"So often, when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it's counterproductive, it backfires," President Obama told a recent news conference held at the Summit of the Americas. It's a powerful insight he would do well to remember when he next takes stock of America's latest intervention in Yemen.
Joining a growing list of U.S. foreign policy failures in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and Libya, Yemen is fast becoming a humanitarian disaster. Its indigenous conflict, cruelly fueled by Washington and Saudi Arabia, has killed hundreds of people, wounded more than 2,000, and displaced more than a quarter million people, according to the United Nations. All this at a time when 16 million of its desperately poor inhabitants are critically short of food, water and fuel.
Good luck trying to find any good guys among the various warring factions in Yemen; you certainly won't find a single good actor among any of the intervening foreign powers.
On the one hand, you have the Houthi rebels, named after the former religious leader of a minority Shiite sect known as the Zaydis. Earlier this year they overran most of the country after years of resisting oppressive central government rule. Their key issues are political, not religious, including how to divide the country's energy revenue between regions.
Backing the Houthi rebels, for now, are army units loyal to Washington's previously favored strongman, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Saleh previously fought the Houthis but switched sides to undermine his successor as president.) The Houthis also enjoy support from the Tehran regime, which sees an opportunity to meddle in Saudi Arabia's backyard.
Lined up against them is the Yemen branch of the Islamic State; Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies; the military junta in Egypt; and an indicted war criminal, the president of Sudan.
Oh yes, and the Obama administration, which once again is directly or indirectly allied with Islamist extremists and the region's most anti-democratic forces. Following Saudi Arabia's airstrikes, the New York Times reported, local al-Qaeda fighters seized control of the capital of Yemen's "oil-rich Hadhramaut Province," while "al-Qaeda's strongest opponents, the Houthis and Yemen's American-trained counterterrorism troops, have been busy fending off attacks from the Saudi military."
As usual, the administration isn't sending any "boots on the ground," to avoid political backlash at home. But it is providing "logistical and intelligence support" for bombing runs by Saudi Arabia, including refueling operations and rescue missions to save Saudi pilots who ejected from their American-supplied F-15 fighter-bombers. Washington is also stepping up weapons deliveries to members of the Saudi-led coalition.
This naked aggression against a sovereign state has not been sanctioned by the UN Security Council, much less by Congress. Said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, "The coalition air raids -- and the continuing attempts by the Houthis and their allied armed groups to expand their power -- have turned an internal political crisis into a violent conflict that risks deep and long-lasting regional repercussions. The last thing the region and our world need is more of the chaos and crimes we have seen in Libya and Syria."
The Obama administration barely even bothered to justify its support for outside military intervention into Yemen's civil war. Depending on whether you believe the National Security Council, the State Department, or the White House press office, the administration is either seeking to "defend Saudi Arabia's border," to support "the legitimate president of Yemen," or to promote negotiations among the warring parties.
In a typical example of unconscious doublespeak, Secretary of State John Kerry told an interviewer that Washington was "not going to stand by while the region is destabilized," as if bombing will somehow stabilize Yemen. What really motivates Washington is a desire to placate Saudi Arabia, which sees Iranian puppet masters behind every Shiite-led movement in the Middle East.
Since Iran replaced Israel as Saudi Arabia's chief bête noir, Riyadh has openly questioned whether the Obama administration can be trusted any longer as an ally and even threatened to downgrade its relations with Washington. Obama has sought to reassure the oil kingdom by approving $46 billion in new arms sales, and by insisting that his administration will resist the spread of Iran's influence, by force if necessary, everywhere in the region.
But whatever minimal credit Obama gets for supporting Saudi Arabia's latest aggression in Yemen will be far outweighed by the increased risk of regional conflict. Washington should instead support an arms embargo on all parties in Yemen, not just on the Houthis.
And hard as it may be, the Obama administration should acknowledge the wisdom of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's proposal for a program of dialogue and international relief aid instead of war.
"This issue should be resolved by the Yemenis," Zarif said. "Iran and Saudi Arabia need to talk but we cannot talk to determine the future of Yemen."
A longer version of this article appeared on ConsortiumNews.com.