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How U.S. Policy in Yemen Went Tragically Wrong

Alexandra Stark—

On October 8, 2016, an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition struck a crowded funeral hall in Sanaa, Yemen, killing at least 140 people and wounding an additional 600, including children. The strike was shocking to many Americans, not only because of the tragic death toll, but because of how it happened: according to Human Rights Watch, remnants of a U.S.-manufactured bomb were identified at the site.

This was eight years after President Obama was elected with the promise that he would end the United States’ “dumb wars” in the Middle East. So how, and why, was a U.S.-made weapon contributing to the deaths of children in Yemen?

The answer is important—and not just to humanitarians who are concerned about preventing harm to Yemeni civilians. It’s important because it can help us to understand why even well-intentioned U.S. policy in the Middle East often goes so tragically wrong.

For decades, U.S. policy in Yemen has been shaped by narrowly defined U.S. security interests, from countering the Soviet Union’s influence in the region during the Cold War to combating terrorist organizations after 9/11. It was not about what could contribute to the well-being of Yemenis.

Before Houthi insurgents rose up and captured the capital in 2014, setting off the civil war, U.S. policy in Yemen was framed by its own counterterrorism interests. The United States faced the dilemma of how to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—a terrorist organization linked to an attempted bombing on a U.S.-bound airliner in 2009 among other threats—without risking another quagmire in the Middle East. To effectively prevent terrorism without a larger U.S. investment, the U.S. partnered with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government and launched the occasional drone or missile strike. At first, American officials thought this approach was so successful that they dubbed it “the Yemen model” and advertised its success through early 2015, when the country was overrun by civil war.

The Yemen model has not worked because this framework is too narrow. It meant that Obama administration officials were unable to see that their corrupt government partner had started to wobble, even before the Arab Spring protests washed over the country in 2011. And it meant that in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia asked for support in their military intervention against the Houthis, U.S. officials felt they had to go along. They wanted to maintain the United States’ important security relationship with Gulf partners, even though one official said that the decision felt like “getting into a car with a drunk driver.”

Later on, some U.S. officials would acknowledge that “we were wrong to think that cautious and at times conditional support for the war in Yemen would influence Saudi and Emirati policy.” Still, under the Trump administration, the U.S. doubled down on its support for the coalition until the October 2018 assassination of Saudi regime critic Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

In February 2021, President Biden announced that the United States would be “stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen,” and in April 2022, the UN managed to negotiate a truce. The truce has, more or less, held up even though the Houthis continue to attack commercial vessels in the Red Sea and U.S. still launches strikes on Houthi targets.

In the meantime, though, U.S. support had contributed to a war that caused “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises,” according to Oxfam, causing over 12,000 civilian deaths and forcing almost 4 million people to flee the fighting. Eighty percent of Yemen’s population, or 24 million people, now relies on emergency aid. Aid groups have warned that the turmoil in the Red Sea could contribute to the ongoing humanitarian crisis and create additional barriers for the humanitarian organizations delivering lifesaving support in Yemen.

The lessons of the Yemen model therefore remain potent a decade on, as another devastating conflict rages in Gaza. A narrow focus on maintaining U.S. security partnerships, counter-terrorism operations, and countering Iranian influence did not achieve U.S. security goals in Yemen. What might a new approach look like? It could focus on the well-being of people in Yemen and across the region, instead of on only narrowly defined U.S. security interests.

Alexandra Stark is an associate policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartian research institution, and a fellow at New America’s International Security Program. Her award-winning work has been published in academic and public outlets.

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