U.S. support for the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen has been one of the odder sideshows of Obama’s foreign policy. The administration has publicly supported and provided logistical assistance to the Saudi intervention against Shiite Houthi rebels since the campaign began in the spring of 2015. That support has continued even as administration officials—usually anonymously—have expressed concerns about civilian casualties and Saudi Arabia’s unclear long-term strategic goals in the conflict.
As the bloody disaster has unfolded—more than 7,000 people now have been killed, and more than 16 million need humanitarian assistance due to famine or disease—the United States’ role has become more controversial. Human Rights Watch has presented evidence that Saudi Arabia has been using U.S.-made cluster munitions, weapons that because of their high risk of hitting civilians, are banned under a U.N. treaty signed by 116 countries, though not the U.S. or Saudi Arabia. Airstrikes in Yemen also appear, on several occasions, to have deliberately targeted hospitals, a tactic that the U.S. has rightly excoriated Russia and the Assad regime for using in Syria. And all this for a war that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has conceded has likely provided expansion opportunities for jihadist groups like al-Qaida.
So the news Wednesday, that the Obama administration has blocked a sale of 16,000 Raytheon guided-munitions kits to Saudi Arabia over concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen, feels a bit weak, as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko notes:
The decision reportedly came following the bombing of a funeral in Sanaa in October, which killed more than 160 people and which the Saudis blamed on “wrong information.” The U.S. is also cutting back on intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia, but, somewhat undercutting its message, our military will continue the aerial refueling of the Saudi-led coalition’s aircraft.
Yemen aside, Saudi Arabia has had numerous differences with the Obama administration, including the Iran nuclear deal, America’s support for the 2011 revolution in Egypt, and America’s reluctance to back anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria. Obama did veto a bill in September that allows lawsuits against Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks, but was overruled by Congress.
Donald Trump’s future relationship with the Saudis is a question mark. He’s called them one of the “world’s biggest funders of terrorism” in the past and has carried on a ridiculous Twitter feud with billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, but has also said he wants to “protect Saudi Arabia” from Iran, and has mentioned—somewhat confusingly—that Saudi Arabia will need help protecting its “long border” with Yemen. More generously, he shares the kingdom’s views on the Iran deal and is in favor of backing autocratic regimes in the Middle East generally, though his openness to working with Bashar al-Assad won’t make Saudi Arabia happy.
Generally speaking, the Saudi intervention in Yemen—directed at Iran, tactically ruthless, involving little in the way of U.S. military resources but providing a massive payday for U.S. defense contractors—seems like exactly the sort of war Trump would like. So Obama taking this superficial stand on the way out the door seems especially ineffectual.