Best Defense

Misunderstanding wars in Yemen, Vietnam, and Yemen once again

There’s an moment in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War in which former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara lays out what he got wrong in Vietnam. “We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War,” he says. “Not what they [the Vietnamese] saw it as: a civil war.” I thought of that the other day as I listened to Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, talking about the Saudi intervention in Yemen.

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By J. Dana Stuster
Best Defense office of Arabian peninsula affairs

There’s an moment in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War in which former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara lays out what he got wrong in Vietnam. “We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War,” he says. “Not what they [the Vietnamese] saw it as: a civil war.”

I thought of that the other day as I listened to Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, talking about the Saudi intervention in Yemen. “This is treated as a sectarian battle between Iran-backed Shia and Saudi Arabia-backed Sunnis, but really when you look at the essence of Yemen’s problem, that’s not really it,” Baron told NPR. Iran actually has very little stake in the Yemeni Houthi rebels, which ousted the country’s transitional government from the capital in January and had been advancing toward Aden until the Saudis began airstrikes last week. The war in Yemen is a struggle between domestic forces: the Houthi rebels; the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2011 and whose support has been essential to the Houthis’ success; the current nominal president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi; as well as a host of others, include a secessionist movement, Islamist politicians, and a branch of al-Qaeda looking to exploit any opening it finds.

Saudi Arabia has always seen Yemen as a weakness — a chink in its armor as it tries to maintain control of the Arabian Peninsula — and it has been vigilant about any opening to protect its sphere of influence. In a previous generation, Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen to counter the influence of its then-rival Nasserist Egypt. Riyadh sees a similar threat to its peninsular hegemony in the influence of Iran among the Houthis.

That previous war was compared to Vietnam as well. Jesse Ferris, author of Nasser’s Gamble, a history of Egypt’s intervention, wrote on Wednesday that “the regional context is eerily familiar. First in Iraq, then in Syria and now in Yemen, the Saudis have watched with concern as Iran gains influence amid chaos.” Egypt poured soldiers and equipment into the country, escalating from an initial 20,000 troops to 70,000 between 1963 and 1967. What had been an intervention to support the late stages of a coup was bogged down by geopolitical struggle with Saudi Arabia. Hassan al-Amri, who as prime minister of Yemen was first supported, then ousted by his Egyptian supporters, complained in 1966 that Egypt “was more interested in pursuing its ambitions in South Arabia than in solving Yemen’s problems.”

Nasser’s chief general in the war, who was later found dead under suspicious circumstances, said of the campaign, “We did not bother to study the local, Arab and international implications or the political and military questions involved. After years of experience we realised that it was a war between tribes and that we entered it without knowing the nature of their land, their traditions and their ideas.” Egypt’s withdrawal, which coincided with the Six-Day War, marked the end of Nasser’s pan-Arabist ambitions. It was a stunning defeat for the country — some would eventually call it “Nasser’s Vietnam.” The comparison is apt. In The Fog of War, McNamara sounds much like Nasser’s humbled field marshal. “In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize,” he says. “And there was a total misunderstanding as a result.”

Egypt should know better than to throw itself headlong into another proxy war in Yemen, but it has been a large supporter of the Saudi intervention. So far, it has deployed warships off the coast of Aden and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said he would be willing to authorize sending in ground troops.

In the 1960s, the United States had the good sense not to get mired in the war in Yemen. In fact, it was one of the few instances in which the United States did not intervene in some way to counteract creeping Soviet influence. (By then, Nasser was aligned with the Soviet Union, and he even brought the Yemeni president on a Red Sea cruise with Nikita Khrushchev in 1964.) U.S. Ambassador to Britain David Bruce cabled from London in 1968 in that the war was “of no concern to UK’s national interests, nor to U.S. interests… Since Roman days, every foreign power which intervened in Yemen got bogged down in morass of inter-tribal rivalries…If Sovs wanted ‘bases’ or other facilities in Yemen…they could pay the high financial price and take political risks required.” Even when the Yemeni government explicitly invited the United States to take over Egypt’s role as patron, Secretary of State Dean Rusk deferred. “While we sympathize [with] Yemeni republican leaders desire free themselves from [Egypt’s] embrace,” Rusk cabled in 1966, intervening would be a “desperate and extremely risky gamble.”

This time, the United States has thrown its weight behind the Saudi intervention. This extends far beyond the rhetorical support that has come from the White House and almost every corner of Congress — as Micah Zenko noted on Monday, the United States is providing live intelligence feeds to assist Saudi bombing operations. “Make no mistake,” he writes, “the United States is a combatant in this intervention.” This U.S. support comes despite the fact that almost every single Middle East expert writing about Yemen thinks the intervention is questionable at best, and probably a dangerous mistake. As do many Yemenis.

The Saudis have miscalculated and the United States is enabling its recklessness. The Saudi intervention will inevitably push the Houthis closer to Iran — which, despite press reports and Saudi paranoia, has relatively little stake in the rebels. It will also turn Yemenis against Saudi Arabia. There have been large protests against the strikes, which have hit civilian targets including an internally displaced persons camp and a milk factory. The blockade of the country threatens to create food shortages and a humanitarian crisis — some Yemenis are already fleeing to Somalia. “We will all be Houthis if troops come to our country,” a shop owner in the capital city of Sanaa told Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi. “This is our home and no one is allowed to break into it.” Saudi Arabia and Egypt still don’t understand the battlefield in which they are fighting.

The United States needs to look for a way to deescalate this before these trends become irreversible. That means looking for opportunities to start negotiations, possibly with Oman — which has stayed out of the Saudi intervention and is providing humanitarian aid — as a mediator. To the extent that the United States continues to participate in military operations, it should be doing its best to rein in the Saudis. As Brookings’ Kenneth Pollack wrote last week, “This is one of those situations where the United States needs to restrain its allies for their own good.” If the parties can come to the negotiating table soon, there is a small chance that this could possibly be the crisis necessary to restart Yemen’s stalled political transition process. The window for any favorable outcome, though, will close quickly — and may have closed already. The Saudis and the United States need to consider the consequences: Are they ready to accept the consequences of turning another civil war into a Cold War proxy?

Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network and a retired researcher for Tom Ricks, as seen in The Generals.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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