Jimmy Carter and the Second Yemenite War: A Smaller Shock of 1979?
Benjamin V. Allison
Benjamin V. Allison takes an inside look into the Carter administration’s policy toward the Second Yemenite War in 1979 and the establishment of the Carter Doctrine.
On March 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed Presidential Determination 79–6, approving the sale of aircraft, tanks, and armored personnel carriers to the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, aka North Yemen); the same day, he ordered the aircraft carrier USS Constellation to the Gulf of Aden, off the Yemeni coast. The arms sale, according to the determination, was “in the national security interests of the United States.”
Carter’s decision came in response to a crisis on the Arabian Peninsula. The YAR and its communist neighbor, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, aka South Yemen), had clashed in a border conflict that resulted in a South Yemeni invasion of North Yemen, raising concerns about the security of the United States’ important regional partner, Saudi Arabia. With the ongoing Egyptian-Israeli peace process entering its crucial final stage, mounting concerns about the encroachment of the Soviets and their friends in the region, and the fall of the pro-American Pahlavi regime in Iran, American power and credibility in the Greater Middle East was quickly slipping.
Washington recognized that it needed to “use some muscle,” as Vice President Walter Mondale put it, to reassure regional partners of American steadfastness. As a result, the Carter administration took its most aggressive action in the region to that point, making the Second Yemenite War, as it came to be known, a turning point in both the region’s history and in American policy toward the Middle East.
Relations between the United States and the PDRY had been sour since the latter gained its independence in 1967, due to their competing interests in several areas, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian Ocean.
The PDRY cut diplomatic relations with the United States in 1969, and the hostility between the two nations persisted throughout most of the 1970s, not least because of the Soviets’ strong influence over and presence in the PDRY. According to a congressional staff survey mission in 1977, “Several hundred Cuban, 116 East German, and more than 1,000 Soviets serve in PDRY as military advisers and in ideological training centers.” This, in the estimate of the report’s authors, necessitated maintaining a strong YAR military to balance against the PDRY threat to the YAR itself and, more importantly to US interests, Saudi Arabia.
Early in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, there seemed to be an opening for reestablishing relations, as US-PDRY contacts increased. But the nascent rapprochement foundered when, on June 24, 1978, the PDRY ambassador assassinated the YAR president, followed two days later by a coup in South Yemen that put a pro-Soviet faction in power.
The June 26 coup was largely the result of former president Rubai Ali’s recent attempts to gain greater autonomy from the Soviets. Having removed Ali, Abdullah Fattah Ismail’s faction was free to pursue a pro-Soviet foreign policy, a fact reinforced by full-throated Soviet support for Ismail, as demonstrated by a propaganda campaign, the deployment of Soviet warships to the Gulf of Aden, and the arrival of Cuban troops in South Yemen. US policymakers immediately recognized this new reality, and attempts to reestablish US-PDRY relations ended abruptly.
The upheaval in both Yemens deeply disturbed the Carter administration; as a cable from US Embassy Sana put it, “Observers in [the] Middle East will draw little comfort from fact that two Chiefs of State in Middle East who sought to limit cooperation with Soviets were killed in same week.” Just weeks before, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, remorseful that the United States had not done more to combat Soviet, Cuban, and South Yemeni interference in the Ogaden War (1977–78) between Somalia and Ethiopia, asked the Department of Defense for an analysis of potential contingencies in the Persian Gulf region, two of which involved a joint Cuban-South Yemeni attack on Saudi Arabia. Now American friends in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and North Yemen, worried the killings might preface Soviet-backed aggression by the PDRY on the Arabian Peninsula.
At the same time Washington moved away from the possibility of a rapprochement with Aden—with some officials calling South Yemen “a negligible factor”—complaints about the PDRY increased, especially from the Saudis, who urged the Carter administration to drastically increase aid to North Yemen, in hopes of countering the PDRY’s rapidly growing power.
During a September 5 meeting between US Ambassador John West and several Saudi leaders, the “Soviet threat in Yemen overshadowed [the] Camp David topic, indicating deep Saudi concern and [the] high priority given to this issue.” Given that the Camp David peace talks between Egypt and Israel coincided with West’s meeting with the Saudis, their focus on the Yemeni situation was striking. Referring to Soviet encroachment, King Khalid confessed his fear of the “circle of fire closing in on us.” West assured the Saudis of American support.
Washington betrayed growing anxiety about the future of the Middle East and North Africa. Not only had the region become increasingly unstable over the past year, with active crises in Lebanon and Iran and mounting tension in the Arabian Peninsula, but the Soviets were gaining confidence in the area. Indeed, in a September memorandum, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) asserted that Washington’s top interests in the Greater Middle East were: “(1) To assure continuous access to petroleum resources. (2) To assure the survival of Israel as an independent state in a stable relationship with contiguous Arab states. (3) To prevent an inimical power or combination of powers from establishing hegemony.” After obtaining a “full or partial Middle East peace settlement,” reducing Arab states’ dependency on the Soviets and their allies for weapons, and reviving the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), JCS argued that continuing the “twin pillars” strategy (i.e. “firm and public commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia and Iran”) was vital to American interests in the region.
American anxiety over the future of the Greater Middle East was best encapsulated in Brzezinski’s “Arc of Crisis.” In a December 2, 1978 memorandum to Carter, Brzezinski developed his mental map of what he considered a critical part of the world. “If you draw an arc on the globe, stretching from Chittagong (Bangladesh) through Islamabad [Pakistan] to Aden [South Yemen], you will be pointing to the area of currently our greatest vulnerability . . . There is no question in my mind that we are confronting the beginning of a major crisis,” he warned, as that vital region appeared to be coming apart at the seams, inviting significant Soviet influence to an area where American prestige was slipping, threatening “a fundamental shift in the global structure of power.” Brzezinski’s “Arc of Crisis” informed American policy in the region for the remainder of the Carter administration.
As the Iranian Revolution unfolded and Soviet power in the region seemed to grow daily, the United States not only maintained its push for an Egyptian-Israeli peace deal—and ideally a more comprehensive Arab-Israeli one—as a means of stabilizing the region, but it also worked to expedite and increase its military sales and assistance to its friends there, including the YAR, which had recently warmed relations with the Soviets. In mid-January, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran, drastically worsening the American position in the region, as the Carter administration stood by, watching the United States’ strongest regional ally collapse.
Events on the Arabian Peninsula, combined with the regional milieu of instability, soon enhanced the administration’s sense that it needed to act. Tensions between the YAR the PDRY had been mounting since the upheaval of summer 1978. North-South Yemeni tensions soon boiled over, touching off a border war in late February 1979. The conflict escalated quickly, and on February 23, PDRY forces, supported by Soviet, Cuban, Ethiopian, and East German military advisors, invaded North Yemen. Although there are conflicting accounts of who started the war, it has subsequently become clear that the Soviets did not approve the incursion; as one South Yemeni communist told the Soviet ambassador, “Yes, it’s us who’ve started the war. If we win, we’ll create Great Yemen. If we lose, you’ll intervene and save us.”
Given the increased importance of oil-producing states in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, the Carter administration could not ignore the invasion of North Yemen and the attendant threat to Saudi Arabia. A day after the invasion began, the YAR president, Ali Abdullah Salih, told George Lane, the US ambassador to North Yemen, “that [the] purpose of [the] PDRY attack was to show Yemenis, both North and South, that [the] Soviets would support their friends but that [the] U.S. would not,” and insisted on the United States directly aiding the North. Although Lane informed Salih that the United States was unlikely to dispatch troops, he noted that Salih seemed to accept this reality. Lane said after that “[t]he kind of arms [Salih] asked for are not those that could be effectively used in the present border fighting, but would be extremely useful in demonstrating to both North and South Yemenis that he has the backing of the United States.”
Early in the crisis, top US officials decided to accelerate deliveries of US military equipment to the YAR and explore options for third-party supply by way of Egypt and Jordan. Additionally, they planned to initiate diplomatic initiatives (particularly with the Soviets), work with the Saudis to mobilize Arab support against the PDRY’s aggression, and offer the YAR aerial reconnaissance support and the possibility of US Navy port calls.
Over the following weeks, the Carter administration adopted the view of the US Military Training Mission in Dhahran (Saudi Arabia): “Yemen is a test case . . . of U.S. security policy in the Middle East even though we might prefer other locations and circumstances,” increasing military supply and noncombat support to the North Yemenis and the Saudis, but stopping short of an actual intervention. Making a “surprise” appearance—actually planned ahead of time by Carter and Brzezinski as a means of pushing the rest of the group to accept a more aggressive policy—at a March 5 Special Coordination Committee (SCC) meeting, President Carter agreed to move the USS Constellation from the Pacific into the Gulf of Aden and deploy US Air Force F–15s to defend Saudi airspace, as Saudi-American cooperation on intelligence and covert action intensified. To expedite American aid to the North Yemenis, Carter issued Presidential Directive 79–6, circumventing the need for congressional approval on arms sales.
Ultimately, the Second Yemenite War ended through Arab mediation, which resulted in the PDRY completely withdrawing from YAR territory and the two sides agreeing to peacefully pursue unification—a goal that was not realized until 1990.
While Carter’s actions in the Yemen crisis were certainly a reaction to domestic pressures in the wake of the Shah of Iran’s fall, they were ultimately an assertion of American power in a region where that power had recently been tested, not least by the Soviets and their friends. This show of American resolve aimed to reassure US allies and the American public that the United States would not watch while its friends were attacked. The Yemen crisis, as Fred Halliday writes, was “of symbolic rather than intrinsic significance.” An unnamed White House official—probably NSC staffer David Aaron—explained that “our actions in Yemen and the Middle East peace process are intimately linked. Both form part of a wider policy of salvaging American influence in the area after Iran.”
This was not mere rhetoric. During the Yemen crisis, Brzezinski outlined a “Consultative Security Framework for the Middle East.” When identifying “the basic sources of instability” in the area, the National Security Advisor listed the Arab-Israeli conflict first, followed by radicalism, Soviet encroachment, and economic disparities. “The stakes at the moment are extremely high,” Brzezinski warned. “Another major setback to U.S. policy in the area—such as [the] collapse of Camp David, the fall of [Egyptian President Anwar al-] Sadat, political instability in Saudi Arabia . . . could put the region dangerously out of control,” with dire consequences for American interests.
Brzezinski’s consultative security framework—essentially a loose grouping of pro-Western states, each of whom would have defense (and sometimes basing) agreements with the United States—became the bedrock of Carter’s Middle East policy moving forward, as the administration sought to securitize the region against further shocks. This was, in many respects, intimately connected with the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in January 1980: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” In this way, Carter drastically changed American Middle East policy to a far more interventionist footing.
While Carter did not send combat troops to North Yemen, and the conflict had ended through outside mediation by the time American materiel and naval units arrived, his decision in the Second Yemenite War was an important show of force, marking a via media between the relaxed American approach to the Ogaden War of 1977–78, on the one hand, and the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine of 1980 and the disastrous attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran on the other. Indeed, by January 1980, when the Yemeni merger seemed imminent, Brzezinski brazenly suggested the drastic step of a “joint action” with the Saudis “to bring about a fundamental political change in South Yemen.” Although this idea was quickly scuttled, it, combined with EAGLE CLAW and the Carter Doctrine itself, signaled the new, aggressive American policy toward the region.
Some scholars speak of the “shocks of 1979”—the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—as the two most important events in shifting Carter’s Middle East policy. While both events certainly had a profound impact on Carter’s thinking, his thinking on defense and foreign policy had already begun to harden long before they occurred, as other scholars have shown. In some ways, the Second Yemenite War was a smaller “shock of 1979,” which, although it did not garner the same attention as Iran or Afghanistan, it helped push Carter further down the road toward creating what became one of his most lasting legacies in the Middle East—the Carter Doctrine, which opened the door for the last forty years of interventionist American policy in the Middle East.