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Warplanes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are pounding targets in Yemen, trying to beat back rebels who routed that country's president this week. The rebels and forces loyal to the president are fighting street battles in the southern port city of Aden. A presidential palace there has already been looted. The chaos in Yemen once again raises questions for the Obama administration about its strategy for combating a dangerous anti-American offshoot of al-Qaida that is based there. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been a tinderbox. But over the last week, it's burst into flames as Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, went on the offensive, driving the president and the last American troops out of the country and prompting an urgent military response from neighboring Saudi Arabia.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: In Yemen's capital, devastating airstrikes from Saudi Arabia.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Another Arab civil war is pulling in its neighbors.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They captured the capital city.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: As security risks forced the military to pull its last special operations forces from Yemen.
HORSLEY: The collapse of the Yemeni government could be another foreign policy black eye for the White House. Just six months ago, President Obama pointed to Yemen as a model for his strategy to combat the self-described Islamic State, with a heavy reliance on local ground forces and limited involvement by the U.S. military.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.
HORSLEY: The administration is standing by that position, despite the instability in Yemen and Somalia, saying the goal of the president's strategy is not nation building, but fighting terrorists. White House officials concede that fight will be harder in Yemen with the collapse of the pro-American government, but Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes insists the U.S. still has the capacity, with drone strikes and other means, to thwart terror attacks launched by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
BEN RHODES: Clearly there are lots of other armed actors in Yemen who pose a threat to Yemen and, to some extent, to regional stability. But we are always very careful to sort out who are the groups that actually pose a threat to the United States.
HORSLEY: Administration critics are not reassured.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Leading from behind is not working.
HORSLEY: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warns the president's largely hands-off approach to the Middle East is creating a dangerous power vacuum.
GRAHAM: It's putting the whole region in a state of chaos and it's degrading our national security, and something must change before it's too late.
HORSLEY: Opponents say the administration's shifting alliances in the Middle East are also fueling uncertainty. The U.S. and Iran are on opposite sides in the Yemeni conflict, but the countries are accidental partners in Iraq, where both are battling the Islamic State. Arizona Senator John McCain suspects Obama's eagerness to strike a nuclear deal with Iran is also coloring his broader Middle East policy.
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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We're negotiating a bad nuclear deal and at the same time turning a blind eye to Iranian aggression, whether it be Damascus, whether it be Baghdad or, now, Sinai.
HORSLEY: Rhodes insists a successful nuclear deal with Iran would defuse what he calls the biggest threat to the Middle East. He argues the administration's critics simply want to drag the U.S. military into another costly conflict.
RHODES: If the United States went to war in every country where either one of our partners in the region wanted us to, or a member of Congress here in Washington wanted us to, we'd be at war in every single country in the Middle East right now.
HORSLEY: Obama's defenders argue that would leave the region even more unstable than it already is. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
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