Thinking Aloud: Lost Opportunities in Yemen?

Mar. 24, 2015 by Darius

A few years ago, I did a considerable amount of research in the US National Archives on Vietnam, and US policy vis-à-vis Vietnam, in the period immediately after World War II (from 1945 to 1950).  What I found surprised me: Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader, tried to reach out to the US repeatedly during these years, hoping the US would be Vietnam’s ally in Vietnam’s quest for independence from France. After all, the principle of national self-determination was something the US frequently said it supported, during and after WWII.  Instead, the US, becoming ever more immersed in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, had ideological blinders on and couldn’t get past Ho’s pre-war Communism.  A great opportunity for peace was lost, and decades of war resulted.  I see unfortunate parallels with Yemen today.

Yemen today is teetering on the brink of civil war, and other countries are preparing to intervene.  Reuters is reporting that Saudi troops are massing near the border.  For its part, the US is expecting a major blow to its continuing campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen.  But is Yemen, too, a lost opportunity for peace?

The immediate cause of Yemen’s political crisis, of course, is the expansion of the Houthi movement from its stronghold in the north to take over most of the country, including the capital, Sanaa, and Taiz, the third largest city.  The Houthi takeover prompted the resignation and flight of Yemen’s transitional president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has since appealed to other Gulf countries to put him back into power.

Had an effort been made, the Houthis perhaps could have been someone the US could work with, instead of an enemy that must be removed.  Although originally and fundamentally a Zaydi revivalist group (a sect of Shi’ism), the Houthis have since expanded their support base.  In fact, in Yemen the Houthi movement isn’t called “the Houthis” anymore.  Instead, they’re Ansar Allah, and instead of being a single tribe, the Houthis have become something of an umbrella group for northerners dissatisfied with the abuses of the Yemeni government.  Despite the fact that just about every media report about the Houthis describes them as “Iran-backed,” and while that may be the case now, it was not always true.  The Houthis are undisputedly an indigenous Yemeni group and despite any support from Iran they are receiving, the Houthis are certainly not under the sway of Iran’s ayatollahs.  Moreover, the Houthis are quite probably more implacably opposed to al-Qaeda in Yemen than any other Yemeni faction.  The Houthis are by no means ideal and should not be ruling all of Yemen.  But they are a domestic group that has gathered supporters along the way by campaigning against corruption and political stalemate.  Without beheadings.  Having a government brokered by the Houthis need not mean a defeat to everything the US is trying to accomplish in Yemen.

Like in Vietnam in 1945, though, the US has shown no signs of being willing to give the Houthis a fair shake.  If the US looked at Vietnam through the prism of Soviet containment and sided with its ally France – which would itself lose its hold on Vietnam in less than a decade – today the US is looking at Yemen through the prism of Iranian containment and is siding with its ally Saudi Arabia, which has its own ambitions to control Yemen.  At this point, Yemen seems doomed to slide into civil war and/or be subjected to attempted pacification by foreign troops.  I can only hope that in another 15 years we do not look back on our present Yemen policy with regret, having not seen opportunities for peace and partnership.

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