In March, American defense analyst Anthony H. Cordesman elaborated on the “strategic importance of Yemen.” Cordesman placed this strategic importance within the context of the broader requirement of maintaining stability on the Arabian peninsula and securing the flow of energy through the Persian Gulf, but cautioned “the situation in Yemen may well come to require more than [logistical and intelligence support], and some kind of U.S. combat support as well as U.S. diplomatic pressure on Iran.” [Emphasis added]. The situation in Yemen has deteriorated so badly that U.S. Special Forces have already departed, but assigning strategic importance to Yemen is debatable. The security of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a strategic matter for the global economy, but the internal stability of Yemen is not, and more pointedly, the country is not worth the risk to American military forces.
No, The Bab el-Mandeb Strait Is
Cordesman implicitly acknowledges Yemen’s inconsequence by focusing the preponderance of his analysis on the American-Saudi relationship, the security of the entire Arabian Peninsula, and the criticality of the Straits of Hormuz.
As to the relationship, Cordesman neglects to point out that Saudi Arabia has taken lead on a Yemen intervention precisely because Saudi leaders have concluded the Obama Administration, and by extension the United States, is no longer a reliable partner, especially vis-à-vis Iran.
Regarding the peninsula, positing Yemen’s instability as a threat to Saudi Arabia and others recalls the domino theory, a rationale never borne out by events in Southeast Asia and Africa and should not be resurrected in the Middle East either.
Lastly, the Straits of Hormuz is indeed important, but it is also over 1,000 miles northeast of Yemen. The security of the Persian Gulf is the concern of several major stakeholders, including Saudi Arabia and Iran itself, of which the latter depends on the Straits of Hormuz remaining open for linkages to the wider global economy.
To restate, the priority should be the security of the maritime transit routes through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the unilateral, comprehensive use of force is not necessarily required.
Per Cordesman’s citation of the U.S. Energy Information Administration reporting, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean and a conduit for an estimated 3.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products in 2013 toward Europe, an increase from 2.9 million barrels per day in 2009. Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or the Suez-Mediterranean Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost.
Rough Neighborhood Only A Threat To Itself
More broadly, draw a circle around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait with a radius of 1,000 miles and one can readily recognize the neighborhood’s residents, while variously despotic or chaotic, poses virtually no threat to American interests.
Source: Free Map Tools
In 2015, Freedom House designated Eritrea as one of the “worst of the worst” dictatorships in the world. The country is governed by a harsh authoritarian military regime that intrudes on every aspect of life and makes every attempt to limit contact with the outside world. Moreover, Eritrea has clashed with each of its four neighbors since 1993.
Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country. In 2006, Ethiopia openly partook in the American global war on terror by launching an invasion of neighboring Somalia to help the weak incumbent regime oust Islamist extremists aligned with Al Qaeda. The Ethiopian invasion was initially successful, but the Islamist insurgency regrouped and gradually recovered lost territory. Ethiopia eventually withdrew its forces in 2009.
Djibouti is a small and arid former colony of France. Djibouti’s only asset is its geographic location, bordering the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Accordingly, the United States has established its only formal military base in Africa in Djibouti, at the former French base of Camp Lemonier, from where it launches punitive strikes against Islamist terrorists in Somalia and Yemen. Djibouti is dependent on international aid, of which American aid is the largest and, of which, security assistance is the largest component.
Since 1991, Somalia has been an ungoverned space in Africa and the archetypal failed state. Beset by rival clans, opportunistic warlords and gangsters, and Islamist terrorists, Somalia has been without a functioning government for decades and has been the host to repeated outside interventions. After the aforementioned Ethiopians departed in 2009, the African Union deployed peacekeepers and Kenya has occasionally responded to terrorist attacks with punitive raids. Somali chaos even resuscitated the bygone peril of marauding pirates along its coastlines.
What do these countries have in common?
Each is desperately poor and none of them threaten the security of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
Each has a military but they are primarily used against each other; Eritrea has stationed 100,000 of its 320,000 person army on its border with Ethiopia. Furthermore, none possesses a navy, or even a coast guard, of note. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies The Military Balance, the naval forces of Djibouti and Eritrea number only 200 and 1,400 personnel, respectively. (Somaliland, an unrecognized independent state with Somalia proper, has a coast guard of 600 persons.) The aforementioned piracy menace has essentially been quelled -- principally by way of multilateral cooperation at minimal risk to the participating countries.
Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni heavyweight and oil superpower, is the obvious outlier, but, to date, the death and destruction wreaked by the dozen Saudis on September 11, 2001, still dwarfs the number of terrorists and attacks launched against American targets by Somalia and Yemen combined.
Faring Under Anarchy
Intervention proponents would argue the nature of local regimes affects the Bab el-Mandeb Strait’s security and is an American interest in and of itself. Ostensibly, American intervention could address these chaotic conditions. While supported by historical evidence in the case of postwar Germany and Japan, more recent interventions have been less successful.
Indeed, the past fifteen years provide the basis for comparing the effect of American intervention.
As noted above, Somalia has been without a central government since 1991. In contrast, Afghanistan has hosted a central government amply supported by American resources since 2002.
In several instances, the American occupation of Afghanistan did coincide with overall improvements, such as a growing economy (from a GDP of $2.4 billion in 2001 to a GDP of $19.2 billion in 2011) as well as higher child immunization rates and greater percentages of the population with access to water.
Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s performance was not markedly better than Somalia. (Reliable statistics for Somalia are scarce, but the following selected examples have been collected by the World Bank.)
A review of health indicators (improved access to sanitation facilities, life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate, under age 5 mortality rates) shows minimal differences in the rate of improvement between American-occupied Afghanistan and anarchic Somalia.
Source: World Bank
Furthermore, Somalia has maintained an informal economy largely based on livestock, remittance/money transfer companies, and telecommunications. According to the CIA World Factbook, Somalia’s gross domestic product was $5.9 billion in 2010.
While Somalia’s GDP was only 31 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, Yemen’s economy was the largest of the three countries.
During the same period, Yemen was led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who allied himself with the United States in the war on terror. Saleh departed in 2011 after Arab Spring-inspired uprisings and was succeeded by Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who later fled the country in January 2015 after the Houthi insurgency captured the capital.
In 2013, Yemen achieved a GDP (purchasing power parity) of $61.6 billion versus Afghanistan, which attained a corresponding GDP of $45.3 billion, despite having the larger population and a decade’s worth of American financial and military support.
Occupied, Afghanistan did only marginally better.
Left alone, Yemen fared fairly well.
Even Pakistan Knows Better
According to recent reporting, the United States Department of Defense has provided aerial refueling support to Saudi and allied aircraft striking Houthi rebels in Yemen. Within the past 48 hours, the Administration has signaled its intent to expedite arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia. To date, U.S. support has been limited to unmanned aircraft provided surveillance.
The American readiness to contribute stands in notable contrast to Saudi Arabia’s ally Pakistan, which has declined a request to participate in the operation.
On April 8, a German media outlet reported Iranian and Turkish leaders had met and agreed to the need for a political solution to the conflict in Yemen. Turkey has joined the Saudi-led coalition conducting airstrikes against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, but the Iranian president said he hoped that Turkey and Iran could end the Yemen war "with the help of other countries in the region" and bring "peace, stability" to the Middle Eastern country. Meanwhile, Iran has dispatched a destroyer to the region, in line with contributions to the previously mentioned counter-piracy effort.
America has expended enough blood and treasure in the region. If Iran seeks regional hegemony, then let it bear the consequences, both good and bad.
In Yemen, American interests are not in jeopardy and American servicemembers should not be put at risk there; Yemen is clearly a matter for regional stakeholders to address.