Philip H. Gordon is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as White House Coordinator for the Middle East under President Barack Obama.
The murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, along with sharply deteriorating humanitarian conditions and growing media attention paid to the war in Yemen, has led to increased pressure on Saudi Arabia to end the war there.
Top U.S. officials are now calling on Riyadh to agree to a ceasefire and participate in U.N.-sponsored talks, and the Pentagon announced last Friday it would no longer provide in-air refueling for Saudi bombing runs. Meanwhile, Congress, led by the new Democratic majority in the House, is credibly threatening to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which countries such as Germany have already done. The growing pressure, a marked departure from the almost-unconditional support the Trump administration has been providing to the Saudis, has led to renewed hopes that the war might finally be brought to a negotiated end.
We should all hope that U.N. talks, led by the able British mediator Martin Griffiths, succeed — but we should also be realistic. Even if the Saudis and their Emirati partners show up ready for compromise, the Iran-backed Houthis, who control much of Yemen today, are sadly unlikely to reciprocate. Having survived years of economic isolation and relentless Saudi bombing, the Houthis know all the pressure is now on the other side. Their Iranian backers, in turn, likely assume they have nothing to gain from compromise either given the Trump administration’s hostility to the Tehran regime. Houthi rejectionism would give the Saudis and Emiratis a pretext to resume the war, possibly including a bloody assault on the port of Hodeidah, which U.N. officials assess could considerably worsen the humanitarian situation even while failing to force the Houthis to give in.
The Saudis claim they will have no choice but to escalate the war if they cannot reach an agreement at the talks, but here’s a better alternative: Declare victory and go home. Given all they have invested after three and a half years of war, and their legitimate concerns about Iranian influence and Houthi threats, that might seem irrational, and it would certainly be a bitter pill to swallow. But it would be far better than continuing with a war that has had incalculable humanitarian, financial, strategic and reputational costs for the Saudis but has not remotely advanced their own declared objectives.
In fact, on almost every measure, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has failed. Three and a half years after the launch of what was meant to be a quick military operation, the Houthis are stronger than ever; Iran’s influence has only grown; al-Qaeda terrorists remain a major threat; Yemenis are suffering in what may be the worst humanitarian situation on the planet; refugees have poured into Saudi Arabia and neighboring Oman; and Saudi Arabia’s reputation — critical to its ambitions to become a modern, industrial economy and tourist destination — is suffering badly in the United States and around the world. If the Saudis applied the “benchmarking” approach associated with their economic reform plan — reassessing policies regularly and changing them if objectives are not being achieved — they would have certainly altered their policies in Yemen several years ago.
Bearing these high costs would be more justifiable if there were any realistic hope that staying the course would achieve their goal of restoring the pre-Houthi regime to power, but that is unlikely even in the long run. On periodic visits to Riyadh over the past three and a half years, Saudi officials have regularly acknowledged to me in private that the war was not going well, but equally consistently insisted that progress was just around the corner. The optimistic official assurances were eerily reminiscent of those regularly issued by American political and military leaders for years in Vietnam, or by Soviet leaders in Afghanistan, before they finally and belatedly accepted the reality that their military interventions were counterproductive.
For the Saudis, “going home” in Yemen would not mean abandoning the legitimate objectives of limiting Iranian influence or containing threats from Houthis. On the contrary, even if they end the current bombing campaign, there are a number of steps the Saudis could take to defend their national interests and increase their security. These could include enhanced maritime patrols, with U.S. support, to better prevent Iranian arms deliveries to the Houthis; increased diplomatic and economic pressure on Oman — bolstered by major financial incentives — to reinforce its land border with Yemen; a readiness to undertake airstrikes against advanced ballistic missile sites and air bases in Yemen that are used to attack Saudi Arabia, much like Israel currently does in Syria; the deployment of enhanced missile defenses around Riyadh and other Saudi cities, to include U.S.-made Theater High Altitude Area Defense Systems; financial and humanitarian assistance to Saudi allies in Yemen; and even economic and monetary incentives to Houthis, including funds for reconstruction, if they end their attacks on Saudi interests. All of these measures put together would cost far less than Riyadh is currently spending on the war, and they would likely save many lives and bring greater security as well.
The United States should continue to urge the Saudis to come to peace talks and pursue a negotiated settlement. It should also insist, however, that the Houthis and Iran not be given a veto over peace. Saudi Arabia should be pressed to end the current war with others if it can, but alone if it must.