Ignoring the Indefensible War on Yemen
The New York Times editors express hope that a proposed cease-fire in Yemen might hold:
Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet soon with foreign ministers of gulf Arab nations. If he can make sure they go forward with the cease-fire, there may be a chance of ending a conflict that has slaughtered civilians, tarnished America’s standing and diverted resources from fighting the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
Yemen desperately needs a halt to the fighting, but beyond that it needs the coalition blockade to end. If there is a cease-fire but no lifting of the blockade, the civilian population will continue to suffer from preventable starvation and disease and the provision of humanitarian aid will be significantly hindered as it has been for the last year. As long as the blockade remains in place, the Saudis and their allies will be inflicting enormous harm on the people of Yemen. The country is also going to require enormous aid in rebuilding the infrastructure that has been demolished over the last year. The U.S. and Britain are partly responsible for the wrecking of the country and ought to contribute significantly to helping Yemen recover, but I’m skeptical that either government will accept responsibility for what they have done there. Ideally, the Saudis and their allies would be required to pay for the damage they have caused, but we know that’s not going to happen.
Saudi Arabia and its allies made a horrendous decision to intervene a year ago, and the Obama administration made a disgraceful decision to support them. The administration did this even when they had every reason to expect that the intervention would fail on its own terms, which it did. One of the more sickening things about this war is that almost everyone except the coalition governments could foresee that it would be a disaster for Yemen and the region, and many people said as much when it began, but the Saudis and their allies plowed ahead anyway. It was a completely unnecessary war, but they intervened regardless. The U.S. provided weapons, fuel, and intelligence to help the coalition wage the war, which both enabled the intervention and encouraged the Saudis and their allies to continue fighting. The U.S. has not only helped the coalition to bomb Yemen, but by providing diplomatic cover for their war crimes and withholding criticism of their tactics the administration has made it easier for the Saudis and their allies to get away with numerous violations of international law and to commit more war crimes as the war drags on. The administration has done more than just “tarnish America’s standing” by doing this. They have made the U.S. complicit in the war crimes of Washington’s despotic clients, and to make matters worse they have done all this for nothing. No U.S. interests have been served by this campaign, and it has arguably made both the U.S. and the region less secure by allowing Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to grow stronger.
Had the Saudis and their allies not intervened, Yemen would almost certainly still be suffering from internal conflict, but the conflict would be a less destructive one. There would be fewer people displaced from their homes, the resulting humanitarian crisis would be less severe, and it would have been easier for aid groups and outside governments to provide aid to the civilian population. The outside intervention by the Saudis and their allies took every serious problem Yemen already had and made it much worse, it has clearly intensified the conflict while also making it more difficult to end, and it has achieved none of its goals while putting millions of lives at risk from famine and disease. While the intervention may not technically be illegal because Yemen’s recognized government supports it, it is wrong and unjustifiable in every other way.
It seems incredible that such a thoroughly indefensible military campaign has generated so little outrage and has gone mostly unnoticed outside the region, but unfortunately the lack of attention and reaction is not all that surprising. Most Western media outlets have paid almost no attention to the war, and when there is some coverage the conflict is usually presented with the misleading framing of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war when Iran has little to do with any of what has happened. There have been several good pieces published in the last week to mark the anniversary of the start of the intervention, but during most other weeks it’s as if the war isn’t even happening.
Here in the U.S., the reflexive hawkish tendency to side with “allies” ensures that the administration’s domestic opponents don’t care about what the Saudis are doing, and the partisan impulse to refrain from attacking one’s own side keeps most (but not all) Democrats from criticizing U.S. support for the war. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy is one of the very few honorable exceptions. “Humanitarian” interventionists typically say nothing about humanitarian disasters when the governments responsible for them are on “our” side, and their total silence about this conflict proves that. Republicans that would normally seize on any chance to fault Obama for foreign policy incompetence don’t care what happens to people in Yemen, so it probably never occurs to them to object to the administration’s position. It hasn’t helped that the war has coincided with our election season, since that means there are even fewer resources than usual devoted to covering news from overseas, but all of these other factors help explain why the war has never come up once in any debate and almost none of the candidates has addressed it even in passing.
The Obama administration pretends that the U.S. isn’t a party to the conflict when it clearly is, and with a few exceptions members of Congress don’t challenge the policy and don’t question the decision to back the Saudi-led coalition. Journalists write wide-ranging essays on Obama’s foreign policy, but U.S. involvement in the war never comes up. Hawks are so dedicated to the fiction that Obama “abandons” allies and clients that they would rather fault Obama for doing too little to help the Saudis than to question the U.S. role in the first place. Many Obama supporters have grown so used to cutting the president slack on bad foreign policy choices because of his unreasonable hawkish critics that they have practically forgotten how to judge his foreign policy decisions on the merits. The result is that the war is rarely talked about and the U.S. role in it is mentioned even less often, and so the administration receives virtually no scrutiny or criticism for one of its most egregious and damaging blunders.