What’s America’s stake in Yemen, and is it worth all the death and destruction? - Trevor Johnston - RAND Corporation - Tuesday 09/25

What’s America’s stake in Yemen, and is it worth all the death and destruction?
Trevor Johnston
RAND Corporation
Tuesday 09/25


The UN tried to hold peace talks in Geneva to halt the warfare in Yemen.  They failed, perhaps because neither side wants peace there.

The latest failure was blamed on the leaders of the Houthi-dominated government that holds Yemen’s capital Sana’a and most of its other major cities.  They didn’t show up for the peace talks.

Of course, they say, they couldn’t show up because their enemies in this awful war, the Saudi Arabian-United Arab Emirates coalition wouldn’t guarantee their safety flying through air space the coalition controls.

Within days of the non-talks, large-scale fighting reignited near the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, as ground forces led by the UAE once again tried to take the city from the Houthis.  This is a second round of an assault that was stalled in June when a cease-fire was put in place to give peace a chance.

That won’t happen again, says the commander of the ground forces attacking Hodeidah, ostensibly in support of a puppet government backed by the Saudis.  With the peace talk option now laid aside, he says, his forces won’t stop attacking until they are in total control of the port city.

Residents of the center of the port city told reporters by telephone they were terrified, but so far, most of the sounds of battle remain stuck on the edge of the city, indicating the UAE forces are still making little progress.  But the UN representative on the scene says, the attackers are doing lots of damage to grain mills, port facilities and human habitations.  They are, Lisa Grande said, killing a lot of civilians.

Asked about this, the attacking commander Aidaroos al-Zubaidi said “civilian lives are very precious and all the coalition’s operations in the air and sea are taking into consideration the civilian casualties, but … in all the wars across the world, there is always humanitarian suffering.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave official certification to Congress that the Saudis and Emeratis are working hard to protect civilian lives, but a recent UN report said the opposite, and one American who has worked closely with the Saudis to limit “collateral damage” from US-aided air attacks admits bombs still regularly hit non-military targets.

What this looks like on the ground,  was told to PBS Newshour’s Jane Ferguson by a Yemeni professor Ali Al Motaa, “The missiles that kill us, American-made. The planes that kill us, American-made. The tanks, Abrams, American-made. You are saying to me, where is America? America is the whole thing.”

Honestly, that last judgment is an exaggeration.  America is not “the whole thing.”  Why, we supply only 60% of the Saudi-Emerati arsenal.  The rest of the world is in for 40%.  On the other hand, that list of American-supplied weapons is only a part of the ways in which the US military is engaged in helping destroy Yemen.


Trevor Johnston is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty. He is broadly interested in the political economy of conflict and development. He works on security sector assistance, partner nation interoperability, and conflict stabilization in the Middle East.

Before coming to RAND, Johnston studied labor and welfare policies in the Persian Gulf and worked on structural reform in North Africa. From 2015 to 2017, Johnston was a Middle East Initiative Fellow in the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan.








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