A Yemen dilemma

Michael Ledeen wonders whether President Trump has “a strategy to win the global war.” Michael discerns none.

Instead, he sees our enemies and adversaries making inroads, while the U.S. counters mostly with words and, in the case of Russia, “the usual sanctions.” What is our policy?

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. We say we want Iran out of Syria, but we’re in league with the Iranians in some battles. We want a closer relationship with Egypt, but Sisi clearly has his doubts, and is taking out insurance by working with Putin. We are rhetorically tough against North Korea (an intimate of Iran), and slap sanctions against those who help them, but there is as yet no sign that we understand we’re in a world war, nor that we have a global strategy capable of winning it.

What should our policy be? In Michael’s view:

If we want to change the global battlefield, we are going to have to defeat the keystones of the enemy alliance. The best place to start is with Iran, and the best way to do it is politically, not military.

Our policy towards Iran seems very much up for grabs. Michael sees Gen. McMaster, the national security adviser, as reluctant, at least so far, to take on Iran militarily or politically.

On the other hand, the Washington Post reports that Defense Secretary Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support for the Persian Gulf states fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. In a memo this month to ­McMaster, Mattis said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat.”

Post reporters Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan explain:

Approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift. U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there, with limited indirect backing for gulf state efforts in a two-year-old war that has yielded significant civilian casualties.

It would also be a clear signal of the administration’s intention to move more aggressively against Iran. The Trump White House, in far stronger terms than its predecessor, has echoed Saudi and Emirati charges that Iran is training, arming and directing the Shiite Houthis in a proxy war to increase its regional clout against the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies.

There appears to be serious resistance within the administration to becoming more deeply involved in Yemen. Among the concerns cited in the Post report are (1) that direct support for the anti-Houthi coalition would take too many resources away from the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a nascent Islamic State organization in Yemen and (2) that the Gulf States may not be capable of pulling off the proposed military operation, including holding and stabilizing any reclaimed area, without sucking in U.S. forces, and (3) that the offensive would further undermine stalemated efforts to negotiate an end to the war and make an already dire humanitarian situation worse.

The conflict in Yemen is part of a larger struggle between Sunni states like Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran, the Shiite power, on the other. The Obama administration tilted decidedly towards Iran.

The Trump administration won’t do that, but the question is whether it will tilt decidedly towards the Sunni states or focus solely on defeating ISIS and al Qaeda, while staying mostly on the sidelines when it comes to other matters.

Two forces seem to be pulling the Trump administration towards at least seriously considering broader engagement. The first is Secretary Mattis, who lost troops in Iraq at the hands of Iranian forces. The second is a strong pro-Saudi lobby that may have made inroads with the Trump administration.

Pulling in the other direction, I imagine, is the president’s reluctance to become militarily engaged other than for purposes of defeating ISIS and al Qaeda, coupled with the bureaucracy’s bias against a dramatic reversal in policy.

I have no informed opinion about what the U.S. should do in Yemen. However, it strikes me that if, as a general matter, the U.S. does not take a strong stance in the broader regional power struggle, we risk the further erosion of our influence and the further increase of Russia’s. And it seems out of the question that we would again take Iran’s side.