Friday, December 16, 2016

Back Seat Leading

When the height of strategery is "leading from behind" we find that those who fight our enemies instead of us do things differently than we would. Case in point is Yemen, where our allies in front of us, led by Saudi Arabia, crossed our red line. This red line we'll enforce:

The United States has decided to limit military support to Saudi Arabia's campaign in Yemen because of concerns over widespread civilian casualties and will halt a planned arms sale to the kingdom, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The United States will also revamp future training of the kingdom's air force to focus on improving Saudi targeting practices, a persistent source of concern for Washington.

The decision reflects deep frustration within President Barack Obama's government over Saudi Arabia's practices in Yemen's 20-month-old war, which has killed more than 10,000 people and sparked humanitarian crises, including chronic food shortages, in the poorest country in the Middle East.

I'm not sure why the casualties are considered so awful. We're talking 500 per month--which includes losses of combatants as well as civilians--in a civil war in a country of 25 million people.

Remember, civilians killed so far in the civil war are 4,000 in Yemen and 500 in Saudi Arabia. So that's 200 per month in Yemen. Compare that to 62 per month killed in Chicago through 11-1/2 months this year.  With Yemen having a population a little over 9 times, Chicago's kill rate adjusted for population size would be about 570 per month in Yemen terms. Huh, eh?

Mind you that comparison isn't meant to equate police killings of civilians with civilians killing each other. I'm on record as being opposed to that, in (at least) an aside in this post. I'm just noting the casualty rate that prompts outrage theater in Yemen against our ally but the silence of the lambs in Chicago.

But back to our arms shipment halt. I'm not sure how cutting down on deliveries of precision bombs helps save civilian lives in Yemen. Will the Saudi-led coalition use barrel bombs instead, as Assad in Syria uses to deliberately kill civilians?

Remember, all of the Saudi casualties are from attacks by Iran-backed Shias firing into Saudi Arabia; and many of the civilian casualties in Yemen are the result of Iran-backed Shias using human shields. The Saudis are not required to refrain from attacking military targets under those circumstances and the war crime if civilians die lies with the Shias who are using human shields and not the Saudis.

By all means, help the Saudis carry out attacks more carefully. Although keep in mind that failing to win a war sooner by being too careful could in practice result in more casualties given that time is a major killer in war.

But turning against an ally actually willing to fight our battle for us? This will convince our Arab allies under threat from Iran that America is really a solid ally despite the farcical Iran nuclear deal? This is Smart Diplomacy?

I suspect this is more outrage theater and that the supply of precision munitions will be resumed when Saudi supplies run low. We are continuing to help the Saudis in many other ways, after all.

But the image of America slapping the hand of an ally fighting for us isn't going to encourage that sort of thing, now is it?

UPDATE: More on Yemen. Including Shia illegal use of human shields that doesn't deter Saudi-led air strikes.

And whatever we are doing, it is at most a signal of concern:

[Saudi foreign minister] Jubeir, speaking in Arabic, told a joint news conference with Kerry: "This news that has been leaked contradicts reality. The reality is that converting regular bombs to smart bombs would be welcome because smart bombs are more accurate.

"The kingdom has received nothing official from the American government in this regard," he said in answer to a question on reported delays of U.S. weapons supplies.

Kerry appeared to play down the reports of delays to weapons supplies, suggesting procurement was often a slow process, and adding he had worked hard to move sales "forward".

Jubeir's point is well taken.