Trump’s Calamitous Military-Only Strategy in Yemen

By Kate Kizer, second year student of the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University and director of policy and advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project

The Trump administration’s Yemen policy during his first 100 days has worsened an already calamitous status quo. Given the precedents set by his predecessors, in which U.S. involvement was dominated by counterterrorism interests and largely uncritical support for an ally committing possible war crimes with U.S. sold weapons, Trump has hardly been primed to achieve an ideal solution. Yet context cannot excuse his tenacity in doubling down on the Obama administration’s contradictory and counterproductive strategy in Yemen.

Rather than developing a policy tailored to the nuances of Yemen’s conflict and U.S. involvement there, the Trump administration appears to view Yemen as a means of bolstering its relationships with traditional U.S. Gulf allies. In addition to more forcefully parroting its Gulf allies’ characterization of Yemen’s civil war as a sectarian proxy conflict, largely ignoring the local drivers of conflict rooted in governance failure and lack of accountability for Yemen’s ruling elite, the Trump administration’s strategy rests on “reassuring” its allies through weapons sales and more military support. This approach culminated in White House approval of renewed arms sales to Saudi Arabia without conditions, including the sale of precision-guided munitions that have been systematically used in attacks on civilians and vital infrastructure in Yemen – declared potential war crimes by United Nations experts.

This decision only doubles down on the Obama administration’s failure to address the glaring deficiencies of the Saudi Royal Air Force. As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights, & Labor, Dafna Rand, put it at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Yemen, the Obama administration already tried this approach in 2015. Rand pointed out that increasing U.S. targeting assistance and providing better weaponry to limit civilian casualties didn’t result in “an improvement in the targeting, and [it became clear] the issue itself is the target selection…and adherence to the no-strike list”, not the precision of arms provided.
The current administration’s military-only approach extends to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen as well. Trump has reportedly slackened the military’s rules of engagement and designated certain governorates “areas of active hostilities,” leading to a dramatic increase in drone strikes and Special Operations raids against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This military-only strategy towards countering AQAP’s influence without a corollary strategy for countering radicalization can only go so far, and is strikingly similar to the Obama administration’s whack-a-mole counterterrorism strategy. Indeed, the president’s decision to increase U.S. military engagement against AQAP, with limited intelligence resources on the ground, has led to increased civilian casualties that ultimately fuel the radicalization of the local populace.

Most urgently, the administration’s predilection for a military-only approach to Yemen’s multiple crises risks precipitating a famine in the country that could kill millions of people, if they don’t die of cholera first. If the Trump Administration continues to willfully ignore the warnings of the humanitarian community and signs off on the Saudi and Emirati-led siege of Yemen’s vital Hudaydah port, it will do so with no apparent political strategy to resolve the conflict, except the belief that another round of bombing will bring the parties to the peace table. But U.S. escalation against the Houthis is likely to eliminate any remaining incentives for the parties to return to negotiations.

There is still time for Trump to treat Yemen as more than a military exhibition, and prevent the U.S. from getting bogged down in yet another quagmire in the Middle East. He could heed congressional opposition and delay the arms sales to push the coalition and its beneficiary, President Hadi toward a negotiated political settlement. In conjunction, Secretary of State Tillerson could also re-engage with the Houthis, and work to include other local actors into a concerted, inclusive diplomatic process, which has the best chance of easing the humanitarian crisis, halting anti-American radicalization, and securing the administration’s ultimate goals of limiting Iranian and extremist influence in the country. This approach, however, would require the administration to adopt a strong soft power approach to Yemen’s conflict that seems unlikely in an administration run by generals that seeks to gut the State Department’s budget. For the Yemeni people that unfortunately means more bloodshed, disease, and mass starvation, while Trump misses an opportunity to undo one of the Obama administration’s most counterproductive policies for U.S. national security interests in the region.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this post was originally posted at the Forum on Arms Trade, available here. It has been updated to reflect relevant policy developments following the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia.