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Yemen Crisis Creates Even Tougher Challenge For U.S. In Middle East


Where does Washington figure in all of this? Well, we're going to ask Nicholas Burns. He's professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School. Welcome to the program once again.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Yesterday, Saudi Arabia said it would end airstrikes and it did - briefly, at least. Was the U.S. responsible for getting the Saudis to agree to transition away from bombing?

BURNS: Well, the American administration's been saying today it was responsible for it, that it felt that the Saudi bombing was indiscriminate. And if you looked at it, Robert, the Saudi's bombed for a near month. They caused a lot of damage to the infrastructure of Yemen - a lot of civilians killed.

The humanitarian support services broke down in Yemen - a true crisis. And there didn't appear to be a strategy behind what the Saudi's were doing. It appeared to be trying to make an impact, but actually hurting things on the ground.

SIEGEL: Well, in Yemen, from Washington's perspective, there are lots of things to be against, including excessive collateral damage from Saudi bombing. There are the Houthis, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, ISIS - what is the U.S. for in this conflict?

BURNS: You know, I think President Obama has a really tough challenge in the Middle East. There are four states in a period of disintegration, in freefall - of course, you know about Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In Yemen, the first recipe for the United States is do no harm. Secondly, can we lend our support to try to stabilize the situation a little bit to allow diplomacy to take place to separate these warring parties? And I think the additional problem the administration has is this - while we're attempting to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, Iran is making quite dramatic progress in extending its own influence in the Sunni world.

And I think the Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia are trying to push back, and the United States is as well. We want a nuclear deal with Iran if we can get a good one, but we also don't want to see Iran become the kingmaker in traditionally-Sunni capitals in Sunni countries.

SIEGEL: Picking up on your observation that the four countries in the region in freefall - Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen - should the United States be committed to the integrity of these countries if they don't seem to have the sticking power to hold together?

BURNS: Well, we still live in what is called the Westphalian state order. The peace of Westphalia in 1648 lead to the development of sovereign national states. The U.N. charter says that nations' borders are inviolable, that sovereignty is distinctive and inviolable. And once you start questioning that, where does it stop? And do you create a force that causes more destruction than is intended? And so yes, I think it's the responsible thing to do to say that states' borders can not and should not be changed by violence. They should be changed only by mutual agreement - peacefully, diplomatically. But that's not what's happening in the Middle East.

SIEGEL: If the strategic value of Yemen is that it controls the straits through which so much Persian Gulf oil passes, wouldn't its security be one thing that Saudi Arabia and Iran - however much they be be at odds over other issues - would theoretically be able to agree on?

BURNS: I think in a rational world, a rational construct, yes. But what - the overlay of these problems in the Middle East is an increasingly divisive and bitter dispute between the Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia, and Shia Islam led by the great Shia majority-state Iran. And you see them competing now for influence.

And I think that's something else that has to stop if the Middle East is going to have a chance to return to some degree of normalcy. But I must say, Robert, looking at this situation in the Middle East objectively, you've got to assume another decade or more of violence, of revolution, of turbulence, because the Middle East has simply broken apart. And so in a situation like this, you see the Obama administration returning to a traditional American policy, supporting our friends - Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia - trying to keep them stable, so that then you can make some progress in other areas. But when you have four states in open civil war, that is a Middle East that we haven't seen really in a hundred years, since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Burns, now at the Kennedy School, formally of the State Department, thanks for talking with us.

BURNS: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.