America Should Not Fight Saudi Arabia’s Wars
A Saudi Arabian oil field and processing facility were attacked this month by drones and cruise missiles that appear to be of Iranian design. Though unfortunate, these attacks are likely a signal of Iranian anger at maximum pressure and might be an extension of the Saudi-led intervention in neighboring Yemen's civil war. Washington's max pressure campaign is backfiring and so is American military involvement in the Yemeni war and Sunni-Shiite fight. At this point, it is not yet proven whether the missiles and drones were launched from Iranian soil or Iranian-backed militias Yemen or Iraq. Regardless of their origins, the strikes were an attack on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, not America. Any U.S. military response would escalate, risking all-out war. After all, a Business Insider poll found that only 13 percent of Americans support “the U.S. military joining or supporting Saudi Arabia in a conflict.”
Saudi Arabia is the third-largest military spender in the entire world, ranked only after America and China. With a defense budget of $67.6 billion, Riyadh should defend itself. Instead of fighting Saudi Arabia’s wars, Washington should reserve our military for U.S. security and prosperity. Saudi Arabia’s national interests are not U.S. national interests—wise policymakers would separate the two when they collide.
The Saudi-led coalition, which receives U.S. military support (started by Obama and continued under Trump) has been fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. An ongoing coalition blockade and airstrikes have caused between 60,000 and 80,000 civilian deaths. In fact, one-third of all coalition airstrikes hit non-military targets and vital infrastructure, displacing many and putting 14 million Yemenis in danger of dying from hunger and disease.
Given this toll, it would come as no surprise if the Houthis responded with strikes of their own on Saudi Arabia. While Iran likely provided the weapons and training, it may not have necessarily ordered the attacks. Besides motive to strike, the Houthis have more autonomy than other Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah.
No matter who ordered them, the attacks on Saudi Arabia were foolish and unnecessary. But so are Riyadh’s ongoing actions in Yemen and Washington’s maximum pressure campaign on Tehran. Any escalation—by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, or Iran—risks triggering a regional war that would be bad for the U.S. and our friends in the Middle East. Over time, this makes every new crisis more difficult to resolve.
America is in the Middle East to counter international terrorism and to protect against major, long-term disruptions to oil flows that fuels the world economy. U.S. interests would be harmed if Iran and Saudi Arabia went to war—especially if it dragged the United States into the conflict. Iran and its proxies need to stop such provocations and realize that, sooner or later, things will get out-of-hand. But to avoid further attacks on oil facilities relied on by many countries around the world, Washington needs to halt its maximum pressure campaign, cease its support for Saudi Arabia’s horrific campaign in Yemen, and ultimately find a way forward with Iran that doesn’t involve unending tit-for-tat.
No amount of military strikes will deter Iran backed into a corner with no options but risky, belligerent behavior, or total capitulation. There was no loss of life in the attacks, and Saudi Arabia will have its production capacity restored by the end of this month—its output will resume to pre-strike levels by late November.
Furthermore, no Americans were harmed, and the United States does not rely on Saudi oil to the same degree as we did in the past. America is the world’s leading oil producer and today imports 75 percent less oil from Saudi Arabia than it did in 2003. The Middle East is of diminishing strategic importance, while Asia is growing. Iran is a challenge—and its asymmetric capabilities can inflict far more severe damage than the precision strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure—but it is absolutely not a near-peer competitor.
The attack on Saudi Arabia is a major warning sign that maximum pressure isn’t working. Recognizing that Iran is matching increased pressure with pressure, means realizing that only by reducing Washington’s encirclement of Iran, will Tehran reduce its violent efforts to break that containment. Military actions, on the other hand, will cause more military responses in ways that cause pain or threaten more significant oil disruptions.
During the last crisis in which Washington considered airstrikes on Iran, Trump wisely called them off because they would have killed 150 Iranians, sparking a spiral that could bog down the United States in another endless war.
This time, Trump again is taking it slow. He has publicly ruminated on his desire to avoid starting the kind of Middle East ground war that haunted the last two presidencies. Trump knows Iran and its proxies are a problem but are not a threat that requires another war. Iran is a middling power, easily checked by its neighbors, and military strikes would cause more problems (not solve them).
Americans do not want another war in the Middle East. Maximum pressure has only made Iran lash out more and U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen does not help to further peace or human rights. Washington should talk to Iran and help end the war in Yemen. America will continue to deter Iran from attacking U.S. personnel by having far and away from the strongest military on earth. The United States is powerful enough to remain secure no matter what. Washington should look after our interests rather than becoming more deeply entangled in Middle East fights. Riyadh can look after itself. There is no justification for the United States to fight another war there, and Trump would be strong and wise to avoid one.
John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defense Priorities. He is also an Assistant Managing Editor for The National Interest. His articles have appeared in Defense One, Stars and Stripes, Real Clear Defense and The Hill.