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Why the U.S. got (and stayed) involved in Yemen's brutal war

Yemenis search for survivors after a coalition airstrike in Sana'a in 2015. Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

A new International Crisis Group report explores how the U.S. got involved in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, where things went wrong, and what lessons have emerged for U.S. foreign policy.

The big picture: The authors write that "Washington initially overestimated its ability to shape coalition conduct and underestimated the devastation of the conflict it was helping enable." They also note that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump elected "to continue this assistance even after the miscalculations had been exposed."

Why the U.S. got in: The authors spoke with senior Obama administration officials who said they had viewed Yemen's president as a good partner, particularly on counterterrorism, and his ouster "as an affront to the international order."

  • The officials "sympathized" with Saudi Arabia's security concerns over the Houthi insurgency, and "knew that Iran was offering the Houthis some support — though, unlike Riyadh, they did not see this as a threat to the kingdom of strategic proportions."
  • The Obama administration was also "highly conscious of growing strains in the relationships" with Gulf partners that had been "exacerbated" by the Iran nuclear deal.

Where things went wrong: The Obama administration recognized the war as a quagmire "within months," during which time "evidence of the coalition’s brutal tactics had already emerged."

  • Many officials believed the U.S. could shape the coalitions behavior, though they "never had a realistic plan for achieving this objective, nor for what to do when efforts to achieve it failed."
  • The Trump administration then "drew ever closer to Riyadh" and "efforts to press the coalition to temper its tactics and ultimately exit Yemen’s civil war faded further into the background."

What to watch: One lesson for Washington, the authors write, is that leverage over security partners like Saudi Arabia "sometimes can only be effective by taking the hazardous step of putting the partnership on the line."