Count Metternich's alleged comment in reaction to reports of Talleyrand's death is the most quoted remark in diplomatic history: 'I wonder what his motive is?" We can share his puzzlement today as the Obama administration ricochets from one crack-up to another in the Middle East: "I wonder what their thinking is?" we ask in bafflement. Yemen is the latest mishap where the American assisted Saudi bombardment of the Houthis (along with killing 1,000 civilians) has skidded to a sudden stop just short of the abyss. Washington policy is now stranded in no-man's-land with no way forward or back -- yet having already incurred major damage.
We've seen this movie before. Ever since 9/11, successive Presidents have been imperiling the nation through rash actions whose aims and purposes defy reason. Or, more accurately, we have experienced two versions of the same basic script. For the Bushies' aggressive strategy did make sense in their own warped view of a world that they sought to dominate by force of arms. As Captain Ahab acknowledged: "all my means are rational; it is my end that is mad." The Obama people, by contrast, pursue obscure ends by senseless means. Together, they have left the region strewn with the wreckage of thwarted stratagems -- Iraq (twice), Afghanistan (twice), Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, Palestine, and now Yemen which is linked the potentially biggest crack-up of all, with Iran. There, we can't make up our mind whether to sup with "the Devil," if so with how long a spoon, or to open our arms to welcome the Rapture that will follow Armageddon.
Yemen has drawn all these strands together in two ways. For one thing, Obama's actions there challenge the imagination to come up with a logical explanation of 'why." For another, it draws our attention to the illogicality of our attitude toward the tangle that is ISIL/Iraq/Syria. The contradictions and counter-intuitive diplomacy are all the more baffling for the administration's inability to offer even a semblance of a rationale. Indeed, it doesn't as much as try since the country has declined to ask for an explanation.
So let us see if we can decipher what meaning is hidden in the disconnected fragments available by a process of deduction. Begin with the basic question: What is the primary American interest? We know the answer to that one: to prevent any terrorist attack on the United States or its citizens. A threat that we ascribe to hostile Islamist groups of a jihadist character bent on violence: e.g. al-Qaeda & Associates, ISIL, et al. We seek to do so by attacking directly their leadership and organization, by undercutting their support base in bolstering other forces in the region that share our opposition to them, and ultimately by reconciling the current of Islamic fundamentalism running through the region with our presence and, ultimately, with our supposed goodwill. Toward this end, we have invaded and occupied two countries; we have spent blood and Treasure (roughly $2 trillion when the last bills are settled); we have set in chain conflicts that killed some hundreds of thousands of "natives."
We have unsettled established states; we have sacrificed a good measure of the respect that America has enjoyed in the world; and we have degraded our own political liberties at home. We did all this because it was deemed necessary and worth it. The "war on terror" has defined the 21st century for Americans.
For years now, President Obama and has senior security officials have told us that the gravest terrorist danger came from the AQ subsidiary al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) based in Yemen. There is located that notorious master bomb maker and a hard-core of militants allegedly recruited by the now departed Awlaki. Washington has launched a sustained campaign against AQAP using drones or conventional air strikes, Special Forces and assorted clandestine operations. This was done first in collaboration with the government of long-time former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. Once he was forced from office in the wake of the Arab Spring (literally fire-bombed out of it), we connived with the Saudis to replace him with his Vice-President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. A weak, unpopular figure, Hadi nonetheless was our man who let us bomb to our heart's content. A prominent player in Yemen's turbulent politics are the Houthi tribes who represent about 30 percent of the population. They are a martial people who have protected their interests for decades from all those who threaten them. Their faith is a heterodox off-shoot of Shi'ism -- although historically they have been neither theologically nor politically close to the Persians with whom they share no land or sea border. They also are vehement enemies of AQAP. Indeed, they have fought them and fought them effectively.
However, Hadi and his allies (which include his paymasters in Riyadh and his godfather in Washington) sought to marginalize the Houthis by rigging gubernatorial boundaries and gerrymandering election districts in a new constitution which he tried to impose surreptitiously -- bypassing agreed processes. Hadi did so not in his capacity as a legitimate President since his negotiated mandate had run out and he had failed to observe the agreed commitment to hold elections. The Houthis rebelled. They joined a political and military alliance with Saleh (our former good guy whom we had set up in a luxury Manhattan apartment after his overthrow) who retained the allegiance of a section of the armed forces. The rest we know.
Out of this complex situation, the Obama White House crafted a simple, simplistic narrative. The Houthis were bad guys, they were instruments of the Iranians who are the source of nearly all evil deeds in the Middle East, they were a threat to our fraternal partners the Saudis who were increasingly spooked by the specter of an expansionist Shi'ite Iran which was about to be brought in from the cold -- and by any other change in the regional status quo. Therefore, they and we needed absolute control of what was going on in Yemen.
But what about AQAP -- our supposedly primary concern? They had been flexing their muscles amidst the political disorder in Sana'a and exploiting the weaknesses of Hadi's regime. That's the big question. The distressing answer is that the Obama administration decided that in fact containing/crushing it was not the primary American interest. It pivoted toward Riyadh -- accepting the Saudi view of the region which placed highest priority on thwarting Iranian/Shi'ite designs (real or imagined) by suppressing the Houthis. Hence, direct American support for the Saudi bombing campaign. That meant full diplomatic, material and Intelligence assistance. That meant accepting and broadcasting the fallacious line that Iran was to blame for Yemen's civil war using the Houthis as their "proxy."
Two questions stand out: Do the Obama people actually believe this fictional account or are they just going along with it? Either way, why are they ready to pay such a steep price in facilitating the growth of AQAP (as has occurred during the month-long bombing campaign)? It is exceptionally hard to provide answers because the Obama people have offered no plausible explanation, and because no one has pressed them to give it.
The demonization of Iran does conform to Washington's sustained campaign to depict Iran as an 'existential' threat in the Middle East -- to Israel, to Washington's other friends, in Syria, to reconciliation in Iraq, etc. Notwithstanding the prospects for a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue, Obama persists in declaring that it has no linkage whatsoever to other points of contention. He stresses that the IRI is still seen as a hostile power. Détente with Tehran is out of the question.
What this mumbo-jumbo means is that the Obama administration feels an overriding need to reassure the Saudi royal family that it is on their side in the confrontation with Iran, that it can be counted on to back them when they see their rule endangered (as by developments in Yemen -- however fanciful). Most important, that the United States will go so far as to set aside its obsession with al-Qaeda if necessary to secure its relationship with the KSA.
That leads us to our second question: What is so important in that relationship as to produce such a shocking trade-off? Well, there is the nuclear deal with Iran about which the Saudis are deeply unhappy. But what could the KSA do to derail it? In fact, not much. They don't have the clout in Washington that Israel has (although they have been in cahoots with Jerusalem in lobbying on that issue). There is not much trouble-making in the region that could discomfort the United States -- beyond what they already have done. It is the Saudi's who have promoted and unwritten a region-wide network of madrassas that have spawned the wave of fundamentalism across the Islamic world which posits the secular West -- led by the United States -- as Islam's mortal foe. The movement's most radical variants include al-Qaeda, the Taliban and now ISIL which are seen in Washington as America's greatest enemy. The Saudis, officially or otherwise, supplied indirect support to ISIL in its formative phases. They still have rejected the idea of providing any of the boots on the ground needed to defeat it. They maintain close ties with al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian wing. Washington has not demanded, and has not received any accommodation on these paramount issues in exchange for its blanket support for the KSA in Yemen.
The subordination of the war against terrorism to the undeclared war against Iran extends to Syria and Iraq. In the former, the Obama people have vacillated as to whether ISIL or Assad is the main enemy. As to al-Nusra, they have indicated a willingness to give it a pass insofar as targeting it as a hostile force is concerned. That permits Israel to enter into tactical alliances with al-Nusra against the Damascus government -- their number one foe in Syria. This is justified by conjuring up a third force, the secularists/moderate Islamists, supposedly being trained in Jordan and Saudi Arabia to bolster the remnants of the original Syrian National Coalition resistance forces, the Free Syrian Army. To date, that third force as a major factor in the military equation exists only in the musings of Washington officials.
In Iraq, ISIL is designated as the clear enemy but Washington refuses to accept the hard fact that the Shi'ite militias, trained and backed by Iran, with approval of the Baghdad government, are the most effective force on the ground opposing them. There the disgraced Iraqi national army is presented as the Third Way despite its lamentable condition. Hence, the Obama administration persists in inveighing against the Iranian presence, refusing cooperation with the militias, and badgering the government to rein in both as the price for American air support is a central pillar of Washington's strategy. Once again, effectiveness in fighting the forces of terrorism loses its priority status as we pursue the wil'o wisps of dominating Iraq at the expense of Iran.
Back in Yemen, the American campaign against AQAP is stymied. The base from which drone strikes were launched, and Special Operations Forces operated, was evacuated just before it was overrun by AQAP irregulars. The base commander -- a Hadi loyalist -- fled to Saudi Arabia before the assault, appealing to his troops to stand down. Elsewhere, the elite Yemeni units trained by Central Command to fight AQAP were bombed by the Saudis, thereby degraded and leaderless.
None of this is justified in public. No arguments are made. The strategy is not debated. The incongruities are not noted. The closest we have gotten to anything like an official statement was Secretary Ashton 'Ash' Carter's off-the-cuff comment this week, in response to a question, that AQAP gains in Yemen, thanks to the Saudi bombing, were a concern but that simply meant that the United States had the redouble its efforts to protect itself -- and that was what it was doing. In summary: the United States government knowingly follows a course that leads to a strengthening of a terrorist group which the President has declared the gravest threat to the United States. But don't worry good citizens, just make sure to take off your shoes at airports and sleep soundly knowing that the NSA will continue to monitor your electronic communications without warrant.
There are only two conclusions that can be drawn from this latest American misadventure in the Middle East. Either the Obama people have cynically exaggerated greatly the terrorist threat from AQAP -- or, they have recklessly endangered the American people.
The greatest hoax in American history -- or, criminal negligence.
There is no logical alternative
Where We Stand
The KSA's announcement of a suspension to the bombing is an admission of defeat. It equally is a defeat for the United States. The difference is that Washington never admits defeat. The Houthis remain in domination of most of Yemen -- militarily and politically. Hadi is history. AQAP has strengthened its position significantly. The attempt by King Salman to solidify his leadership by laying down a marker in the Gulf has failed ignominiously. Instead of gaining stature as paramount head of a Sunni bloc, he -- and the KSA -- demonstrated their unsuitability for such an exalted role. Rebuffed by Pakistan and Turkey, winning only empty promises from fellow Arab League members, the Saudis strode into the fight in splendid isolation to meet their dismal fate. Brave -- perhaps; but it's not strategy. Saudi Arabia is diminished rather than enhanced.
Both are correct in stating truths that Washington refuses to acknowledge. The Saudi royal family lost its bearings when frightened by the Arab Spring and its aftermath and has been rattled ever since. Characteristically level-headed and coldly calculating, they have become emotional and impulsive. Obama and his entourage chose the moment of denouement to hitch their wagon to this unhinged Saudi leadership. Late realization of high a price it was paying for misplaced loyalty, the Obama White House may have played a role in persuading King Salman to bring down the curtain on the tragic-comedy.
We do not know exactly how the KSA's failure on all counts in Yemen played into the factional rivalries of the royal family. It is reasonable to assume, though, that Salman's Sudairi branch of the royal family is under attack for their fecklessness by the opposing Tuwaïjris branch of late King Abdullah. As Chouet points out, that may explain the inconstancy of Saudis' newly announced partial bombing moratorium.
As for Obama, the White House spin machine will manage somehow to fudge this latest debacle -- at least in the eyes of an ever gullible American public. The fatal errors in their thinking and policies will not be confronted. The doctored tale already is taking shape. Obama's backing for the Saudis was an expedient act dictated by circumstances not of our making. Once it became clear that King Salman was going to attack the Houthis out of a deeply felt national interest, we had to show our solidarity. That gave us access to the Throne where we could offer counsels of caution aimed at preventing the conflict from spreading. The unilateral declaration of a ceasefire proves the wisdom of that course. Our tangible assistance was more than a sign of solidarity. By providing the Intelligence for identifying targets, we could minimize collateral civilian casualties. Were it not for us, even more dairies and food depots might have been hit 'accidentally'. In addition, we have maintained our viability as a constructive presence in the peace process soon to begin. It is true that we have redeployed our drone assets to Djibouti, but we retain the ability to strike critical targets in Yemen. Yes, American equipment and munitions contributed to heavy civilian casualties, and we did participate in the blockade that prevented delivery of food stuffs. Let's remember, though that the United States is the largest contributor to United Nations refugee and relief efforts. (To selective media types: "fortunes of war")
Will this tall tale sell? Of course it will sell. The American public has been swallowing hokum like this for 15 years as if it were certified ambrosia and nectar. To this day, substantial majorities claim to believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and that we did uncover WMD in Iraq. Using fairy tales as building blocks in the construction of a fanciful reality has become part of our national experience. As for the MSM and most of the commentariat, their critical faculties and capacity for autonomous thinking atrophied a long time ago. Anyway, Yemen has not cut very deeply into the American psyche. It soon will be eclipsed by the next chapter in the Iranian nuclear saga or some other Middle East problem.