It seems lame, at this point, to refer to wheels coming off the bus. It’s more like the bus – with or without wheels; it doesn’t really matter – has been pressurized by some Rube Goldberg method, and launched with a B-movie slingshot device into outer space. There are still people onboard, and a semblance of life support and a frame of reference, but everything is spinning crazily, and it’s clear the situation is…unstable.
Allen West posted yesterday on the Islamic State assault on Ramadi – which is an issue in itself, also bespeaking American collapse – and included a tag paragraph on Yemen, in which he noted that U.S. citizens are having to flee Yemen any way they can, because the Obama administration won’t organize an evacuation operation to get them out.
But he noted as well that there is a contingent of Marines and Navy forces in theater which has as one of its core missions the execution of non-combatant evacuation operations, or NEOs. A NEO is specifically intended to evacuate civilians. NEO plans are on the shelf for almost every realistically foreseeable contingency; we of course had a NEO plan for Yemen, years before the Houthi takeover in Sanaa forced our embassy personnel to evacuate in February.
At no time from mid-February to now has there been any evidence that the afloat forces – or the other military forces we have stationed across the Gulf of Aden in Djibouti – were being used to assist Americans in getting out of Yemen.
Instead, we get strange reports like this one from the Washington Post on 17 April, assuring us that although there are seven Navy ships in the area, the U.S. is not participating in the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen.
Under normal circumstances, Americans would have expected two things.
1. We would be using at least some of the ships (e.g., the ships of the USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) Amphibious Readiness Group, or ARG, with their embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit, the 24 MEU) to help Americans who need evacuating from the conflict zone in Yemen.
2. We’d know it if we were participating in a blockade – or not – and wouldn’t need assurances on that head from low-level military spokesmen and the Washington Post.
Raise your hand if you suspected we were participating in a blockade of Yemen, which incidentally is a belligerent act. Right. It probably hadn’t even occurred to you.
But things are awful darn peculiar. First, the ARG/MEU has been in the Central Command (CENTCOM) theater throughout the period since our embassy was evacuated in February, but it has never been used to address any part of the collapsing situation in Yemen or the plight of the Americans stranded there. Consider two points to put that fact in context.
One, Indian and Russian ships have put into ports in Yemen – ports where the Yemeni factions were fighting or the security situation was uncertain – and found a way to load passengers. That’s how some Americans have gotten out, riding the foreign warships as far as Djibouti. (Others have plunged into the Red Sea in boats.)
There is no other navy operating in theater that can bring the combined assets and firepower of an ARG/MEU, backed by two U.S. Navy destroyers and the air and special forces assets in Djibouti, to the problem of rescuing civilians from these dangerous ports. And yet, other navies have rescued civilians anyway. (More on that below.)
The State Department’s repeated excuse is relayed in this widely-cited McClatchy article:
U.S. officials have said they believe it is too dangerous for U.S. military assets to enter Yemeni waters and air space.
If that doesn’t make you want to throw things, get inspired with this clip, posted by our colleague Michael Dorstewitz, of Marie Harf shrugging the whole thing off:
The second point for context is that the ARG/MEU was split up throughout much of the timeframe between the evacuation of the U.S. embassy and Yemen’s general eruption in flames in late March. It wasn’t just split up; it was going about previously scheduled business (on which the ships of an ARG are often split up these days).
If you’ve got a terribly dangerous, Yemen-size situation from which Americans may need rescuing, you keep an ARG/MEU together to function as a full fighting force. That, at least, is what you do if you’re taking the safety of American citizens seriously.
Our president and secretary of defense have absolute discretion over whether an ARG/MEU is split up or not. Splitting it up makes any contingency situation relatively more dangerous. So it is utterly disingenuous for the Obama administration to send the ARG/MEU forces on their separate ways, and then complain that it’s too dangerous to use our military assets to rescue our citizens from Yemen.
The timeline looks like this. On 7 February, Houthi rebels declared themselves in charge of Sanaa and western Yemen. On 10 and 11 February, the U.S. embassy in Sanaa was evacuated.
The Iwo Jima ARG/24 MEU had just arrived in the CENTCOM theater, having deployed in January from the U.S. East coast. The ARG/MEU did not deploy in response to the situation in Yemen; it deployed as part of the regular rotation of forces to CENTCOM. Although the ARG ships were off Yemen at the time of the evacuation, they would have been off Yemen anyway due to their deployment timing and transit route. A number of sources, like Marine Corps Times, confirmed that they did not participate at all in the 10-11 February evacuation.
By 15 February, Marines from the 24 MEU contingent on Iwo Jima were ashore in Djibouti conducting “Sustainment training.” No later than 17 February, the other two ARG amphibious ships, USS New York (LPD-21) and USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43), had departed the Gulf of Aden heading for the Persian Gulf. Both ships were in the Persian Gulf on 22 February; based on the typical transit speed for their types, they had to leave the Gulf of Aden by 17 February at the latest. (They probably left it earlier than that.)
On 21 February, President Hadi – nominally America’s ally – fled house arrest in Yemen and went to Djibouti.
The ARG/MEU had been split up for several days by then, and the Iwo’s Marines were ashore in Djibouti. As the situation in Yemen spiraled out of control, the Iwo Marines continued sustainment training in Djibouti, and New York and Fort McHenry continued to operate in the Persian Gulf, 2,000 miles away (1740 nautical miles). New York was in the northern Persian Gulf on 6 March, and Fort McHenry was in the vicinity of Manama, Bahrain on 10 March.
Fort McHenry, with her embarked Marines, participated in Exercise Eagle Resolve in Kuwait from 11-31 March. During this period, on 20 March, ISIS carried out its horrific bombing attack on the Shia mosque in Sanaa, and Saudi Arabia went into action to assemble the coalition that began air strikes a week later.
By 28 March, news was beginning to seep out to the public that Americans were stranded in Yemen, fearful and facing grave danger. It’s an interesting date, because based on when USS Iwo Jima was photographed pierside in Duqm, Oman for a port visit – 30 March – 27 March is the last day Iwo could have left the Gulf of Aden. Iwo probably left a little earlier than that; in other words, right during the rapid collapse of remaining order in Yemen, and the Saudi spin-up.
By 15 April, Iwo Jima was reported to have left Oman. Her time in Duqm included mid-deployment repair work, so she was probably in port the entire time between 30 March and at least 8 April (given up to a week’s delay in news reporting that she had left port). USS New York was back in the Gulf of Aden by 2 April.
America in the weak-and-needy role
Americans should understand clearly from this timeline that the president has not had his Navy-Marine Corps amphibious forces on standby to assist our citizens in Yemen. The forces are in theater, and it would have been possible to use them – at the very least, to secure an airfield and/or a pier area in a Yemeni port, long enough to move out a good number of the 3,000-4,000 U.S. citizens thought to be in the country. Obama just hasn’t given them the task.
It’s worth taking a moment to recognize how many other countries have mounted evacuation operations for their citizens: Russia, Egypt, Pakistan, Thailand, India, China, Indonesia, Germany, Turkey – and that’s just a partial list. Several of these countries have evacuated the citizens of other nations, including Americans. The Saudi navy evacuated many of the foreign diplomats in Yemen. Somehow or other, these nations’ resources were sufficient to effect safe evacuations in spite of the danger.
Meanwhile, back on that “blockade” business from out of left field. As Washington Post and others reported, USS Sterett (DDG-104), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, boarded and searched a cargo ship, the Saisaban, on 1 April. The boarding came up with nothing.
When news media first broke this story, a week ago, the Obama administration didn’t seem to feel any urgency about clarifying how this related to the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, which had been imposed on 30 March. That and the fact that Saisaban’s operating profile didn’t look suspicious, and the boarding came up with nothing, made me wonder what exactly was going on.
Saisaban is operated by a legitimate Greek shipping company and appears to have very ordinary itineraries; compelling intelligence about prohibited cargo wasn’t likely for this ship. Was the U.S. Navy boarding her just because of where she was, and/or her destination?
If so, that would be more of a blockade-type action than an intercept to prevent arms proliferation from Iran, or for the purpose of terrorism – the missions our navy has a charter for today.
And the narrative in the WSJ’s 12 April disclosures was, in fact, about preventing Iran from arming the Houthis, which is the purpose of the Saudi blockade.
The destroyer USS Sterett’s search of the Panamanian-flagged Saisaban on April 1 came up empty. But the officials said it marked the U.S. Navy’s first boarding operation in an expanding campaign to ensure Iran doesn’t supply game-changing weapons such as surface-to-air missiles that would threaten Saudi-led airstrikes on the Houthis.
This question raised the next one: what does Congress know about this, and does it concur?
Sure enough, when WaPo mentioned the same boarding by Sterett in its article from yesterday (17 April), the administration’s narrative had been modified.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the United States had expanded its role at sea around Yemen, searching vessels for Iranian arms bound for the rebels. But Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, downplayed the effort on Friday, saying the United States is not a part of the Saudi-led blockade and is simply patrolling waters in the region the way it usually does.
This narrative shift has about it the all-too-common whiff of the Obama administration trying to clean up after a sloppily placed earlier theme. Most Americans wouldn’t catch this discrepancy – but there are folks on Capitol Hill who would, and who would rightfully demand to know if Obama was joining a blockade of Yemen without consulting Congress.
The sad – no, the tragic – thing about this point on the blockade is that the Obama administration cares too little about such distinctions. Yet they make the difference between a stable international environment, one with carefully observed conventions and adult leadership, and an unstable environment in which the bad guys are encouraged by craziness and chaos.
What constitutes a “blockade” may seem like an arcane point, but if you’re slinging armed force around, it’s one you’d better get right – if you want to keep the peace. The Obama administration won’t even commit itself to do that, much less rescue Americans from Yemen. One thing is for sure. What’s going on out there is not what Americans think they maintain a military for.
Bonus video: for those who’ve never had the joy of blue-water small arms training on a big-deck, see the Marines of 24 MEU in action earlier in April.