James Traub writes: Saudi Arabia has pulled eight other Arab nations, as well as the United States, into its air war against the Houthis. That war has thus become a prototype of a new form of collective regional action with the United States as a supporting player — precisely what Obama suggested at West Point [last year].
The administration defends the Saudis’ resort to force to stem the tide of the takeover of Yemen: The Houthis had placed Scud missiles on the border, while Iran had begun regular flights to Saada, the Houthi stronghold. But the State Department official I spoke to added that the hostilities would have to end soon in order to limit death and destruction, and to bring the Houthis to a political settlement.
There is, unfortunately, no sign that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz agrees with that proposition. His apparent plan is to bomb the Houthis into submission. What’s more, the Saudis are new to the game of military intervention, and they seem bent on reproducing America’s worst mistakes. The air war has caused over 500 civilian deaths and an incipient humanitarian disaster; created new opportunities for al Qaeda, which has seized Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city; and done nothing to hinder the Houthis’ bid to conquer the strategic southern city of Aden. It’s not a very encouraging prototype.
The fight is only two weeks old and perhaps the tide will turn. The more lasting problem is King Salman’s idea of a political solution. Once he’s evicted the Houthis, he plans to restore to power President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Yemen to Saudi Arabia. But it was the Saudis who put Hadi there in the first place; so weak is his writ that his army effectively abandoned him in favor of his widely hated predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi might survive, but only as a Saudi puppet. What’s more, the Houthis are not Iran’s puppets, as the Saudis insist, but a powerful indigenous force whose demands must be accommodated in a power-sharing agreement.
A comparable situation can be seen in Libya, where Egypt has given political and military support to the Tobruk government in its effort to destroy the rival government based in Tripoli. The former is avowedly “moderate,” the other “Islamist,” but these oversimplified terms disguise the reality of different regions, tribes, and ethnic groups vying for control. Again, the only lasting solution would be a political one. Yet right now the greatest obstacle to a cease-fire is the refusal of the Tobruk government to negotiate with the Islamists. The Tobruk prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has demanded that the Arabs do in Libya what they’re now doing in Yemen. That would be a catastrophe.
The United States has learned the hard way that it cannot simply prop up governments seen as illegitimate by their own people; that’s why Obama has tried to condition military assistance to Iraq on political reform that offers a significant role to Sunnis. Arab autocrats do not accept this principle. [Continue reading…]