The Moral Peril of Proxy Wars
It’s not an accident that U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has been a humanitarian disaster.
An airstrike from the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen hit near a hospital supported by Save the Children late last month, killing seven people. It was the latest tragedy in a war, now entering its fifth year, that has been full of them. In 2018, the war in Yemen caused more than 90 civilian deaths or injuries a week.
The U.S. Congress initiated a long-overdue reckoning this week with the human costs of war in Yemen, voting to end the United States’ support for the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen. In the absence of a larger reckoning with the ethics of intervening in proxy conflicts, however, it’s only a matter of time until Yemen’s horrors are repeated elsewhere with U.S. assistance.
Proxy conflicts are complicated in ways that are not fully accounted for by standard moral frameworks. From St. Augustine in his letters to U.S. President Barack Obama in his Nobel Lecture, scholars and political leaders have grappled with the same dilemma: War is awful but sometimes necessary. Just war theory helps to establish when: The decision to go to war must come from the right intention, come from the right authority, and be a last resort. Additionally, combatants must take measures to spare civilian lives, the force they apply must be proportional to the threat, and the war they wage must have a high probability of leading to a conflict’s peaceful resolution.
These criteria provide an important framework for containing the worst excesses of war, but as the proxy commitments of the Soviet Union and later Russia, Iran, and the United States have shown, they are incomplete. Proxy conflicts, as the war in Yemen reveals, introduce complications that just war theory does not consider.
Much of this comes from a single flawed assumption: that if a proxy’s cause is just, then a benefactor’s support for them must be just. This ignores a reality now borne out by six decades of U.S. involvement in proxy conflict. The moment the United States has intervened on a proxy’s behalf, whether in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Yemen, this has immediately changed a proxy’s thinking. Once a proxy has a benefactor’s support, they have greater incentive to escalate a conflict rather than resolve it. A proxy has greater resources, and greater reason, to forgo risks around the negotiating table and pursue them on the battlefield.
This is one reason why intervention in a proxy war like Yemen’s often deepens the very conflict it is intended to resolve. Some recent history helps to demonstrate another: In nearly every civil war between 1946 and 2002, when one warring side received support from a benefactor, the opposing side received support from one of its own, ratcheting up the stakes and costs.
The U.S. role in the Vietnam War is a prime example of these risks and their consequences, both moral and strategic. A U.S. commitment that began with a few dozen military officers in the 1950s to advise pro-American Vietnamese ended in the 1970s with more than 58,000 dead Americans and a communist Vietnam.
The conflict in Yemen, though much shorter, has been subject to similar influences. At the time the United States decided to support the campaign in 2015, the aim of defending Saudi borders from attacks by Houthi rebels backed by Iran and preventing the spread of Iran’s malign influence in the region arguably met the definition of a just cause. But rather than moderating the war aims of partners or making their prosecution of the conflict more humane, U.S. support has done little to prevent a brutal air campaign. And rather than deterring Iranian involvement in Yemen, Tehran’s support for the Houthis actually increased. The refueling capabilities, advanced munitions, and intelligence support the United States has provided the Saudi-led coalition have not helped tame Yemen’s violence nor have they prevented the Middle East’s poorest nation from becoming the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In the final weeks of his administration in 2016, Obama limited military support for the Saudi-led coalition due to its failure to heed repeated admonitions from the U.S. government about the targeting of civilians, including attacks on weddings, funerals, and schools. Soon after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, U.S. support was restored. Trump characterized the move as part of a larger strengthening of ties with Saudi Arabia that would have economic as well as national security benefits to the United States.
Two years since Trump’s decision, prospects for a settlement are dim. Parts of Yemen risk becoming the kind of incubators for extremism and terrorism that the United States has spent so much money and given so many lives attempting to contain or transform since the 9/11 attacks. Yemen’s dangers also risk spilling over its borders through the spread of weapons, what military scholars call “diffusion.” As CNN reported last month, U.S. hardware, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, has found its way into the hands of hardened jihadis and terrorist organizations.
This should hardly come as a surprise. In proxy conflicts the world over, a similar dynamic has emerged. Stinger missiles the United States provided to mujahideen in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets were pivotal to their success over the Red Army. They were also a boon to terrorist groups and criminal gangs from Iran to Bosnia to Palestine. In fact, only a small portion of the Stingers the United States supplied to proxies in Afghanistan were ever recovered.
For the United States, a nation that has historically derived influence from both the example of its military power and the power of its example, the greatest danger of proxy war is how easily it can dirty a benefactor’s hands. If a nation provides a proxy with advanced weaponry without instituting practices to prevent their indiscriminate use, then that nation bears some responsibility for their crimes.
For its part, the United States has taken several measures to help the Saudi-led forces mitigate civilian deaths and injuries, including providing information on no-strike locations to reduce the chances of collateral harm, instituting training programs for the Saudi military, and offering support for investigations where civilian casualties have occurred. While these efforts have likely had some moderating effects, the fact that U.S> partners in Yemen have not held anyone to account for past incidents—and that they continue to occur—reveals their limits.
Since the United Nations made a frequently used estimate in January 2017 that 10,000 civilians had been killed in the war, civilian deaths in Yemen have increased. Anger at these mounting costs, as well as Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged role in the murder of the U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has motivated recent congressional action.
The White House has said that Trump will veto the bill from Congress demanding an end to U.S. involvement in the war. Without enough votes to override it, Congress is unlikely to have much immediate recourse. In the absence of new legislation, however, the U.S. military can and should take action to incentivize stronger commitment by Saudi forces to The Law of Armed Conflict, an internationally recognized body of law that draws upon just war theory. For starters, the U.S. military can withhold any support—material, intelligence, or otherwise—that does not directly contribute to moderating the humanitarian impact of Saudi operations.
Whatever actions U.S. officials take to curtail abuses in what is today’s most costly proxy conflict, they would do well to consider how to prevent similar horrors in the next. Reevaluating proxy war and the conditions under which U.S. intervention is justified—with Yemen’s horrors top of mind—is an essential part of this process.
When a benefactor like the United States intervenes in proxy conflict, this provides reason for a proxy to escalate. In Yemen, they did. If a benefactor provides weapons to a proxy, they can land in the hands of terrorists. In Yemen, they have. And if proxies violate the laws of war, taking the lives of innocents, a benefactor has a responsibility to take action to prevent this from happening again. In Yemen, and in all proxy wars, the United States must.
Anthony Pfaff is the research professor for the military profession and ethic at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. He is a retired Army colonel.