Emboldened by Yemen’s continued internal fragility, Saudi Arabia is attempting to strengthen its control of the Arabian Peninsula through aggressive military action. It does so with direct support from the United States, which earlier removed its own remaining troops from the republic. Both Washington and Riyadh view the violence in Yemen as part of a wider conflict against hostile regional groups as well as Iran. For Saudi Arabia this is consistent with its regional aspirations and concerns about its rivalry with Tehran. For the US, however, the situation in the most southern tip of the peninsula is an unfortunate mess. The Americans continue to view the world as one of global struggles with transnational solutions. Still enslaved by its Cold War superpower mentality of old, Washington seems incapable of engaging the world at a local, practical level. In this thinking, local dynamics are mere building blocks of global systems, and as such are shifted around through grand strategies and complex analysis. If there is no obvious connection to such global struggles, the realities on the ground lose relevance, and America moves on. Eventually, it will not just be the Yemeni population that suffers; the US insistence on seeing the world as pawns of a global game is accelerating its own fall from grace. Only through practical, local solutions can this world tilt back into Washington’s favour. Yemen is a case in point.
Historical Yo-Yoing in Yemen
When, in October 2000, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack on the USS Cole- harboured at the time in Aden- the US began strengthening ties with Sana’a. Yemen was the very definition of a fragile state threatened by internal rivalries as well as outside interference. During the previous period- which started with Yemen’s unification in 1990, which is still the main origin of conflict in the present-day country -the US had mostly managed its relationships with the country through Saudi Arabian proxy. This had been mostly the result of US withdrawal of financial, military and diplomatic support for Yemen because of its opposition to American intervention in Iraq during its occupation of Kuwait in 1990. It was only after the USS Cole bombing that Washington’s concerns about international terrorism in the region led to a return to a more proactive approach. This then spiralled out of control after 9/11.
Local realities at the time were of deep local division and destructive regional meddling. Despite such fragility, the Bush Administration declared Yemen to be an ally in the War on Terror in November 2001, when then-President Saleh visited the White House for what would be the first of an unprecedented total of four times between then and 2007. Being recruited into the War on Terror did ostentatiously lead to economic and diplomatic benefits: humanitarian and development aid shot up through USAID support, and intelligence and military cooperation was re-established. Predictably, however, this quickly proved to be a poisoned chalice.
The US carrot and stick approach was the last thing Sana’a and Washington needed. The former was still struggling to create a stable, nationally recognised sovereign state after a violent and divisive past. The latter needed the same thing: a state capable of taking responsibility for its own territory, and able to resist outside interference or the establishment of international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. What it got instead was a magnet for anti-US sentiments, a magnet further reinforced by the destructive nature the War on Terror both regionally as well as ideologically. Any direct benefits to the local economy were more than compensated by perverse outcomes: the undermining of governmental legitimacy, internal division and lack of sovereign control, and the consequent inability of the Yemeni state to reassert itself at either a regional or national level.
When in 2011 this culminated in increasingly violent protests and weakened stability, the Obama administration attempted to support peaceful transition towards a more natural, local balance of power, but it was too little too late. By not dealing with local realities and instead viewing Yemen purely through the spectre of a global struggle against al-Qaeda and other such groups, the US had accomplished exactly the opposite of what it had wanted. Now, in 2015, it has closed its embassy in Yemen, withdrawn its last al-Qaeda fighting troops, and has no clear policy with respect to Yemen except for support for Saudi Arabian interests.
A focus on local realities without pushing for global involvement would have allowed different outcomes, more in tune with reality. The hunt for global ghosts in local closets, not so much. Instead, the yo-yo effect of support, pulling out, support again, and pulling out does nothing but harm the nature of social and political stability. It is what makes rebel groups and international terrorism thrive, and what makes US power only a shadow of its former Cold War self. In this sense, Yemen has followed the same template as in many other regions of the world.
The American Quagmire
By supporting the House of Saud in its quest to control Iran, further dominate the Arabian peninsula and secure its oil interests, US policy displays disturbing signs of multiple personality disorder. Not only is it also supporting Iran’s proxy groups that are fighting IS- essentially strengthen both sides of the regional rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh- it is also further destabilising its already complex relationship with Iraq, and even endangering stability in Saudi Arabia itself. For years the walls surrounding the Royal Family have been crumbling, even if not yet collapsing, and yet Washington seems to cling on to its traditional ally at all cost. This goes even as far as to endanger its much more pressing needs in Baghdad and elsewhere. With Afghanistan essentially seen to be a lost cause from an American geopolitical perspective, there is no other nation on the planet that has received so much attention from Washington in exchange for so few positive outcomes as Iraq. And America’s local coalition in Iraq is under severe pressure by recent events. With the fight continuing in Mesopotamia, Yemen’s destabilising effect on other regional relationships is not something the US is capable of dealing with right now.
If it had focussed on strengthening the state, rather than defending allied governments, things would have been very different in Yemen. If in 2000 it had recognised the importance of state building rather than coalition building; of supporting local stability and growth rather than a relationship conditioned on participating in an abstract war; if it had dealt with Yemen as a sovereign yet young and fragile nation that needs to strengthen its own institutions before it can shoulder militaristic alliances; if the US had looked at local solutions to its global problems, rather than global solutions to its local problems; if all these things, White House policy makers would have been in a very different position. Such alternative hypothetical scenarios are a fun playground for creative historians, but also a useful tool for analysts to explain the current situation, and how to proceed from here.
Right now, Washington’s foreign policy is divided up into separate, unconnected and mostly uncoordinated pieces, only hanging together by some vague yet grandiose master plan of making all the bits fit so as to create the perfect goldilocks situation. Unfortunately, the world does not work like that, nor does US influence. There is no grand theoretical scheme available that makes the global environment behave according to US interests anymore; and even if there was, the US State Department has no capacity to perform accordingly. They react to what rises up from the uncontrollable global weed, rather than cultivating green local pastures.