On Thursday the United States Senate passed a dramatic resolution regarding US involvement in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. The resolution called on the Trump administration to end support provided by the US government to Saudi Arabia’s military interventions in the war, which have been carried out since 2015 in support of the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against a rebel movement known as the Houthis. Although the House of Representatives refused to take up the measure, the statement by the Senate remains a strong rebuke of both the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia.
Is the Senate resolution calling for an end to US military involvement in Yemen justified by the Christian just war tradition, or is the Trump administration on firmer moral ground? The Christian just war tradition arises from the insight that Christian discipleship sometimes requires the use of military force to protect innocent victims from unjust violence. The just war tradition focuses on three sets of ethical questions. First, in which situations is it morally justified to go to war? Second, what must one do to morally conduct a war? And third, how can the parties to a war end it and promote lasting peace in its aftermath? In light of these traditional criteria, this post will argue that indeed the US ought to withdraw its support for Saudi forces in Yemen and instead focus on promoting a diplomatic and political solution to the conflict, despite the valid national security concerns currently used to justify US military engagement.
US Military Involvement in Yemen
There are really two layers of US military involvement in Yemen. The first layer is the US’s counterterrorism efforts, particularly against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In November 2002, Yemen was the site of one of the first targeted killings by drone strike carried out by the CIA, killing a number of al-Qaeda operatives. US counterterrorism in Yemen began in earnest in 2009, however, after the formation of AQAP through the merger of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and the failed bombing of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day by an AQAP member. Since 2009, the US has carried out almost 300 drone strikes in Yemen, with over 1,000 casualties. The most well-known and controversial such strike was the 2011 killing of the imam and al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, both of whom were US citizens. These targeted killings raise a number of ethical questions, ably addressed for example by Kenneth Himes in Drones and the Ethics of Targeted Killing, but these will not be considered here. US special forces have also been engaged in counterterrorism operations against AQAP, and more recently the Islamic State (IS), in Yemen up until the present.
The second layer is US involvement in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. The civil war began in 2015 but is rooted in political strife going back several years. The Houthi movement is a religious and political movement that began in the mid-1990s to advocate for the rights of the Zaidis, a Shiite minority group in Yemen. By the 2000s, the Houthis had become a leading opposition group against the rule of US-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled since the unification of Yemen in 1990 (and who had previously been President of North Yemen since 1978). The Houthis engaged in a sporadic insurgency against Saleh’s government from 2004 to 2010.
During the Arab Spring in 2011, the Houthis joined with other opposition groups in calling for the resignation of President Saleh. Saleh resigned in February 2012 and handed over power to his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had been elected as transitional president. The Houthis and some other opposition groups rejected this transition, however, and began armed attacks against the government. In a strange twist, supporters of the ousted president Saleh joined the insurgency against Hadi’s government. Hadi, in turn, has held on to power after the transition period, citing the dangers of both AQAP and the Houthi insurgency.
Early in 2015, the Houthis gained control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and Hadi was temporarily forced to resign from the presidency. Houthi troops continued advancing into the southern part of the country, where Hadi had reasserted his authority. By the summer, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had come to the assistance of Hadi, whose forces began to regain lost territory.
US soldiers are not directly involved in combat in Yemen’s civil war. Beginning under the Obama administration and continuing under President Trump, however, they have provided intelligence and logistics support to Saudi forces engaged in the conflict. As the August 9 Saudi attack on a school bus, killing 40 children and 11 adults, tragically revealed, the US has also provided Saudi Arabia with advanced weaponry such as the laser-guided bomb used in the attack. Complicating matters, however, US drone strikes and special forces operations against AQAP and IS in Yemen have also continued in the midst of the civil war. The US Senate’s resolution called for an end to the intelligence and logistics support offered to Saudi Arabia, while leaving in place US counterterrorism efforts which are governed by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that commenced the global war on terror.
Is US Involvement in Yemen Morally Justified?
The Trump administration and other supporters of US involvement in Yemen justify it by pointing to the need to counteract Iran’s role in the conflict. Although denied by the Houthis and Iran, there is evidence that Iran has provided military support to the Houthis as a way to strike against Saudi Arabia and gain influence in the region. US involvement in the conflict, therefore, is seen as a way of preventing the further spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East. This goal is consistent with the Trump administration’s policy of supporting Israel and the Sunni Arab states in an effort to isolate Iran.
It is significant that the justification for US involvement is not based on an evaluation of the competing moral and political claims of the warring sides, but rather on pragmatic considerations about the balance of power in the broader region. Arguably, neither side in the conflict has a sufficient moral claim to warrant US involvement on its own merits. Does the just war tradition permit a third-party nation such as the US to intervene on behalf of a party to the conflict whose claim is unjust or morally attenuated in order to counter the intervention of another third-party nation with unjust intentions? This is a difficult question, but even if the answer were “yes,” such intervention by the US could not be justified if US support furthered unjust aims similar to or proportionately worse than those it was meant to prevent, or if it contributed to disproportionate civilian casualties. The US would also be responsible for pushing its ally in the conflict toward more just war aims. Based on these criteria, those senators who voted for Thursday’s resolution are justified in their rejection of US military involvement in Yemen.
Although there are solid moral and political reasons for seeking to limit Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, growing Saudi influence in the region is also morally problematic. Saudi Arabia exports an extremist interpretation of Islam and provides financial support to violent extremist groups. The Trump administration policy of one-sidedly supporting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to counter Iran is short-sighted and does not further the US’s interests in countering terrorism and extremism in the region. A more pragmatic balancing strategy is required, but would admittedly be difficult and fraught with perils of its own.
Just as US involvement in the Yemen conflict does not further clear moral and political interests, it is also contributing to a massive humanitarian catastrophe that outweighs any good political outcomes achieved through the conflict. At least 10,000 civilians have died in the conflict, if not many more. The war has also contributed to a famine leaving 50,000 dead and over 10 million people at risk of starvation. In addition, Saudi forces have been involved in a number of incidents where civilian populations were either directly targeted or sufficient efforts were not made to minimize civilian casualties. It is hard to see what political aims could justify this level of human suffering. Although one might argue that such suffering would continue even if the US withdrew its support for Saudi forces, the point remains that the US cannot justify material cooperation in causing this humanitarian catastrophe.
Those Senators who supported Thursday’s resolution were right to call for an end to US support for Saudi forces in Yemen. Instead, the US should focus its efforts on promoting ceasefire negotiations taking place in Sweden and pressuring both sides to seek a negotiated solution to the political crisis in Yemen. For example, Hadi has proposed a decentralized federal government that would leave the nation’s oil wealth in the hands of less populated regions, not benefiting heavily populated, poorer regions of the country. A lasting peace will likely require a more balanced form of government that better promotes the common good of all Yemenis. To reach such a settlement, however, the Yemenis will need the support of outside powers like the United States.