The House of Representatives’ vote yesterday to end American support for the war in Yemen is based on an ignorance of the strategic stakes there. The debate in Congress has not demonstrated that any member seems to understand just what is going on there.
This ignorance is in some sense understandable. Yemen is a small, distant country that few Americans know much about. For those who do come to know more about it, it doesn’t seem more impressive. It relies heavily on international aid even when it is not engaged in civil war. Its chief agricultural product is a mildly euphoric drug, qat, that few outside the region even want. It is badly governed where it has been governed at all. It surely must seem as if nothing of consequence could possibly be gained or lost there. So, from the perspective of the Congress, it must seem an opportunity to vote to signal their virtue with nothing really being at stake.
That choke point in the red circle at the bottom of the map is the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. It is one of two choke points that controls most of the flow of oil to America’s allies in Asia. America’s enemies in Yemen, the Houthis, are backed by Iran. They have already used shore-launched anti-ship missiles to close this strait to oil tankers heading to American allies in Asia. These missiles are provided to them by Iran, as are unconventional warfare trainers who teach them how to fire the missiles.
The other choke point, the Strait of Hormuz, borders Iran. Iran’s missile forces can be used against traffic there too. The effect of closing both straits to oil traffic would be to strangle America’s Asian allies: Japan gets two-thirds of its oil from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, and that oil has to travel through one of these two straits.
Why would Iran wish to close these straits to America’s Asian allies? In addition to being able to muscle America by muscling our allies, Iran has a special relationship with China, which wishes to push America out of East Asia and to dominate our allies. The ability to choke oil supplies to Japan, or South Korea, or Thailand, or Taiwan, that would be a powerful weapon in China’s arsenal. The future of Asia, and America’s role there, may turn on this ugly little war in Yemen.
The war in Yemen is thus crucial. Sometimes when a conflict is crucial, we have to fight it even though it costs a lot of American lives and much American treasure. Neither is true here. The war in Yemen is being fought by others, especially the Saudis and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council. America is merely providing supplies to our allies.
The Security Studies Group does not oppose Congress’ use of its war powers in principle. However, it is foolish in the extreme to elect to lose this particular fight. It is very much in our interest, and in the interests of important American allies. It costs no American lives, and little American money compared to conflicts like those in Syria or Afghanistan.
Concern for the suffering people in Yemen is reasonable, but there are ways to pursue that short of cutting off American support to our allies.
The Senate has an opportunity to reverse course now. Let us hope that at least some Senators will show that they appreciate what America’s interests here are. By all means help the suffering, but not by conceding such a crucial strategic choke point to Iran and, behind them, China.