John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has accused the Obama administration of going soft on Iran’s regional ambitions in pursuit of what he sees as a bad nuclear agreement with Tehran, and has praised “our Arab partners” for intervening in Yemen. “The prospect of radical groups like Iranian-backed Houthi militants” was “more than [U.S. Arab allies] could withstand,” he said. But a large contingent of senior U.S. military officers believes the Saudi-led military operation will fail, and possibly turn into a quagmire.
The fact that the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was planned and launched independently of the U.S. was, in McCain’s eyes, a rebuke of the administration’s policies. “These countries, led by Saudi Arabia, did not notify us nor seek our coordination or our assistance in this effort,” he said during a March 26 committee hearing, “because they believe we are siding with Iran.”
A senior commander at Central Command (CENTCOM), speaking on condition of anonymity, scoffed at that argument. “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans,” he said, “is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think — that it was a bad idea.”
Military sources said that a number of regional special forces officers and officers at U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) argued strenuously against supporting the Saudi-led intervention because the target of the intervention, the Shia Houthi movement — which has taken over much of Yemen and which Riyadh accuses of being a proxy for Tehran — has been an effective counter to Al-Qaeda.
Michael Horton, a Yemen expert close to a number of officers at SOCOM and a consultant to the U.S. and U.K. governments, picked up on this debate. Within days of the Saudi intervention’s start, he said in an email that he was “confounded” by the intervention, noting that many in SOCOM “favor the Houthis, as they have been successful in rolling back AQ [Al-Qaeda] and now IS [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL] from a number of Yemeni governorates” — something that hundreds of U.S. drone strikes and large numbers of advisers to Yemen’s military had failed to accomplish.
Later, in a telephone interview, Horton expanded on that. “These constant reports that the Houthis are working for the Iranians are nonsense, but the view is right out of the neocon playbook,” he said. “The Israelis have been touting this line that we lost Yemen to Iran. That’s absurd. The Houthis don’t need Iranian weapons. They have plenty of their own. And they don’t require military training. They’ve been fighting Al-Qaeda since at least 2012, and they’ve been winning. Why are we fighting a movement that’s fighting Al-Qaeda?”
One reason for U.S. support may be the diplomatic logic of tamping down Riyadh’s opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran by backing an aggressive Saudi-led response to what a number of U.S. allies in the region portray as rapidly expanding Iranian influence in Arab countries. But another is the view among some U.S. military commanders that countering Iran takes strategic priority over combating Al-Qaeda and ISIL.
Iran was long the central focus of former CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis, who in 2011 requested that Obama order the deployment of a third U.S. aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf to pressure Iran. The White House turned down the request. Before his retirement, Mattis reportedly told an audience that the U.S. faced three threats in the region: “Iran, Iran, Iran.”
But others argue for balancing U.S. concerns about various threats. And a number of CENTCOM and SOCOM officers believe the Saudis are in over their heads in trying to reverse Houthi gains in Yemen through military intervention.
“We had a great opportunity to engage with the Houthis on this, but we gave in to the Saudis,” Horton said, “and frankly, they cannot begin to manage this. They have all the toys but few people who know how to effectively use 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 the soldiers and NCOs. The Egyptians will not fare much better.”
But that’s not the view of McCain and other hawkish senators around him. They see Iran’s fingerprints all over whatever goes wrong in the region — a view that alarms Horton. “This is a guy who complained that we were Iran’s air force in Iraq,” he said. “Well, guess what? Now we’re Al-Qaeda’s air force in Yemen.”