An expert report submitted to the U.N. Security Council this month concluded that Iran is illegally funding Yemen’s Houthi rebels by giving them oil, which they can sell for cash. From last year’s version of the same report, we learned that Iran is arming the Houthis with missiles and drones, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Thus whatever the Houthis were when the war started, they are now effectively an Iranian subsidiary, dependent on Tehran for both cash and arms.
That is just one of many reasons to be appalled by the Senate’s renewed effort to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led fight against the Houthis. Not only is this strategically idiotic, but it contradicts the Senate’s own stated goal of protecting human rights. And the legislation reintroduced this week sends a terrible message, even if a presidential veto will presumably keep it from becoming law.
On the strategic side, let’s start with the fact that an organization whose official slogan is “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam” isn’t one Americans should want ruling anything, much less a country whose location enables it to dominate a strategic waterway vital to the global oil industry. And without the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis would long since have taken over Yemen. In other countries, like Syria and Lebanon, Iranian military and financial aid has repeatedly enabled its proxies to overwhelm the opposition; that this hasn’t yet happened in Yemen is only because there, unlike in Syria and Lebanon, the Saudi coalition has provided its local allies with substantial assistance, including airstrikes.
Second, empowering allies is always better than empowering enemies. Granted, Saudi Arabia a highly imperfect ally, but it is at least nominally in America’s camp. Iran, in contrast, has been America’s avowed enemy since 1979, and its proxies have been responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of American deaths in Lebanon and Iraq. Thus for the Senate to weaken Riyadh and strengthen Tehran, which targeting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen does, would be foolish at any time.
But it’s especially foolish at a time when America ostensibly seeks to exert maximum pressure on Iran to curb its multifarious bad behavior—its nuclear program, about which it has repeatedly lied; its ballistic-missile program, which defies a U.N. Security Council resolution; its regional aggression, which has already enabled it to dominate Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and its terrorism, including recent attacks in the heart of Europe.
Maximum pressure requires both financial and military components, as the case of the Soviet Union shows. It was America’s massive military buildup under Ronald Reagan, combined with its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which made Moscow’s military adventurism too expensive for its ailing economy to support.
Iran, like the Soviet Union, has a weak economy, which has been further undermined by America’s reinstatement of stringent sanctions. Yet the economic pressure will be multiplied if Iran has to keep pouring resources into its numerous proxy wars rather than being able to win them cheaply.
Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria obviously further this effort, since Iran must keep replacing what Israel destroys. But the Saudi coalition in Yemen is similarly forcing Iran is keep expending resources on a war it thought would be easily won. Thus if Washington is serious about countering Tehran and doesn’t want to risk American troops in the process, supporting regional allies who are bleeding Iran is the only alternative.
Still, how can America possibly support a coalition that’s committing gross human-rights violations in Yemen? The answer is easy: Horrible as Riyadh’s behavior is, the Houthis are worse. Thus by ending support for the Saudi coalition, American would empower an even greater evil.
A perfect example is the issue of child soldiers. The New York Times ran a front-page story last month accusing the Saudis of using Sudanese child soldiers in Yemen. Though it didn’t provide many hard numbers, it implied that there could well be several thousand such soldiers. This is incontrovertibly bad.
But what the Times carefully concealed from its readers is that the Saudis’ use of child soldiers pales before that of the Houthis. According to an Associated Press report earlier that month, the Houthis openly admit to employing a whopping 18,000 child soldiers.
Moreover, while the Saudis are taking boys aged 14 to 17, the Houthis are using children as young as 10. And while the Saudis are recruiting their impoverished volunteers by offering pay sufficient to make their families permanently self-supporting (assuming the returning veterans invest it, as most do, in profit-making ventures like cattle or shops), the Houthis use other tactics: They kidnap children outright, coerce them to enlist in exchange for a relative’s freedom from jail, or force poor parents to choose between “volunteering” their child and making an unaffordable cash contribution to the war effort. Parents who resist are shot.
In short, bad as the Saudis’ human-rights violations are, the Houthis’ violations are far worse. And by ending support for the Saudi coalition, the Senate would consign Yemen to the barbarous rule of those very same Houthis.
Given that both strategic and moral considerations mandate backing the Saudi coalition, why is the Senate set on doing the opposite? Perhaps it’s due to sheer ignorance: Iran’s useful idiots in the media, like The New York Times, do their best to amplify every Saudi atrocity while downplaying Houthi atrocities. Or perhaps it’s the clean hands syndrome: Senators don’t care what horrors befall the Middle East as long as their hands are clean. But neither is acceptable behavior for national policy-makers, whose job is to gather accurate information and then, if there are no good options, choose the lesser evil.
In Yemen, the lesser evil is clearly backing the Saudi coalition. This would not only further America’s strategic goals at minimal cost (the U.S. contribution consists of intelligence sharing, midair refueling and arms sales), but would be preferable to a Houthi victory from a human-rights standpoint. That the Senate has opted instead to further Iran’s regional domination project is a disgrace.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.