Deconstructing Obama’s Yemeni intervention

The U.S. government-funded Voice of America has sent up a trial balloon filled with hot air prognosticating that the tensions building up over the Yemen conflict “appear to be pitting the United States against Iran in a sensitive showdown in the Gulf of Aden.”

The context is the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy joining seven other U.S. battleships in the area, including the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, which includes a complement of more than 2000 U.S. Marines.

This is an outlandish way of peeping into the looking glass. Alice would be giggling. The U.S. is not about to have a military clash with Iran. The two navies have a long history of jostling against each other and indulging in cat-and-mouse games in the Persian Gulf waters without getting into a scrape. This is one thing.

Second, in this particular case, Iran simply does not intend to get involved militarily in Yemen. Iran is doing splendidly well by instead robustly projecting a 4-point peace plan on Yemen, which Russia has already welcomed and which is bound to gain traction, because Tehran rightly anticipates that there is no option ultimately but to open the diplomatic and political track. You don’t look for victory in a fratricidal war, do you? You win it in bits and pieces and the secret lies in patience and power of attrition.

In short, Theodore Roosevelt will have to invent an Iranian enemy first to have a “sensitive showdown.” Third, do the Houthis really need weapon supplies from Iran at this stage? It is well-known that they are in alliance with the Yemeni military factions and have access to a vast pool of weaponry. Besides, the nature of fratricidal wars in countries like Yemen or Afghanistan is such that the real strategic assets are to be counted elsewhere.

These wars have their ebb and flow and at the moment Houthis are undeniably surging. That being the case, what is the real purpose (or range of objectives) that the deployment of such a naval armada by the U.S. hopes to achieve?

To be sure, the deployment of such a large number of Marines and a group of amphibious ships would suggest that some sort of landing operation is not ruled out. Could it be that President Barack Obama is rushing in where Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (here), Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (here) or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (here) fear to tread – namely, putting “boots on the ground” in Yemen? Seems improbable.

However, a limited U.S. land operation may nonetheless be in the pipeline. The point is, Washington has not cared to evacuate hundreds or thousands of U.S. nationals who are stranded in Yemen. They might be largely of Arab origin and are Muslims and may not have a lobby in the US to create a political scandal on the Hill or in the American media, but this scandal if allowed to continue will be a slur on Obama’s reputation as a humanist and his presidential legacy.

There is also money involved – and it could be big money – because some of these Arab-American U.S. citizens have filed suit in the US court claiming damages from the secretaries of state and defence. God forbid, if some of them get killed in the coming days, which cannot be ruled out given the wanton and murderous (here) and vengeful (here) Saudi air strikes, the question of damages could well come up at some point.

After all, the U.S. government has not cared to evacuate its citizens in distress – unlike what almost all countries have done weeks ago – and American judges may have no option if these Arab-American Muslims invoke their constitutional rights as U.S. citizens.

Besides, the folklore being what it claims, namely, that the U.S. has no control over the Saudi war crimes in Yemen, all this could become a poor reflection onObama’s Middle East policies and his stature as a world leader.

Thus, Washington could well be planning an evacuation of its stranded Arab-American citizens from Yemen, finally. Indeed, 5000 Marines can handle the job – provided, of course, the Houthis cooperate. Will they cooperate?

To my mind, CIA would already have done the necessary spade work. Now, will Iran act as spoiler? Impossible. If anything, if the Marines get into trouble, Iran might offer a helping hand. Iran has made a generous offer to go to the help all countries, any country without exception, in the evacuation of their citizens in distress in Yemen.

Beyond Mission Evacuation, what does Obama hope to achieve by ordering the USS Theodore Roosevelt to lift its anchor and sail away from the Straits of Hormuz (where it is on eyeball-to-eyeball with Iran’s navy) to the Gulf of Aden?

Significantly, Obama has made this war-like decision after his telephone conversation with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud last Friday and his meeting in the Oval Office with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahan of the UAE (which is a key member of the Saudi-led coalition attacking Yemen).

From the carefully worded White House readouts, here and here, kick-starting a Yemeni peace process is uppermost on Obama’s mind. But how far Obama succeeded in calming Salman, time only will tell.

It is unlikely that Obama would have done the same plain-speaking that Chinese President Xi Jinping did with Salman. (Interestingly, Obama’s call to Salman followed a day after Xi’s initiative.)

Meanwhile, Obama is getting together the Arab world’s warrior kings in a conclave next month. Preparations have already begun. Ultimately, the US’s leverage at the conclave with Salman or Zayed will have to be built around a “face-saving” formula that makes them look as having emerged victorious from the war in Yemen.

The King and the Crown Prince cannot afford to look as having failed. Especially, since Iran is sitting on the parapet dangling its feet, watching and mocking at them. Therefore, a bit of showmanship on Uncle Sam’s part to help salvage the fame of the Gulf Arab monarchs has become an imperative need in the coming days. In political terms also, it makes sense for the US to be seen actively involved in the Yemen conflict, even as the peace process begins. The deployment of the naval armada literally makes the U.S. a “stakeholder” in the Yemeni war.

Obama can be confident from the manner in which Russia cooperated in the recent UN Security Council debate on Yemen, that President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t spring any nasty surprises on him. Iran is also talking peace with the U.S. So, whichever way one looks at the developing scenario, USS Theodore Roosevelt is on a safe, cost-effective political mission that can only work to Obama’s advantage.

The risk of Obama starting another Middle East War for America even unwittingly is practically non-existent; Obama cannot be seeking a showdown with Iran at a critical juncture of the nuclear talks; Obama cannot but be aware that the Yemen conflict is a spin-off of the Arab Spring and the US’ leverage to work up a political process in Yemen may improve with a measured direct involvement; and, of course, John Bolton or Senator John McCain can’t lampoon Obama for passivity — on the Yemen issue, at least.

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