The Pentagon and the Trump administration apparently have misled Americans about growing military involvement in a war in Yemen that we should have nothing to do with.
In the latest expansion of America’s secret wars, about a dozen Army commandos have been on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen since late last year, according to an exclusive report by The Times. The commandos are helping to locate and destroy missiles and launch sites used by indigenous Houthi rebels in Yemen to attack Saudi cities.
This involvement puts the lie to Pentagon statements that American military aid to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is limited to aircraft refueling, logistics and intelligence, and is not related to combat.
When senators at a hearing in March demanded to know whether American troops were at risk of entering hostilities with the Houthis, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the Central Command, assured them, “We’re not parties to this conflict.”
In at least 14 countries, American troops are fighting extremist groups that are professed enemies of the United States or are connected, sometimes quite tenuously, to such militants. The Houthis pose no such threat to the United States. But they are backed by Iran, so the commandos’ deployment increases the risk that the United States could come into direct conflict with that country, a target of increasing ire from the administration, the Saudis and Israelis.
Such significant military decisions require public debate to force presidents and their generals to justify their decisions and be held accountable for the consequences. But checks and balances have eroded since Sept. 11, 2001, as ordinary Americans became indifferent to the country’s endless wars against terrorists and Congress largely abdicated its constitutional role to share responsibility with the president for sending troops into battle.
The United States initially deployed troops to Yemen to fight Al Qaeda’s forces there, under post-Sept. 11 congressional authorization measures. But Congress never specifically approved military involvement in the Saudi-Houthi civil war.
President Trump, who has broadened the authority of commanders to make some war-fighting decisions independent of the White House, rarely speaks about military operations publicly and has not articulated an overarching strategy for what the worldwide antiterrorism campaign is intended to achieve and how long it will last.
The Saudis’ brutal campaign in Yemen has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with at least eight million people on the brink of famine, one million suspected of being infected with cholera and two million displaced from their homes. Legal and human rights experts say the killing of thousands of civilians and the humanitarian aid deprivations, most blamed on Saudi Arabia, could be war crimes in which the United States would be complicit.
The war began in 2014 when Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh took control of the capital, Sana, and much of the rest of the country. In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition, with President Barack Obama’s backing, launched blistering attacks, including thousands of airstrikes, against the Houthi-Saleh forces in support of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
While the war is effectively stalemated, Saudi Arabia’s rising new leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seems committed to a military victory despite the horrors caused by the fighting. He has been emboldened by Mr. Trump, who has been willing to sell the kingdom almost any new military hardware it wants.
As the Houthi missiles attest, Saudi Arabia is less secure now than when it began its air campaign three years ago. Only a peace agreement is likely to bring the fighting and the killings to an end.
Although neither Prince Mohammed nor Mr. Trump seem seriously interested, the United Nations is planning to put forward a new proposal to restart peace negotiations. Congress could improve the chance of success by cutting off military aid to Saudi Arabia and voting to bar the use of American troops against the Houthis in Yemen.