Privately they’ve been saying for years that Riyadh can’t win in Yemen and that we shouldn’t have given the Houthis up.
While it’s seems axiomatic that most Americans suffer from historical amnesia, that’s not necessarily true for the U.S. military. And as America and Iran were sprinting towards a military confrontation last week, a recently retired senior U.S. military officer expounded on what he called “the bumbling, incompetent and feckless stupidity of it all.”
The target of the officer’s ire was not Donald Trump (whom he admires) or Mike Pompeo (who he doesn’t), but Saudi Arabia’s March 2015 decision to go to war against the Iranian-allied Houthi tribal movement in Yemen —“which is,” he argues, “how all of this nonsense got started in the first place.”
He explained: “We didn’t see the [Saudi] invasion [of Yemen] coming and we were shocked when it happened. But we were pretty blunt. We told them, ‘you can’t win and you’ll bankrupt your country. It’ll be a quagmire.’ And we were right.”
This officer’s “we-told-ya-so” narrative, as it turns out, is accurate. Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen to destroy the Houthi rebellion (and reinstate the government of Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi) not only surprised the Obama administration, it was met with nearly open disdain by the U.S. military. Key senior officers of the U.S. Special Operations Command viewed the Houthis as a robust counter to al-Qaeda’s strength in Yemen and even argued that America take steps to support them.
“The Houthis were only nominally Iran’s surrogates,” a military officer told me at the time, “but they were also our quiet partners against al-Qaeda.” Yet back in 2015, because of the Saudi invasion (with support from nine other Arab states), the possibility that the Pentagon could count on Houthi backing was not only off the table, senior Pentagon officials predicted that the tribe would strengthen its ties with their Shia co-religionists in Iran—something that, prior to the Saudi invasion, it hadn’t wanted to do. That’s why key segments of the U.S. military thought the Saudi invasion was a mistake.
But that’s not how Senator John McCain saw it. McCain defended the Saudi invasion, linked it to Barack Obama’s decision to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, and said there was good reason that the Saudis had kept their planned intervention a secret. “These countries, led by Saudi Arabia, did not notify us nor seek our coordination or our assistance in this effort, because they believe we are siding with Iran,” McCain, who succumbed to cancer in 2018, said.
Senior U.S. military officers scoffed at this, even as, given McCain’s stature as the arbiter of all-things-military, they kept their views private. “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans,” a U.S. Central Command officer told me at the time, “is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think—that it was a bad idea.” Yemen expert Michael Horton, whose intimate knowledge of the conflict is informed by visits to the region, echoed these views while channeling the U.S. military’s skepticism about Saudi Arabian military competence: “Frankly, they cannot begin to manage this,” he told me soon after the Saudi intervention. “They have all the toys, but few people who know how to manage them. Their NCO and officer corps are largely untested, and their enlisted men are drawn from the lowest rungs of Saudi society. If they get bogged down in Yemen, I wonder about the loyalty of many of their soldiers and NCOs.”
The Saudi-led intervention began well enough, with a relentless air campaign and naval blockade that initially eroded Houthi strength. And despite its skepticism, the U.S. military turned on a dime, providing the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence and logistical support and advising senior officers of the United Arab Emirates, which commanded most of the anti-Houthi ground forces. But over the course of the next three years, the intervention bogged down. The blockade triggered a famine that affected millions of Yemenis, the UAE’s mercenary force proved no match for the better-led Houthis, rebel militias began to lob scud missiles into Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, Riyadh’s allies began to peel away from the coalition (the UAE exited Yemen last July), the UAE-led mercenary army suffered a series of devastating defeats along the Saudi border, and, most crucially, the Houthis strengthened their ties with Tehran—all of which Pentagon officials had predicted back in 2015.
Saudi Arabia’s troubles in Yemen rang alarm bells in Washington. Within months of taking office, Donald Trump’s national security team began meeting with Middle East experts to explore ways to ease the Saudis out of their Yemen pratfall. The under-the-radar meetings, conducted by national security adviser H.R. McMaster and his staff, were accompanied by mounting intelligence reports that Saudi Arabia’s intervention was throwing into doubt the long-term stability of the Saudi government. In fact, officials inside the royal family were using the Yemen crisis to mount a whisper campaign to undermine Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
In the wake of these White House consultations, a senior Pentagon official told me, the Trump administration reached two conclusions—that “all is not well in the House of Saud,” and that the U.S. should open talks with the Houthis to end the war. In September, as a part of this effort, the State Department dispatched David Schenker to Riyadh to pressure the Saudis to join prospective U.S.-Houthi talks hosted by Oman.
This history provides context for the September 14 missile and drone strikes on a major oil processing facility inside Saudi Arabia. The U.S. intelligence community has since concluded that the attack, launched from western Iran, accounted for nearly 20 strikes that destroyed four oil tanks and disabled sophisticated oil pumping equipment. While the damage only temporarily curtailed world oil supplies, it sent shudders through global oil markets—and the White House.
The Trump administration only briefly considered a military response, before dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and then announcing the deployment of additional U.S. ground forces to help the Saudis improve their air defenses—a strategy that a senior Pentagon civilian described as “talking big and carrying a swagger stick.” In fact, the bluff and bluster belied the reality of what is actually happening in the region, this same Pentagon civilian told me. “We’re not the only ones moving pieces on the board,” he said. “Over the last two years, the Iranians have shown that they can hit us and our allies from all kinds of places.”
According to this official, the U.S. and Iran have been engaged in “a kind of low intensity proxy war” in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the waters of the Persian Gulf since May 2018, when Washington withdrew from the U.S.-Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. By one count, the tit-for-tat conflict (“an escalatory salvo in an expanding regional power struggle,” as one report phrased it), has included the bombing of oil tankers, drone strikes on key ports, missile strikes on Riyadh, cross border operations targeting Saudi soldiers, and a drone offensive on the Golan Heights.
The attacks have run parallel to Iran’s decision to upgrade and expand its support for Iranian proxies in the region, which, in turn, sparked the scrambling of Israeli jets to bomb suspected Iranian bases in Syria, Lebanon, and (most recently) Iraq. While the tit-for-tat blows have not yet put the U.S. and Iran into a direct confrontation, both nations are climbing the escalatory ladder towards war. Tehran’s new calculus (“expanding the battlefield,” as the senior Pentagon civilian phrased it) means that any U.S. strike against Iran itself would have to take into account multiple responses that would pit Iran and its allies (including Hezbollah) against the U.S. and its allies (including Israel).
“You know that popular map that you see on Twitter that shows that Iran is surrounded by U.S. bases?” the Pentagon civilian asks rhetorically. “Well, guess what? The Iranians have now surrounded Saudi Arabia. And so while we’ve ratcheted up the economic pressure, they’ve decided to do the same. Last week’s message was loud and clear—if we can’t market our oil, we’re going to make damn sure you can’t market yours.”
Left unsaid, but implied in this assessment, is what the official was careful not to say: that despite all of America’s saber rattling and Mike Pompeo’s bluster, the U.S. is playing an increasingly weak military hand—and it’s only getting weaker.