On Sunday March 22, with the twin threats of encroaching Houthi forces and Sunni terrorist retaliatory attacks, the United States evacuated its forces from Yemen, where they had been present as part of a long-standing counter-terrorism policy that would seem to everyone but the White House to be an abject failure. A press release stated with unintended irony: “Due to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, the US Government has temporarily relocated its remaining personnel out of Yemen…We will continue to engage the Yemeni people and the international community to strongly support Yemen’s political transition.”
Days later, 9 Arab countries (and Pakistan) participated in Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes against the Zaydi Shia Houthis, who have expanded from their base of power in north Yemen to gain control over Sana’a and much of Yemen’s political and national infrastructure, dispatching President Hadi in the process. The Houthis are backed by Iran, and after fighting the national government for years are unlikely to give up their new position of power easily. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers seem poised for a confrontation, including ground troop intervention, determined to restore order and protect their own security interests. The US on the other hand, in addition to pulling its troops out and as it continues to push for a deal with Iran, has shown little interest in more direct involvement in the rapidly snowballing political-security (, and likely imminent human rights) disaster that is Yemen. Most perturbingly, the State Department continues to refer to Yemen as a successful model for the region.
One wishes that Yemen were an anomaly. But instead Yemen seems to be only the latest example of a trend in US foreign policy in the Middle East, one in which lack of preparedness, poor strategic planning, insufficient acquisition of resources, and an overall unwillingness to take strong steps to promote US strategic interests are exacerbated by a lack of accountability and inability to learn from mistakes. There is a pattern to be observed, a depressing path of failures followed by retreat or neutrality throughout the Arab Spring—redirected Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Most worrying of all, is the clear evidence that extremism, be it Shia Houthis or Sunni AlQaeda in Yemen, Islamic State or Libyan Dawn in Libya, Islamic State, Jabhat Al-Nusra, Hezbollah, or the Assad regime in Iraq and Syria, is rapidly filling the power vacuum and leadership gap, with dwindling prospects for reversing the trend.
To be sure, not all of the blame can be put on President Obama, his advisers and staff, nor on his predecessors in office. A number of factors have contributed to the shaking up of traditional power balances and long-standing regional stability: poor economic performances in Middle East countries, a regional youth bulge, social media and technological change, etc. But what is clear is that the US strategy, such that there is one, is failing.
The US and NATO played their most prominent role in regime change in Libya, in 2011, although Libya at the time was of relatively minor strategic interest for the US, having reversed its status as a terror sponsor and (to a large degree) international pariah state. In Egypt, as Mubarak was ousted, Morsi elected, then removed by the military, and now Sisi has taken firm control, the US has taken a largely ambivalent stance and seen its traditionally strong relations with Egypt eroded, although it continues to provide aid. In Bahrain, where protests by the majority Shi’a population and calls for reforms have received less attention, the US maintains a sizeable military presence at its naval base.
In Syria, the US policy of providing material support for moderate rebels while avoiding direct intervention, along with the inability to counter the pro-Syrian Russian influence at the UN Security Council, has been disastrous. As Syria has dissolved into civil war, with well over 200,000 deaths in over four years, a number of interconnected effects can be seen. Moderate opposition has been crowded out, by extremists, and Syrians have had their revolution usurped by foreign jihadis (leading to the compelling argument that ISIS is the best thing to happen to Bashar AlAssad since the protests started). The conflict has gone well beyond transitional periods in Egypt and Tunisia, with the four year old civil war splitting sectarian fault lines and threatening to bring the country to a point beyond reconciliation for Sunnis, Shia, Alawite, Kurds and other Syrians. The conflict has reached well beyond its borders, into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, and most particularly in Iraq, where the rise of Islamic State, and the brutality of its atrocities finally managed to capture world attention and support, but only after toppling the national government and exposing the unpreparedness of its national armed forces despite a decade of US training and funding. And most recently Islamic State has used its growing influence to get a foothold in Libya, where the internationally supported government has been sidelined by Islamist military force.
To a large degree the US is complicit in these tragedies, if not by intent then by willful ignorance woeful incompetence. Russia, Iran and even Lebanon have all played brazenly active roles in supporting the oppressive Assad regime; Qatar and other Sunni actors have facilitated the flow of money, arms and manpower to Islamic State and other jihadi forces in Syria. The US on the other hand has failed to take a strong stance throughout the conflict, providing aid and token condemnations, but stepping back from its own red lines and failing to put an end to the conflict when it might have been resolved relatively swiftly and peacefully, and before the conflict could spread, deteriorate and fester into a jihadi breeding camp. The US never supported the Assad regime, they merely provided enough support to keep the war going, but not to end it. The disastrous effects of that policy are evident today: the dwindling presence of moderates in Syria (in some cases directly attributable to US decision-making), the failure in Iraq, where minorities like the Kurds, Christians and Yazdis are paying the toll, and in the growing influence of extremist actors.
There’s no guarantee that the removal of Assad in 2011 would have prevented the rise of Islamic State, or the spread of jihadi actors in Syria, just as the (protracted) removal of Qadhafi in Libya didn’t guarantee stability for that country, or the removal of Saleh in Yemen has brought peace. But the chances were far greater. Instead, we see a two-fold problem with the US strategy. The lack of a clear, bold stance for democracy, liberal democratic values and against repression of civilians has backfired by fueling support for extremism—jihadi groups throughout Syria and into Iraq, terrorism in Egypt and North Africa. And the failure to force national leaders to implement necessary reforms and practice inclusive governance has exacerbated the issue—in Iraq, where Nouri AlMaliki was supported by the US, but who split apart his nation, in Yemen, where Saleh hung on for far too long, and his successor failed to bridge the long-festering tensions with the Houthis. Ironically the Arab Spring country that has been the most successful is not Yemen, where the US desperately wants to show that its policy has worked, but Tunisia, which should instead be touted as a model for emulation by regional political leadership.
With each of these failures, part failure to provide the necessary resources to the right actors, part failure to influence the necessary actors to make the right reforms, in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, each threatening to add more grease to the regional conflagration, the US influence, if not its presence, has been shrinking. There seems to be a dearth of responsibility and accountability—a leadership vacuum to match the power vacuum. And it is extremists who are quick to capitalize, be it Hezbollah and Assad, or Islamic State and Jabhat AlNusra.
The US, like much of the world, was caught off-guard by the Arab Spring, but it has also failed to learn valuable lessons, or employ a viable strategy going forward. The lack of responsible leadership sets back US interests and hurts those who should be our natural allies. And the leadership vacuum is evident to the relevant powers that be. If recent events are any indication, President AlSisi in Cairo and King Salman in Riyadh are ready and willing to take matters into their own hands, and to reverse the regional destabilization. It’s unclear whether that will be the best thing for the region, and how Iran will react, but it is clear that the lack of a consistent and influential US presence has been a significant factor in reaching this point.