U.S. Double Standards in Ukraine and Yemen

04/13/2015 01:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

We read in the news that a revolution in a foreign country has gained control of its capital and most of its territory. The country's president is forced to flee, while his supporters fight on from their regional base, insisting that the new rulers have no legitimacy. How should the U.S. respond?

The U.S. government frames its recognition or non-recognition of changes of government in other countries as a consistent application of the rule of law and constitutionality, tempered by humanitarian concern for the lives of the ordinary people affected. But it is one of the worst kept secrets in the world that U.S. responses to such crises are not really based on the rule of law or humanitarian concerns, but on ideology, calculations (often miscalculations) of U.S. geopolitical and commercial interests, and domestic political pressures.

The scenario above could equally describe Ukraine in 2014 or Yemen in 2015. The U.S.'s conflicting responses to these two crises highlight the wide gulf between image and reality in U.S. foreign policy, and illustrate how the actual decision-making of U.S. political leaders invariably leads to greater violence, bloodshed and chaos.

After the coup in Ukraine, the U.S. and its European allies immediately recognized the new government in Kiev, treating the self-styled People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as outlaws and terrorists, or even as foreign invaders in their own country. Thousands of people have been killed, parts of Eastern Ukraine have been reduced to rubble and Ukraine's economy may be in free fall. Diplomacy by France, Germany and Russia has finally achieved a fragile ceasefire.

Appearing to view the ceasefire mainly as a setback in its economic and proxy war against Russia, the U.S. has responded by sending military aid to Ukraine, along with troops to train the new forces that Ukraine's new leaders recruited from neo-Nazi militias and Ukrainian nationalists when they realized they could not count on the Ukrainian military to wage and win a war against its own people.

As in Iraq, the U.S.-backed regime change in Ukraine has undermined legitimate institutions and empowered factional militias with their own agendas. The far-right Svoboda party and Right Sector militia served as a strike force during the coup, seizing weapons and attacking government buildings, transforming a peaceful protest movement into an armed revolt.

In the post-coup parliamentary election, Svoboda and Right Sector collectively won less than 7 percent of the votes, reducing Svoboda from 37 seats in parliament in 2012 to only 6 in 2014. Most Ukrainians rejected these extreme right-wing parties.

But despite their electoral marginalization, these forces are playing a critical role in the war on the Eastern front, with "National Guard" units recruited from Svoboda and Right Sector leading the assault on Eastern Ukraine. The U.S. is taking advantage of the ceasefire to send them new weapons and to deploy 290 troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade to Lviv in the West Ukrainian nationalist heartland, to conduct training exercises with the Neo-Nazi "Azov Battalion" and two other National Guard units.

Meanwhile in Yemen, ex-president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi has fled the country and taken refuge in Saudi Arabia, just as President Yanukovych took refuge in Russia in 2014. But in sharp contrast to its posture on the crisis in Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies still recognize Hadi as the legitimate President of Yemen, despite the awkward facts that his term expired in 2014 and that he formally resigned as president in January 2015. A U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition now seems committed to destroying as much of Yemen as necessary to restore him to power.

The coup in Ukraine seemed to be unconstitutional, relying on a vote in parliament that fell 10 votes short of the 338 required for impeachment, after many members fled the invasion of the parliament building by Svoboda and Right Sector militias. President Yanukovich has always insisted that he never resigned as President.

On the other hand, in Yemen, President Hadi and his government formally resigned on January 22nd 2015 rather than draw up a new constitution as their Houthi-led opponents were demanding. When the Houthis took effective control of Sanaa in September 2014 after Hadi overstayed his term in office, they were content to act as the power behind the government and the enforcers of the political transition that began with the Arab Spring in 2011. It was Hadi's resignation, not their own actions, that left the Houthis "holding the baby", in sole charge of the government and the military in Sanaa and most of the country.

So by constitutional standards, Mr. Yanukovych has a valid claim to his unfinished term as President of Ukraine, while Mr. Hadi has no such claim to still be the President of Yemen.

But to paraphrase Phyllis Bennis, the U.S. and its allies are ready to fight for Yemen to the last Yemeni, just as they are fighting for Syria to the last Syrian, Iraq to the last Iraqi and Ukraine to the last Ukrainian. In each case, the goal is to establish a new government that serves U.S. and allied interests, and, in each case, they are prepared to leave the country in question in ruins, with no limit to the number of casualties, rather than allow a government to survive or emerge that will not be compliant to Western and Arab royalist interests.

The Houthis are Zaidis, a Shiite-related sect that comprises about 40 percent of Yemen's population. Zaidi Imams ruled most of Yemen (and at times much of Saudi Arabia) for over a thousand years, from 897 until 1962. The Ottomans made several attempts to conquer Yemen in the 16th and 17th centuries, but only succeeded in uniting Yemenis in resistance. Unlike the Salafis of Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda, mainstream Sunnis in Yemen do not regard the Zaidis as apostates. Sunnis and Zaidis pray in the same mosques, and sectarianism has not been central to Yemeni politics. As in Iraq, political sectarianism in Yemen is a new development introduced and inflamed by foreign interests.

The last Zaidi Imam Muhammad al-Badr was overthrown in 1962 by an Egyptian-backed military coup led by Colonel Abdullah Sallal. Like Mr. Hadi today, Al-Badr found refuge and support in Saudi Arabia. It did not matter to the Saudis that al-Badr was a Zaidi, any more than it mattered to the Egyptians that Sallal was also a Zaidi. What mattered to Crown Prince Faisal was that Imam Muhammad was a traditional Arab hereditary ruler fighting revolutionary forces backed by Nasser's Egypt.

The North Yemen Civil War lasted eight years, from 1962 to 1970. Egyptians compare it to the U.S. War in Vietnam as a misguided military adventure that went horribly wrong. It began as a special forces deployment to support the new Republic of Yemen, but eventually grew into a guerilla war that tied down up to 70,000 Egyptian troops. The Saudis gave military and financial support to the royalist rebels and the U.K. also provided covert support, with 300 British, French and Belgian mercenaries serving as military advisors and coordinating air-drops of weapons from Israel.

Approximately 26,000 Egyptian troops were killed in the war in Yemen, along with probably 200,000 Yemenis. After the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, an Arab summit in Khartoum agreed that the civil war in Yemen must end in the interest of Arab unity. Egypt withdrew from Yemen, while the Saudis ended their military and financial support for the royalists. The Republicans still received military aid from the U.S.S.R., including warplanes and training, and a months-long royalist siege of Sanaa failed to capture the capital. The war finally ended in 1970 with a ceasefire and Saudi recognition of the Republic of Yemen.

Egypt had closed its embassy in Yemen in 1961, but its former ambassador, Ahmed Abu-Zeid, warned President Nasser from the outset that Egyptian intervention in Yemen would provoke fierce resistance from large numbers of Yemenis and would be a serious mistake for Egypt. President Kennedy sent William Polk to Egypt to deliver a similar warning to Nasser, as Polk described in a recent article. But Nasser didn't listen to either of them.

By attacking Yemen today, Saudi Arabia and its allies will provoke the formation of another strong Yemeni nationalist resistance movement, this time led by the Houthis. This will be a long, bloody conflict and a no-win proposition for the Saudis, who don't seem to have thought through the likely results of their actions.

If Mr. Hadi was still the President of Yemen, he might claim to be exercising his country's right of self-defense when he calls on other countries to wage a deadly and devastating war against his own people, although the widespread killing of civilians would still be a war crime and a crime against humanity. But Mr. Hadi's resignation in January has left him in no position to make such a claim.

So this is not a war of self-defense on behalf of a legitimate government. It is a war of aggression and a violation of the UN Charter. The U.S. is providing the Saudi-led coalition with aid, satellite intelligence and logistical support, making the U.S. a party to aggression against Yemen.

The U.S. would do much better to exercise the newfound diplomatic skills it discovered in Lausanne to nip this new war in the bud, before it blossoms into yet another long, bloody conflict with hundreds of thousands of casualties.