Mattis’ Yemen Legacy
Micah Zenko takes a closer look at Mattis’ tenure as Secretary of Defense and finds lots to criticize:
In October and December, Mattis claimed that the United States was providing in-air refueling to the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, “so the pilots didn’t feel they had to make a hasty decision about the drop or not to drop, that sort of thing.” This was an attempt to rewrite history in real time, since protecting civilians was not the purpose of the refueling under former President Barack Obama or under Trump [bold mine-DL]. As the Central Commander James Votel explained to the Senate in March, refueling was necessary because it “gives us placement, it gives us access and it gives us influence … with Saudi Arabia,” adding, “They want this type of support, and they want to improve their capabilities.” It was not, as Mattis claimed, to prevent civilian casualties but to literally fuel an air campaign that ensured them by its systematic, indiscriminate nature.
Mattis said a number of false and misleading things about the U.S. role in the war on Yemen over the last two years. That isn’t surprising, since he was one of the leading advocates for increasing the U.S. role in the war as soon as he took office. His spin about refueling Saudi coalition planes was probably one of the most ridiculous things he said about that role. As anyone could see from the results of the bombing campaign, coalition pilots were and still are regularly attacking civilian targets. Refueling practically guaranteed that there would be more civilian casualties, not fewer.
Mattis’ arguments in defense of the Saudi coalition and U.S. backing for them were always remarkably weak, and they were inevitably based on an unfounded belief that the Saudis and Emiratis were doing “everything humanly possible” to avoid loss of innocent life. He went so far as to insist that he didn’t see any “callous disregard” for innocent life on the coalition’s part. Our government’s support for the war on Yemen was and remains indefensible, and Mattis did everything he could to rationalize it and keep U.S. support for it going. Unfortunately, U.S. support for the war will continue after he leaves office next week, and the administration will keep hiding behind the bad arguments that Mattis used during his tenure to defend the indefensible.