The war against terrorism suffered a setback on Sunday amid news that the government of Yemen fell to Shiite rebels known as the Houthi, a clan that is distinctly inhospitable to any American presence in the region.
The extremists have beaten the moderates, and whatever hopes there had been for peace and stability in Yemen has faded.
Immediately, there were calls for U.S. intervention by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Service committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and now its senior Democrat.
They are advocating “boots on the ground” and demanding a strategy to defeat the Houthis. They charge that the Obama administration has no coherent strategy.
However, the administration is exercising a caution borne of decades of bitter experience fighting first communism, then Islamic terrorism, in distant places abroad.
What strategy beckons? What plan would justify putting American soldiers in harm’s way in that crossroads of internecine chaos?
The containment strategy worked well against the global evil of communism after World War II. But in that case, the expansionist threat was centralized in Soviet Russia. One could draw a perimeter around that state and its contiguous allies in Eastern Europe, while rebuilding and fortifying the democracies of Western Europe.
It was when the U.S. put boots on the ground in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan that the limits of American military power and the willingness of the American people to pay the price of a long war were reached. Even the author of “containment,” State Department theorist George Kennan, was dismayed at the use to which his ideas were put, overextending American power into quagmire and disaster.
Radical Islam, by contrast, is not a state but an ideology — terror without borders. The efforts at containment have more resembled the creation of zones and pockets of safety, a difficult task, given the amorphousness of the foe.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough outlined the strategy during a media blitz over the weekend: support allies, use military power judiciously, and, above all, persevere. It is an unglamorous strategy and it guarantees little, but it may be the only intelligent and responsible one available.
Senator Feinstein also criticized the administration for its failure to predict the turn of events. “I think our intelligence with respect to what’s going to happen in many of these countries is weak. The future is unknown, which really should not be the case.”
When was the future known? Was it known before Pearl Harbor? Was it known on the eve of the Tet offensive? Was it known in Tehran? Or Baghdad? Or Mogadishu? To whom is the future ever known?
Actually, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough answered for the supposedly short-sighted diplomats. McDonough maintained that U.S. leaders “weren’t surprised” by the collapse of the government in Yemen.
The fact of the matter is, nobody should be surprised, since the government’s hold was clearly precarious even to the amateur observer. The Houthi rebels did not appear suddenly from over an empty ridge in the desert last week. They moved into the capital Sana’a and seized control in September 2014. All was not peaches and cream before that, either. The Houthis and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had been making inroads for some time, and the U.S. was well aware of it.
To be sure, containing or combating terrorism spawns its clichés. “Important counter-terrorism efforts continue,” and “we are going to need partners in the region to help us … The best way to do that is … strong transparent leadership, and we will continue to look for that,” McDonough said.
We have been looking for “that” — for partners and strong leadership — for a long time in the region, and have found instead folks like Hamid Karzei, Haider Al-Abadi and Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. There isn’t much reason to think that good, reliable friends will turn up in the foreseeable future.
The Houthis’ slogan — “Death to America! Death to Israel!” — doesn’t offer much encouragement. And it doesn’t take a cryptographer to know that when they chant about Israel, they all too often mean Jews. In fact, “Death to the Jews!” was also heard in the streets of Sana’a when the Houthis swept in last year.
There are now fewer than 100 Jews in the capital, with another community of comparable size in the town of Raida. Everyone knowledgeable about the turmoil in Yemen is today anxious for their safety.
Officials in the Jewish Agency and Israel’s Foreign Ministry are refraining from predicting or even commenting on what the future holds for them. But that is not to say there is no strategy. There may be one to rescue them on the ground that we don’t yet know about. But, as always, we have our own global strategy for fellow Jews in danger:
Acheinu kol Beis Yisrael, haMakom yerachem aleihem v’yotzi’em mitzarah lirvachah…