynamics and lines of command and control. Absent the buy-in of all these actors, a peace settlement is unlikely to be sustainable. And getting their buy-in will be difficult: many of the groups in Yemen have developed economic incentives to prolong the conflict. Further complicating matters, multiple regional players have taken an interest in backing different groups on the ground.

The Biden administration should not allow these considerations to dissuade it from making a major push for peace in Yemen. The stakes are too high not to try. But the administration should also bear in mind that whatever it does, it will have to be firm with Saudi Arabia about its decision to pull the United States back from most activities relating to the war, however difficult that may be. Ending the war may prove to be beyond the new administration’s influence. Ending U.S. complicity in it is not.

PREVENTING FUTURE YEMENS

The intractability of the war in Yemen should serve as a stark reminder of the costs of entering such conflicts to begin with. It should also, then, compel the Biden administration to come to grips with a crucial question: How can the United States avoid becoming complicit in similar disasters?

A good place to start would be with the fundamentals of U.S. security partnerships in the Gulf. Washington has given far-reaching assurances that it will come to the defense of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and has arranged to place in their hands a large arsenal of American weapons, sustained by American parts and personnel. Because of the way in which these partnerships are structured, when one of these states chooses to launch an unwise war, especially when there is a defensive rationale, the United States will face a hard choice. Should it join the effort to demonstrate fealty to its assurances and try to influence how its weapons are used? Should it refuse to participate but continue to allow arms and assistance to flow? Or should it cut off support and risk rupturing its relations with a regional partner, recognizing that other would-be weapons suppliers, such as China, Russia, or Turkey, might well step in?

The intractability of the war in Yemen should serve as a stark reminder of the costs of entering such conflicts.

These are the sorts of questions that ought to be examined in the reassessment of U.S.-Saudi relations that Biden has promised. At the heart of that review will be a calculation of which of two paths would better serve U.S. interests. The United States could reaffirm its steadfast commitment to a long-standing partner, even if it risks drawing the United States into future wars of precisely the sort that a growing number of both Democratic and Republican leaders appear set on avoiding. Alternatively, it could lessen that commitment in an effort to reduce the danger of damaging entanglements, even if that means loosening a bond long seen as key to protecting U.S. energy and security interests in the Gulf. If the balance of the risks leads the administration down the second path, which seems the right one to us, it will likely want to revise U.S. security assurances so as to provide more room for maneuver in Yemen-like situations, which, although serious, fall far short of an existential threat.

The soul-searching should extend beyond the executive branch. Congress has a role to play in preventing future Yemens, and indeed, it appears to recognize as much. In 2019, both the House and the Senate, outraged by the killing of Khashoggi, passed a resolution that would have required the United States to withdraw from the hostilities in Yemen, but Trump vetoed it. The bill invoked the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which was designed to limit the executive branch’s power to enter armed conflicts, but even if it had passed, it would likely have been ignored by the administration because of the latitude that the executive branch has given itself over the years to interpret key terms in the 1973 resolution flexibly. If Congress wants to play a bigger role in decisions about whether to involve the United States in future misadventures, it will have to amend that act. In its current form, the War Powers Resolution applies only to conflicts in which U.S. troops are either giving or receiving fire, not ones in which the United States is merely providing arms and advisers. Congress should change the law so that a president must obtain approval—and periodic reapproval—if he or she wants the United States to give support at levels that would effectively make it a party to a conflict. A reform like this would do nothing if Congress were more bellicose than the president, of course, but even so, it would be wise if it took the consent of two branches of government, rather than one, to enter a war. Such a change would make it less likely that the United States would get drawn into quagmires in the first place and more likely that it would correct course if it did.

The war in Yemen is a tragedy for its people, an enduring source of instability for the region, and an open wound for the United States. At this point, however it ends, it is unlikely to end well. At the very least, the United States owes it to itself and to the victims of the war to learn something from the disaster. That would be one way in which the precedent in Yemen might do Washington and the world some good: if it forced U.S. officials to candidly reexamine the United States’ posture in the Gulf and recognize how easy it can be, despite the best of intentions, to get pulled into a disaster.

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