Amid Calls to End US Role in Yemen, Ex-Obama Official Rob Malley on How It Began

The massacre of 40 Yemeni children with a US-made bomb has escalated calls for ending the vital US participation in the Saudi-led war that began under President Obama. We speak to Rob Malley, President of the International Crisis Group and a former top White House official for the Middle East

[This is the second part of an extended interview on US policy in Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Syria with Robert Malley, a senior Obama administration official on Middle East affairs]

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

The U.S. has been a vital partner in the Saudi-led war on Yemen since it began over three years ago. But despite tens of thousands of deaths and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the U.S. role has been mostly ignored. That has shifted slightly in the aftermath of the recent Saudi airstrike that massacred 40 Yemeni children traveling on a school bus. In the rubble, Yemeni journalists found the remnants of a laser-guided U.S.-made Raytheon MK82. That is similar to bombs used in previous Saudi attacks on a funeral hall and a wedding in 2016. Those massacres prompted the Obama administration to ban the sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration overturned that ban after taking office. In the aftermath of this latest atrocity, prominent voices who have ignored the war or even cheered it on are calling for U.S. involvement to end, such as the editors of the Washington Post. But so far there has been no change in White House behavior.

Joining me is Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. He served in the Obama Administration as Special Assistant to President Obama, and as White House coordinator on the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf region. Welcome, Rob. You served under Obama when that decision was made to support the Saudi attack. Can you tell us about what was the thinking back then? And I’m wondering, just you personally, your reflections on how, since the war has progressed, on just how the war has gone, and your assessment of that initial decision to be involved.

ROBERT MALLEY: So you know, there’s a lot I’m very proud of having served under President Obama. I think we could have a whole session on that. But one of the places that that is hardest for me to to come to terms with is our policy, has been our policy in Yemen. And not because Yemen is, you know, it doesn’t compare to the situation in Syria. But it’s our allies that are waging war in Yemen. It’s our foes that are waging war in Syria, at least for the most part. So we had a degree and have a degree of responsibility and ability to exercise leverage on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, that we didn’t have with the Syrian regime or with Hezbollah or with Russia. So in many ways this is a much more difficult situation to come to terms with.

To try to understand what the Obama administration was about, and I’ve tried to- just to try to, to explain it to myself, to try to understand how we got to where we are, let’s not forget at the time we were in the middle of these negotiations with Iran, trying to reach a nuclear deal which was extremely unpopular with our traditional allies in the region, from Israel to Saudi Arabia to the UAE and others. And the Saudis came to us and said that they were about to intervene in Yemen, to attack the Houthis that had toppled the legitimate government of the internationally recognized government at the time. And they asked for our, for our assistance. And there was a debate within the administration at that time, with some voices expressing concern on the mere basis that we have experience with these wars. We know how they begin. We know that they don’t end. We know that a war against a nonstate actor could look easy at first. It ends up causing huge, huge costs. And they don’t end because the nonstate actor can continue for as long as it survives. And so you end up with these enormous humanitarian consequences, and I can’t say that any one of us suspected there would be as enormous as they are today. But we did suspect the war could go on for a very long time at great human cost.

So there was on the one hand a number of voices expressing concern about that. But on the other hand were many people saying the relationship with Saudi Arabia is almost at breaking point. They believe we’d betrayed their trust for a number of reasons. But Iran, Iran negotiating the Iran deal, or the negotiations over the Iran deal was one of them. We needed to protect that deal and make sure that we could get it done, because if we didn’t have a deal there was a risk of a war with Iran. And so I think the decision was made in the end by President Obama to say we’re going to be, to support parts of this war. Which is to say we will support Saudi Arabia as it’s defending its national sovereignty, its territorial integrity. So we’ll continue to help them in that respect, but we’re not going to participate in the war against the Houthis. We’re not going to be helping them directly wage that war.

I think, as you already suggested in what you said, that was a distinction that was pretty hard to maintain in practice if you support the South Saudi Arabia by providing them with weapons, by refueling their aircraft, which they then use in whatever way they use, or if you sit with them as we did to try to tell them here are areas that you shouldn’t bomb because of humanitarian considerations, you become complicit by necessity. And we did get more involved, because we continue to refuse to refuel the airplanes, we continue to sell them large arms sales, which was done partly because we needed to protect that relationship, partly because there was a view, well, they are being threatened by this nonstate actor supported by Iran on their southern border that had toppled the legitimate government.

But the more this lasted, the more number of us, I would say, and obviously the president himself, but others as well, were having concerns about, you know, what-. What are we getting involved in, here? And you just described the situation. You know, it is the worst humanitarian situation currently confronting the world. So it’s not it’s not an episode I’m particularly proud of. And I think we have to learn from it. And then the decision was made later on to stop the sale of certain munitions to Saudi Arabia. But you know- and in fairness, a lot was done during this period to try to put pressure on the Saudis to reach an agreement, to negotiate with the Houthis, to reach a ceasefire to improve their targeting practices. The bottom line is they failed. And again, we have to take responsibility for that.

AARON MATE: OK. I have a lot of followup questions. Including about Syria, by the way. Including about Syria, because I don’t agree with your assessment that the U.S. was so powerless in stopping the violence there, because I think the U.S. and its allies were actually taking part in a big part of the violence in Syria.

ROBERT MALLEY: I’m happy to address that. I do want to, because I think that’s a fair point.

AARON MATE: Let me come to that later, though, because we did not bring you on to talk about Syria. A very fraught issue. And I want to keep it on Yemen for now. But if we have time, I do want to raise Syria with you, because it’s interesting. But OK. In terms of not anticipating the humanitarian consequences, I mean, this was already the Middle East’s poorest country, with no air defenses. So I don’t get how it couldn’t have been foreseen that there would have been massive suffering.

ROBERT MALLEY: No, just that- I don’t know that we had foreseen that it would be- or not, I mean, I didn’t poll everyone, that it would be as bad as it is today. I said, and again I think that I had a number of conversations with the Saudis and Emiratis in saying about how bad it could be. Particularly, as you said, it’s the, it was the poorest country, to begin with, being bombed by the wealthiest country in the region. So that, so you’re absolutely right. That, nobody could question that that was a very, very likely outcome. Whether it would have gotten this bad, I don’t know. I can’t say, I can’t speak for everyone in the administration to say that they assumed it would be as bad as it is today, with over two thirds of the population in dire need of humanitarian assistance, 8 million people on the verge of famine. Those are things that, you know, are not always easy to contemplate, even when you know that things are going to be quite horrendous.

AARON MATE: OK. So what I will say, though, is that the scale of the humanitarian suffering was pretty apparent from from the start. So it was going on while Obama was in office. But sure. But two followups to what you said. One, in terms of the U.S. needing Saudi Arabia for the Iran deal. I mean, how could placating Saudi in this war in Yemen help the Obama administration on the Iran deal? I mean, it was something they were going to do anyway. Israel openly opposed the Iran deal, but that didn’t stop it. So what was needed in terms of the Saudi role? What actual political capital could Saudi Arabia [inaudible]?

ROBERT MALLEY: Sure. I think it’s more the point I was making, which is- and we can have a discussion about our alliances in the Middle East, which could take another hour. But there was a strong view among a number of cabinet members at the time that this was a, you know, decades old relationship, very important to U.S. interests in the region, and that it was close to breaking point because, and now I could do the list, because of the support, what was perceived as the support to the toppling of President Mubarak in Egypt, support for the Arab Spring, what was perceived as overly, over-proximity to the Muslim Brotherhood. And then, the mother of all sins, the negotiations with Iran in order to try to reach a nuclear deal.

So a very- what was perceived as a very important relationship was viewed by some prominent members of the administration, if not most prominent members of the administration, as being threatened, as being in jeopardy. And that if we added to it a refusal to help Saudi Arabia in a moment where they were telling us that they felt that their territorial integrity and sovereignty and stability was at risk because a nonstate actor armed by Iran- and all of these we could parse and debate. I’m just trying to project back how it was, it was viewed.

If I could just finish the [crosstalk] it was viewed that if we, if we said no to Saudi Arabia at that point that Saudi Arabia might simply, that this could be a historic break in the relationship. I- I could criticize that view, myself. But I do think it’s important for people to understand what was going through the minds of many at the time, in which, where they said we can’t say no to a partner, so let’s try to slice it by supporting parts of the war, but not all of the war. And as I said, in the end that became a little bit of an impossibility.

AARON MATE: OK. Let me parse that claim about Saudi self-defence being threatened by the Houthis. I mean, do you think that that’s a serious concern? Like, did anybody in the Obama administration actually take that seriously, that this Houthi movement posed an actual threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I mean, the facts do speak- there have been missile launches from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. There have been incursions by the Houthis into Saudi territory. Does that represent a, when I say threat to their integrity, what President Obama committed to was that he would help Saudi Arabia defend its territorial integrity against attacks by the Houthi. So missile defense, intelligence support so that if a missile was being launched from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, we would help them intercept it. And so that part of it- or if there were Houthis who, as happened, cross into Saudi territory, would help the Saudis protect their territory.

So I think to that extent there is there is truth there. I think there were better ways of dealing with it, and I’ve argued it publicly about how there were, there were better ways to deal with whatever was going on in Yemen. But I, but I think it is fair to say that the Houthis, maybe, you know, because they were being attacked by Saudi Arabia, retaliated by attacking Saudi territory.

AARON MATE: Well, and that’s the point, is that the- to the extent that Houthis pose a threat to Saudi Arabia, if one adopts that, I mean, we have to look at the fact that if they’re only attacking because they’re being attacked, then the answer then is to simply not attack them, and not to, in the case of the Obama administration, I would argue-.

ROBERT MALLEY: Yeah. And listen, again-. I want to, I’m trying to explain how it was viewed at the time. We know more now. But, but if you bear with me for another minute on this, it is also a fact that the Houthis toppled the government that had been, you know, wasn’t the best government in the world, but it was a government that had been elected by, or had been ratified by, its people. Part of an international agreement they had. The Houthis toppled it, and the Houthis were- although again, I’ve said that one could exaggerate the degree to which they were close to Iran. They were closer to Iran than they were to Saudi Arabia. So Arabia was looking at it and said, wait a minute. If we do nothing, a year, two years, three years from now we could have a pro-Iranian regime on our southern border, armed by Iran, that if Iran wanted to could threaten us.

So I don’t- I don’t think you’ll find in anything I’ve written a defense of of the Yemen war.

AARON MATE: I have not. I certainly have not, yes. I know that.

ROBERT MALLEY: But I think, again, the philosophy of the International Crisis Group, and that’s my current role, is not to say, you know, is not to sort of paint the world in black and white. And the Saudis have a legitimate point when they say, you know, wait a minute. What’s happened in Yemen? How come the Houthis, supported by a foreign country, have toppled a government that the international community recognized as legitimate? The tesponse to that was not to bomb the country to smithereens. The response to that was not to to plunge the country into famine. The response to that was not to bomb children and schools and hospitals. There’s no doubt about it. But there had to be a response.

AARON MATE: Without getting into the fraught history of Yemen, speaking of fraught because that’s a complicated one, but is it fair to say that at the time there was no actual meaningful Iranian support for the Houthis? Back, back when this war started.

ROBERT MALLEY: I think it’s fair to say that the support at the time was de minimis, and it only grew. And again that’s-. We warned, a number of us warned the Saudis. And the analogy that I used when I spoke to the Saudis is one they may not have liked. I said, we had that experience in Vietnam and other countries where we’re fighting an enemy who we believe is allied with our with our foe, and the more we fight them the more that alliance grows strong. Because by definition, whether it’s the Viet Cong or it’s the Houthis, they’re going to turn to a power that could help them if they need that support when we are bombing them. So that would happen anyway. And I also said, the war is going to last much longer. Just look at Israel’s- this was the analogy they didn’t like- Israel’s experience with Hezbollah or Israel’s experience with Hamas. In both cases, a vast disproportion in power. It doesn’t mean that Israel can can destroy Hezbollah or Hamas, because they have means that simply make them sort of impermeable to military defeat.

But the more that the war went on, the more the Houthis have allied themselves with Iran. And so it became more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was some connection at the beginning, and that connection became stronger the more the Houthis felt the need, desire, opportunity to turn to Iran. And then Iran saw an opportunity to at very low cost build an alliance that could, that could really ensure that Saudi Arabia be stuck in a quagmire.

AARON MATE: OK. Final question on Yemen before we turn to Syria, and hopefully we can avoid that one dragging on, because that is a tough issue. But in terms of putting pressure on Saudi Arabia, you mentioned that efforts were made. But what I don’t get is if the whole time there is no suspension, there’s no relenting in terms of assisting targeting, providing intelligence, refueling warplanes, I understand at the very, very end of the Obama administration, in its final months, it stopped selling a portion of the weapons. But after selling more weapons to Saudi Arabia than any president in history, certainly Obama played a key role, what actual pressure was put on the Saudi government?

ROBERT MALLEY: Not enough. So that’s my, my immediate answer. I just want to- I’m targeting, the support I’m targeting was not, was not positive. It was negative support. It was telling them here the no-go lists. Here the places that you shouldn’t target. Schools, hospitals, et cetera. And what we found out in the end is that, you know, that was, that was often respected in the breach. So we cut back even on that form of, of of cooperation, if that’s what it’s called. So there was no support for targeting against the Houthis. No intelligence sharing, to that extent.

Could there, should there have been more pressure? I think, I think the answer is yes. Now, if we had more time, I could recount in detail what we tried to do in terms of the pressure we did put to try to get them to stop targeting civilians- or hitting civilians, whether it’s deliberate or indiscriminate- and to bring, and to agree to a cease fire. I mean, the main- all of these cases, you could try to do all you can to limit the what people call, and I hate the expression, collateral damage. But all of that is only going to scratch the surface. The real way to stop this is to is to agree to a cease fire. And that, as you know, Secretary Kerry tried umpteen times to get. He got one, some of them respected for a short period of time.

But you know, could more have been done, and should we learn that lesson for the future, and should this administration now, which has built- and let’s not forget, this is an administration we are talking about today, right. So I’m happy to be critical about the Obama administration, but let’s keep it in perspective. We now have an administration that is not putting, as far as we can tell, any pressure on the Saudis, who seem to embolden them, and who have resumed some of the arms sales that had been suspended. And has built a very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, one that we didn’t enjoy. And so if they have that strong relationship, use it to put pressure on the Saudis to do what needs to be done.

So you know, we didn’t have that kind of relationship with the Saudis, for the reasons that I gave earlier. There was a lot of distrust. So the pressure that we put often fell on deaf ears, because they felt no reason to listen to us. And as you suggested, we probably, we weren’t prepared to put more material pressure. But here’s an administration that has the power, one would presume, given how close they are, given how much, how much of the leadership in Saudi Arabia has turned to the United States for support and is getting it. They, this administration, could do much more.

And so, in there- in other words, without trying to to defend the Obama administration’s record, let’s turn to this administration. They’ve argued that they need to restore their relationship with our traditional allies. They have done it. They’ve sold weapons, they’ve, they’ve given them to some extent a blank check in many places. Use that. Use that to impose a ceasefire, to impose different forms of, if they don’t have a cease fire, different forms of prosecuting the war. That’s what we should see from this administration. So again, you know, if they built this credit and this leverage, the least they can do is use it.

AARON MATE: Fair enough. And no argument to any of that. But I guess my only point is, and I know I’m focusing heavily on the Obama administration role, but I guess I hope you understand the reason why that would be important is because it’s the Obama administration that launched this whole thing, in terms of U.S. support. And if we’re going to learn the lessons, we have to see where there’s continuity.

I mean, for example, the commander of CENTCOM-.

ROBERT MALLEY: I completely- I mean, I just, I agree with that, and I think we have to do a better job if there’s another Democratic administration in the future to learn the lessons, to ask these tough questions about how we get dragged into these things, and why we are then complicit in the way they prosecute it. Question some of our, you know, not- I’m not saying we should break with some countries, but understand, you know, what’s, what’s the nature of those relationships, and what we’re trying to get from them, and what they get from us. I think those are all fair questions, which I think anyone who was in the Obama administration should take a step back, whether it’s on Yemen or on Syria- and we didn’t have yet time to talk about that, and if we don’t today hopefully we will well in the future. But I think- and you, you already suggested a path that I think is a very worthy one to explore when it comes to our policy in Syria.

AARON MATE: Well, Rob, we’d love to have you back, and we’ve kept you away over time. So next time-.

ROBERT MALLEY: That’s fine. It was interesting.

AARON MATE: It was, and we really appreciate it. Rob Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, served in the Obama administration as Special Assistant to President Obama, and White House coordinator on the Middle East and North Africa and the Gulf region. Rob, thank you so much.

ROBERT MALLEY: My pleasure. Thank you.

AARON MATE: Thank you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News.