State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was reported to have been pursuing a number of investigations within the department before he was removed from his post last week at the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. While the one that’s gotten the most attention is the allegation that he was inappropriately using a staffer for personal errands, the more significant line of inquiry is the one into the Trump administration’s emergency declaration last year expediting an $8 billion package of arms and munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The parties most responsible for Yemen’s carnage are the combatants themselves. But by plunging itself into a conflict it should never have been involved with, Washington lengthened the war.
The emergency authority, which Pompeo invoked despite apparent opposition from the Defense Department, the intelligence community and bureaus within his own department, stoked considerable opposition on Capitol Hill and culminated in the passage of a resolution to prevent the deal from being finalized. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said his objections included concerns about arming Saudi Arabia and its ally the UAE despite the appalling human rights record in their war with Yemen.
While President Donald Trump went on to veto the resolution shortly thereafter, the fact that Congress reprimanded the White House for short-circuiting traditional arms sales procedures reflected how strongly the legislative branch felt about the subject. As it should have.
But focusing on the technicalities of the arms sales process in examining Linick’s firing doesn’t get to the heart of an even bigger scandal — the one that began with the initial decision in March 2015 to support Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen.
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When the Saudis approached the Obama administration for military assistance — which ended up including the refueling of Saudi and Emirati fighter jets to streamline their operations — Yemen was already in a bloody civil war. Senior lawmakers at the time largely supported U.S. operations in the conflict, viewing the intervention as a justified response to an illegitimate offensive by an Iranian-supported militia group.
Six months before the start of U.S. support, Houthi rebels swept into the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and easily captured the city, forcing the U.N.-recognized Yemeni government to flee to the southern port city of Aden. The mere possibility that an Iranian-linked group such as the Houthis could establish full control of a neighboring country was a nightmare scenario for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, so Riyadh launched a bombing campaign to prevent it from becoming a reality.
Ever since, the war in Yemen has been a long, slow meat grinder of death and suffering. A military campaign that Riyadh confidently predicted would be over in weeks has become a costly, yearslong humanitarian and public relations disaster. As many as 100,000 people have been killed, many in bombing attacks on civilian targets. At least half of Yemen’s hospitals have had their service disrupted. And 24 million people, more than two-thirds of Yemen’s population, require some form of humanitarian assistance. The World Food Program assesses that 2 million children require treatment for severe malnutrition.
Ultimately, the parties most responsible for Yemen’s carnage are the combatants themselves. But by plunging itself into a conflict it should never have been involved with, Washington lengthened the war, giving the parties on the ground zero reason to negotiate a settlement.
For the United States, Yemen holds little national security significance. The country is a regional backwater with a gross domestic product half that of South Dakota, internally divided among corrupt officials, extremist militias and a government in name only.
Notwithstanding concern over Iran, which is largely using the Yemen battlefield as a pretext to bleed its Saudi adversary and increase the pain of Riyadh’s intervention, the one national security interest the U.S. does have in Yemen — preventing transnational terrorist organizations from using Yemeni soil to attack U.S. interests — has been complicated as terrorist groups use the war to consolidate and survive.
Many of the original backers of U.S. military support for Riyadh’s Yemen campaign have come to regret it, with many U.S. officials since acknowledging that the interagency debate leading to the Obama administration’s support was not only rushed, but also driven by misplaced expectations about America’s ability to restrain the Saudi-led coalition. As the report notes, “the U.S. would use the influence afforded by its support to encourage precision targeting and seek to protect civilians” — a conclusion that over time has been disproved repeatedly.
Unfortunately, the U.S. continues to sit in the passenger seat, praying that the driver will eventually sober up. It’s abundantly clear that a long-overdue course correction is required.
First, the Trump administration should stop placing the U.S. in the middle of the endless Saudi Arabia-Iran power struggle. Every day Washington continues to participate in Yemen’s war is another day the Pentagon and the State Department get distracted by a local quagmire in which the U.S. has no stake. Saudi Arabia isn’t entitled to unconditional U.S. support.
Washington’s involvement, wholly unauthorized by Congress, should end. Ending it would not only remove the U.S. from a pointless conflict but also give Riyadh a reason to redouble its quest for a diplomatic exit ramp — one the Saudis are already desperately searching for.
Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is increasingly becoming a burden to America and a detriment to the region’s security.
U.S. policymakers should also undertake an honest, comprehensive reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship in general. While Saudi Arabia remains an important energy supplier, it’s not nearly as valuable to the U.S. as it was during the Cold War, when Washington had an incentive to partner with the oil-rich monarchies to ensure that Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf was minimized. Today, there is no hegemon in the Middle East; while Iran may wish to become a dominant power in its neighborhood, it doesn’t have the military capacity or economic influence to realize those dreams.
U.S. and Saudi interests are increasingly diverging, whether on a yearslong embargo on neighboring Qatar, subpar cooperation with nuclear inspectors, partnership with extremist militias in Yemen or the recent oil price war with Russia. Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is increasingly becoming a burden to America and a detriment to the region’s security.
If U.S. policymakers were smart, they would use the latest inspector general controversy as an opportunity to work to end a shameful and counterproductive chapter in U.S. foreign policy.
Daniel R. DePetris
Daniel R. DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, is a columnist at the Washington Examiner.