President Donald Trump has repeatedly touted his intention to chart a new course for American foreign policy and reduce U.S. military involvements abroad. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he declared in this year’s State of the Union address. But his administration’s record has not matched the president’s rhetoric.
Last Tuesday, Trump had an important opportunity to begin delivering on his promises by signing a bipartisan bill to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Instead, he vetoed the measure.
Prolonging American involvement in Yemen is reckless. The conflict offers the United States abundant risk and no reward. Trump’s national security strategy, published last year, described his administration’s approach to matters of war and peace as one of “principled realism,” prescribing a renewed focus on defending core U.S. interests. But there are no core U.S. interests at stake in Yemen.
Withdrawal, on the other hand, would respect the will of the American people, and maybe even open a path to resolution of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It could also avert grave, unintended consequences for U.S. security.
Yemen is a small and deeply impoverished nation beset by civil war, in which the Houthi rebels opposed by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition have distinctly local aims. Their success or victory will have little to no effect on American security. The continuing war, on the other hand, could have devastating effects. The Saudi-led intervention is fostering conditions in which al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a newer branch of the terrorist organization that aims to carry out attacks in the West, has thrived.
Most Americans are not aware of this hazard, but they know enough to recognize this is not a conflict in which our country should be involved. Polling data on Yemen is sparse, but a YouGov survey late last year found that just 13 percent of Americans said they supported the same or increased levels of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other U.S. partners in the Yemen intervention. Among those who had opinions about the conflict, 75 percent said they opposed U.S. involvement.
The most compelling case for removing the United States from Yemen’s civil war is that it could help bring the conflict to an end. As even the president’s veto statement notes, a negotiated solution is what Yemen needs for what is fundamentally a political dispute that has had horrific consequences for the Yemeni people. Every day this war continues exacerbates what is already the most acute humanitarian emergency on the planet.
By helping to enable the Saudi coalition’s indiscriminate destruction in Yemen, the United States is delaying any chance of a diplomatic resolution. Encouragingly, a study released this month by the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan think tank, suggests that Saudi Arabia may be looking for a political end to the conflict, too — and curtailing U.S. military support could give Riyadh an excuse to end its bombing campaign and push for peace talks in earnest. If that report is correct, the urgency of a shift in U.S. strategy becomes greater still.
Trump’s decision to veto the Yemen bill lost him an easy political win and the chance to execute a significant and necessary shift in U.S. foreign policy with relative ease. But it is not too late to make that change directly from the Oval Office, which is exactly where this misadventure began under the previous administration.
After campaigning on his opposition to our long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and pledging complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Trump has yet to produce an end to the American role in any of these conflicts. Yemen presents him with an opportunity to act swiftly and show that his promises are more than rhetoric. The president should end support for the Saudi coalition and stop U.S. participation in Yemen’s misery.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a contributing editor at the Week. This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.