Last month, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that could limit U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen. There’s been intensifying criticism of the humanitarian impact of the war and pressure on the Saudi-led coalition to end the fighting there. But many also see the Senate resolution as a response to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The anger over his death and the brutal way in which he was killed has placed increasing pressure on governments and political leaders in many countries to take action against the Saudi regime.
This puts Washington in a tough spot. Given that the U.S. is already overstretched militarily, it increasingly needs to rely on allies like Saudi Arabia to secure its interests in the Middle East. So any attempts to limit U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia and its efforts in Yemen has the potential to hamper relations with a key partner and might actually block the U.S. from pursuing its objectives in the region. This raises a critical geopolitical question: To what degree can state institutions inhibit a country’s ability to pursue its imperatives in the short term? This Deep Dive will seek to answer this question as it relates to U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen.
U.S. Objectives in Yemen
In the U.S, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in early October drew fresh scrutiny of the Saudi kingdom as well as the coalition it leads against Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Some politicians felt the need to respond to the public shock and indignation over Khashoggi’s death by limiting the Trump administration’s ability to collaborate with Riyadh. The result was the resolution that passed in the Senate 63-37 and could eventually force the U.S. to withdraw some of the aid it has provided to the Saudi-led coalition.
But U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen isn’t just about the war in Yemen. The U.S. has long been concerned about a regional hegemon emerging in the Middle East. (On a broader level, one of the United States’ key imperatives is to prevent a regional hegemon from emerging in any part of the world because that new hegemon could redirect resources away from land-based military capabilities and toward developing a stronger navy – which the US cannot allow if it wants to maintain its dominance of the high seas.) The U.S. is concerned that Iran’s expanding influence in places like Iraq and Syria could move it closer to being able to dominate the Middle East. This is a pivotal reason why the U.S. got involved in Yemen – to make sure Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels in their fight against the Saudi-backed government, doesn’t hold extensive influence in yet another Middle Eastern country.
But the U.S. has learned over the past 15 years that it can’t win wars alone, and it has to be more selective in choosing the conflicts in which it engages. It must, therefore, rely on regional allies to help achieve its security interests. Restraining Iran, then, requires the U.S. to cooperate with countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, so it can deploy its own forces only on a limited basis. Yemen is of critical concern for the Saudis; they share a border, and Riyadh can’t afford to let its archrival to gain a foothold there.
The Power of Public Opinion
The Senate resolution, then, seems to aim to limit the United States’ ability to work with one of its key partners. But on closer examination, the resolution isn’t nearly as significant a constraint as it first appears. At most, it would curtail low-level U.S. support of Saudi actions against the Houthis in Yemen. And that’s assuming the resolution moves past the next stages. The vote in November was only on whether the resolution should be sent for further debate and then to a second and third vote in the Senate. Even if it passes the final hurdle there, the White House has said the president would veto it. (Though there’s a similar bill in the House of Representatives that couldn’t be vetoed by the president.) By voting for the resolution, then, senators were able to show concern over the issue without actually forcing any change in policy.
Moreover, the resolution isn’t exactly clear on what forces or assets the U.S. would need to withdraw. It states, “Congress hereby directs the President to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen, except United States Armed Forces engaged in operations directed at al Qaeda or associated forces … .” In other words, U.S. forces engaged with al-Qaida or associated entities wouldn’t need to be pulled out of Yemen. So the U.S. could maintain some limited engagement and still be compliant with the resolution.
A key question, however, is why domestic institutions would want to constrain U.S. actions abroad in the first place. This is where national identity and domestic politics play a critical role in geopolitics. National identity helps shape citizens’ perception of right and wrong, which in turn can influence leaders’ actions and the policies they promote – or at least the ones they promote in public. Sometimes, this means a country’s actions abroad are genuinely intended to protect the values its citizens deem important. Other times, politicians just try to convince the public that the country’s allies act in a way that is consistent with its own values, even if they don’t, so that public discourse doesn’t interfere with a country’s pursuit of its national interests. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, famously referred to Josef Stalin as “Uncle Joe” when it was essential that the two countries join forces to defeat Nazi Germany, despite the brutality with which Stalin seized and held on to power.
But when an ally openly commits an act that violates a country’s values, leaders may be forced to respond in a way that at least appears to punish that ally to appease the public. Often, the outrage will pass, the issue will be replaced by some other topic that occupies the media’s attention, and leaders will revert back to their prior course. But if that act remains in the spotlight for a longer period of time, as was the case with the Vietnam War, then it can create longer-term constraints on a state’s actions abroad.
In some cases, the public isn’t driven only by a desire to defend their values but also by their own self-interest, which is an even more powerful motivator for change. During the Vietnam war, for example, the majority of Americans opposed the war not just because they thought it was unjust but also because the draft may have forced them to risk their own lives in the conflict. A country’s pursuit of its interests, then, can be more limited when citizens are directly affected by the policies required to pursue those interests.
In the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the public indignation at Saudi Arabia is solely values-driven, since the American public was not directly affected by the Khashoggi murder. The same goes for the war in Yemen. Aside from a very small contingent of special forces, American lives have not been put at risk to fight this conflict. It’s doubtful, then, that the American public will continue to focus on this issue for long enough to substantially derail the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first time this resolution has come up for a vote in the Senate. Senators voted 55-44 against the resolution in March. According to many in the media, the Khashoggi killing was the primary reason the Senate had such a change of heart in just eight months. But other Iran-related developments have occurred since March that may have also contributed to the decision. Iran has experienced a number of setbacks domestically – including the reimposition of U.S. sanctions, a plunging currency, nationwide protests against rising consumer prices and continued insurgent attacks in Kurdish and Arab regions – that may weaken its ability to continue waging war in Yemen. Senators may thus see this as an opportunity to pull American involvement there without giving Iran the upper hand.
Measuring U.S. Involvement in Yemen
Whether the Senate resolution has any impact on the war in Yemen or on U.S.-Saudi relations depends in large part on how much support the U.S. is providing to the Saudi coalition. And the answer is, not much. The U.S. provided refueling support for coalition aircraft until mid-November, when the White House decided to end aerial refueling for Saudi operations ahead of a House bill that would have restricted U.S. involvement in the war. But the refueling support had little impact on the coalition, since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Riyadh’s main coalition ally) both have air refueling capabilities themselves.
U.S. ground support in the war is also extremely limited. In 2017, it was reported that about a dozen Green Berets were stationed on the Saudi side of the Saudi-Yemeni border to locate and destroy ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia. Some have estimated the total number of U.S. military personnel deployed to Saudi Arabia to support the coalition at about 50. These forces are reportedly providing the Saudis with intelligence to help them find targets for airstrikes. But were Riyadh to lose this support, it wouldn’t be a huge setback for the coalition.
Thus, the Senate resolution wouldn’t be much of a check on U.S. involvement in Yemen because the U.S. isn’t very involved there anyway. Plus, some areas of U.S. engagement in the country fall outside the scope of the resolution. In late November, Saudi Arabia signed a $15 billion deal with the U.S. for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, a more sophisticated system than the U.S.-made Patriot batteries Saudi Arabia currently has. This deal would remain in place even if the Senate resolution forces U.S. special forces to end their support of the coalition. The U.S. also has an ongoing campaign in Yemen against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which would not be affected by the Senate resolution.
Saudi Arabia’s Perspective
For Saudi Arabia, the U.S. rhetoric against the Saudi coalition in Yemen, as well as the anger over the Khashoggi affair, is tolerable so long as it doesn’t meaningfully affect Saudi Arabia’s interests in Yemen.
Riyadh has two goals in Yemen. First, it wants to eliminate or at least decrease Houthi missile attacks on Riyadh and other Saudi cities launched from across the border in Yemen. Second, it must prevent the Iran-backed Houthis from securing control of the government or establishing a large semi-autonomous region within Yemen. (The Houthis seized control of the capital, Sanaa, in 2014.)
Riyadh has thus been supporting the Yemeni government in its quest to retake rebel-held parts of the country. This includes Hodeida, a strategic port city on the coast of the Red Sea. The Saudi coalition launched a new offensive there just before peace talks between the Yemeni government and various rebel groups began in Sweden on Dec. 6. Indeed, it’s common for opposing sides in a conflict to launch offensives before negotiations in an effort to gain leverage and strengthen their bargaining positions. So far, the coalition has captured some territory around the city, including areas to its east, a hospital and a large portion of a road that leads to the city.
As mentioned previously, one of the main U.S. goals in Yemen is to contain Iran. But even if a resolution manages to limit U.S. involvement there, Washington has other tools, such as sanctions, that aren’t nearly as controversial as engaging in a war that has had such a severe humanitarian cost. It can also lean on its allies in the region to limit Iranian actions. So the resolution really isn’t much of a constraint on the United States’ ability to keep the Iranians in check.
But containing Iran in Yemen really comes down to how committed the Iranians are to supporting the Houthis. After failing to show up to peace talks in Geneva in September, the Houthis’ participation in talks in December indicate they may be under greater pressure now than they were just a couple months ago. Still, it doesn’t seem that the war will be ending any time soon. So Iran’s continued involvement in Yemen will come down to two issues. The first is how much money the war is costing Tehran. While it’s hard to find exact figures on its expenditures in Yemen, estimates hover in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars. (Iran has a total defense budget of $15 billion.) But Iran’s financial resources are stretched to the limit, and it’s already faced resistance throughout this year from average Iranians anger over the plummeting currency and rising consumer prices. The government in Tehran, therefore, may be looking for areas it can cut its costs, and Yemen might be one of them.
The second issue is whether Tehran is willing to decrease its support for the Houthis in exchange for sanctions relief. This depends on whether the economic benefits of sanctions relief outweigh the value of tying down Saudi Arabia in Yemen so it can’t threaten Iranian interests elsewhere. For Iran, Yemen is less important strategically than Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, mostly due to its geography – there are logistical challenges in resupplying its forces and proxies in Yemen and it doesn’t offer Iran access to the wider Middle East because it’s isolated on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. Tehran may be willing, therefore, to reduce its engagement in Yemen in return for concessions on sanctions that may be able to release some of the economic pressure it’s facing at home.
Saudi Arabia knows that whatever happens in the U.S. Senate, Washington and Riyadh are working toward the same goal: eliminating the Iranian presence from Saudi Arabia’s southern border. The Senate resolution, therefore, won’t have a major impact on U.S.-Saudi relations. Both countries are still on the same page strategically, and the resolution is mostly about politicians needing to appear sensitive to their constituents’ concerns, but it won’t place any meaningful limits on the United States’ pursuit of its interests in the Middle East.