Obama's Arab Security Strategy

An Old Doctrine Gets Put to the Test in Yemen

Anti-Houthi fighters of the Southern Popular Resistance stand on a tank in Yemen's southern port city of Aden, May 10, 2015. Reuters

Twenty-five years ago, in the wake of the Gulf War, the first Bush administration sketched out a plan for the security of its Arab partners. The original had Iraq in mind as the aggressor. Today, a version of that plan is finally seeing the light of day. But this time, Iran is the focus and the region is embroiled in a civil war in Yemen.

The U.S. plan has always been aimed at building up its partners’ collective defense capability so that the United States can recede into a supporting role in the region rather than a leading one. U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed this objective during his May 13–14 summit at Camp David with leaders of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). He promised that the United States would “help our Gulf partners improve their own capacity to defend themselves” and that his government would “streamline and expedite” U.S. military aid to those countries to achieve that goal.

But Obama also made clear that the purpose of enhanced U.S.-GCC security cooperation wasn’t “to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran,” and he offered no support for the Saudi-led campaign to crush Iran’s allies in Yemen. For Saudi Arabia and its allies, however, the very purpose of increased military cooperation with the United States is just that.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks while hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at Camp David in Maryland, May 14, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks while hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at Camp David in Maryland, May 14, 2015. From left are Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, Oman Deputy Prime Minister Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud Al Said, the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Obama, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tameem bin Hamad Al Thani, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Abdul Latif bin Rashid Al Zayani. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Indeed, Yemen couldn’t be a worse place to put the American Gulf security plan to the test. It is a certified failed state with an impeccable record of sucking outside powers into a treacherous tribal quicksand, a bitter reality that even the Arab world’s military powerhouse, Egypt, discovered during a civil war there in the 1960s.

Saudi Arabia, the keystone of the U.S. regional strategy, now finds itself backing into the losing side of a proxy war in its neighbor’s territory. The war drew international attention when

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