WASHINGTON -- Conflicts in the Middle East have long served as fodder for Republicans who argue that the Obama administration is clumsily stumbling through the region without a coherent foreign policy strategy. This week, Yemen’s descent into chaos is only emboldening those critics.
“Have you not learned anything?" Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked at a press conference Thursday, addressing his rhetorical questions to President Barack Obama. "Have you not learned anything at all from the failure of your policies?
Graham added that Obama's policies were “putting our nation at risk, and the region is on fire. This needs to stop.”
In the last 24 hours, Yemen has seen an unprecedented deterioration, the culmination of months of unrest. Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a staunch U.S. ally and critical counterterrorism partner, has struggled to maintain a grip on power since the extremist Houthi movement overran the capital city of Sanaa last September. After months of confusion about who was in power, Hadi fled the country Wednesday, just hours before a coalition of ten Arab countries began bombing Houthi-held Sanaa.
Graham was joined at the press conference by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), both of whom, like Graham, have been vocal critics of the Obama administration's foreign policy. Unsurprisingly, Graham slammed the president for failing to manage Yemen, noting that the U.S. had had ample indication that things weren't going well in the country. All three lawmakers voiced resounding support for U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners for launching the joint offensive against the Houthi rebels.
“The Saudis did the right thing,” said McCain. “The Saudis and their allies did the right thing.”
Criticism of Obama's foreign policy has become a common theme on the right, especially where the dynamic foreign policy duo of McCain and Graham is concerned. The two Senate hawks have continuously criticized the administration for its strategy against the Islamic State, its handling of the Afghanistan war and its lack of action in Syria. The arguments made in the Thursday press conference may have been familiar, but they nonetheless added one more example to the string of evidence that McCain and Graham have amassed to blast the White House's international efforts.
Yemen has long been a hotbed of Islamic extremism, even though the cooperative Hadi government has been more than willing to facilitate US counterterror efforts since taking power in 2012. Large swaths of the country are controlled by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Sunni group long considered one of the gravest threats to the U.S. Meanwhile, the Iran-backed Shia Houthis have been working to establish a strong presence in Yemen since the early 2000s. After years of clashes with government forces, the Houthis successfully moved last year to snatch Sanaa.
McCain, Graham and Ayotte all warned that the burgeoning crisis could send the country into a swirling Sunni-Shia war.
“One of my biggest concerns about leading from behind is that the vacuum created by America's failure to lead in the Middle East is setting in motion a calamity that could result in a bloodletting between Sunnis and Shias that we haven’t seen in a thousand years,” Graham said.
McCain also suggested that there had been a breakdown of communication leading up to the offensive that began Wednesday: Even though the U.S. is a critical player in the Middle East, he said, it was boxed out of the Persian Gulf coalition’s plans, which he argued only highlighted the U.S.’s lack of foreign policy credibility.
“The countries in the region no longer have confidence or are willing to work with the United States of America,” McCain said. “Our closest allies in the region no longer trust us, that they wait a matter of a few hours [to tell us] before beginning a major military operation. It’s because they no longer have any trust or confidence in the United States of America.”
The White House, however, vehemently denied that it had been left out of the loop about the anti-Houthi campaign.
“It is flat-out wrong to say that we had no advance knowledge of the Saudi-led offensive that began yesterday. We have a very regular and robust dialogue with the Saudis on Yemen generally, and those conversations have increased since the mounting threat to Aden and the overall deteriorating situation,” a senior administration official told The Huffington Post, referring to another Yemeni city being targeted in the coalition offensive. The official pointed to comments made yesterday by the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. as evidence that Saudi Arabia and its partners were coordinating with Washington.
Additionally, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Thursday that the offensive came after days of discussion between the administration and its regional allies.
“We had been talking with the Saudis throughout the course of the last several days about what they were thinking and what type of support we could render with regards to their actions in Yemen,” Meehan told HuffPost in an email.
The White House said Wednesday that it would offer intelligence and logistical support to the Gulf coalition's efforts.
Wednesday’s offensive against the Iran-backed Houthis comes at a critical juncture in the Iran nuclear talks, which are supposed to produce an initial political framework in the coming days. The negotiations have thrown a wedge between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf partners, including Saudi Arabia, a major regional rival of Iran.
Some commentators have questioned whether the coincidental timing of the Saudi-led operation suggests an effort to show strength against an Iran-backed proxy, although Graham, McCain and Ayotte denied such speculation on Thursday.