Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Obama’s Worst Foreign Policy Decision, Two Years Later

by Micah Zenko
March 27, 2017

People look through a hole caused by a Saudi-led air strike on a bridge in Yemen's capital Sana'a March 23, 2016 (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah).


You probably missed it, but Saturday was the second anniversary of President Barack Obama’s worst and most indefensible foreign policy decision. Late on the evening of March 25, 2015, the White House posted a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on its website: “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations. While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.”

With only that quiet statement—and absent a single congressional hearing or any public debate—the United States became a co-combatant in yet another open-ended war of choice in the Middle East. My latest column in Foreign Policy recognizes the two years of U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Yemen, which has devastated Yemeni infrastructure and killed an estimated five thousand civilians—but has brought Saudi Arabia no closer to defeating Houthi rebels:

As the U.N. Panel of Experts documented in its excellent report released in January, the Saudi-led coalition has violated international humanitarian law and human rights law with its use of air power at least 10 times in 2016. The 10 documented strikes resulted in “292 civilian fatalities, including at least 100 women and children.”

Most horrific was the Oct. 8, 2016, “double-tap” bombing of a community hall in the capital of Sanaa that resulted in at least 827 civilian fatalities and injuries. The airstrike targeted a funeral gathering, first with a U.S.-supplied “GBU-12 Paveway II guidance unit fitted to a Mark 82 high explosive aircraft bomb,” dropped at 3:20 p.m., followed by a second one minutes later as mourners were still reeling. As the U.N. report notes, “the air campaign waged by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, while devastating to Yemeni infrastructure and civilians, has failed to dent the political will of the Houthi-Saleh alliance to continue the conflict.”

Yesterday, the Washington Post and Foreign Policy reported that President Donald Trump may expand U.S. military support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign. This includes more operational planning, logistics, and refueling support, and may also feature direct support for an Emirati-led ground intervention against a Red Sea port held by Houthi forces. These measures are being debated and approved faster than under the Obama administration because, according to one Pentagon official, the absence of civilian leaders means “the [Pentagon hierarchy] has flattened, so from a military perspective you have a little more agility, and can make decisions more quickly,” adding “the military has a bias to action and we’d rather act than sit there and ponder it forever.” Another senior administration official indicated that the United States must support whatever the Saudi-led coalition does because the situation may escalate, “and our partners may take action regardless. And we won’t have visibility, and we won’t be in a position to understand what it does to our counterterrorism operations.”

Both of these sentiments should be disconcerting given the aimlessness and unfolding tragedy of the two-year, U.S.-supported intervention in Yemen. One would hope that the Trump administration’s rush to further deepen U.S. military involvement in the Middle East would generate interest and criticism among Congress, major media outlets, and the American public. But given the relative free-hand and limited oversight that has come to characterize the United States’ forever war, I would not expect any coherent opposition, or even sustained attention.

Again, for my full thoughts see today’s column, and also what I warned of with a column two years ago: “Make No Mistake — the United States Is at War in Yemen.”

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Pleb

    Obama appears to have known very little about the world and foreign policy. I guess he is good as a community organiser though.

  • Posted by Anthony

    Pleb, I would suggest you read up on foreign policy during the Obama Administration. You may not agree with all his decisions, and it may be fair to argue that he sometimes appeared indecisive. But it’s clear he had a very sober understanding of the world and our role in it. His leadership and vision lead to a number of consequential foreign policy wins, e.g., the Paris Agreement, the Iran Nuclear deal, normalizing relations with Cuba, etc. And his Asian Pivot seemed by most analysts to reflect an understanding and acknowledgment of very real trends in shifting global power, culminating with TPP and the NAFTA re-negotiations it entailed, which were unfortunate victims of domestic unrest caused by folks who, like you, apparently feel fine ignorantly criticizing decisions regarding extremely complex topics.

  • Posted by larry

    Yes, despite many of Obama’s foreign policy successes, this does not serve us to be blind to a glaring policy failure. By any reasonable metric, Obama’s Yemen Model has failed. Yemen is facing horrible choices and the AQAP has achieved considerable successes in the present situation. Obama’s use of drones must be termed what it is, ineffective.

  • Posted by Vicente Ferrer

    All the people commenting did not address the central point in Mr. Zenko´s article. And that is the “United States´forever war”. Will the killing directly or indirectly of millions of people in undeclared wars ever end? I submit that it will not because the only objective the successive governments have is the preservation of what Eisenhower already in 1958 decried as the “military-industrial complex.”

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