The US has legitimate objectives in Yemen: Restoring an elected government that was unlawfully overthrown. Thwarting a violent Islamic sect that seeks to kill those who don’t abide by its theology. Countering Iran’s regional expansion. Preventing territorial safe havens for ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters who have profited from state collapse. All of these harmonize with our values and interests.
Nicholson’s defense of U.S. policy amounts to little more than reciting talking points and attacking Kristof for his supposedly simplistic and “sentimental, grade-school analysis” without proving that Kristof is wrong about anything. It is a weak response to a compelling case for ending U.S. support for an indefensible war. The piece is weirdly titled “America’s conscience and the crisis in Yemen,” but one looks in vain for any explicit condemnation of the U.S. role in the conflict from the author. He says that “[s]trategic concerns do not obviate moral imperatives,” but then proceeds to say very little about what those imperatives require of the U.S.
Let’s take the “legitimate objectives” Nicholson lists one by one to appreciate just how flawed his argument is. Start with the reference to the “elected government” of Yemen. There was technically a presidential election in 2012, and Hadi was the only candidate running. Since then, support for his government has evaporated inside the country even in those areas still nominally under its control, and Hadi remains in exile in Riyadh where the former president does whatever his Saudi backers tell him to do. At this point, practically the only ones that still regard Hadi’s government as the “legitimate” government of Yemen are non-Yemenis. The goal of restoring Hadi has always been an unrealistic one, and it certainly would not be accepted now by the millions of people who have suffered on account of the war waged against them in the name of putting him back in power. Restoring Hadi as president was a dubious goal three years ago, and today it is absurd. Nicholson doesn’t bother to explain why reimposing a deposed government in Yemen matters to the U.S. or why it would justify support for years of senseless warfare being waged at the expense of the civilian population.
The Houthis are indeed a violent and abusive militia, and they have committed countless abuses against the people under their rule and numerous war crimes against civilians. Describing them as driven by theological concerns is misleading but ultimately irrelevant. Why is it a legitimate goal of U.S. foreign policy to “thwart” a Yemeni militia that poses no threat to the U.S.? Nicholson doesn’t tell us. He just asserts it. He also lists countering Iranian expansion as a “legitimate objective,” which presupposes that there is any Iranian “expansion” to be countered. Iran’s role in Yemen has increased in response to the Saudi-led intervention, but it remains negligible. Iran is not “expanding” into Yemen, but even if it were that would not warrant enabling an atrocious war that has driven millions of people to the brink of famine.
Preventing havens for AQAP and the local ISIS affiliate is the one thing on the list that actually has something to do with U.S. security, so it is telling that Nicholson does not address reports that Saudi coalition governments and their proxies have bought off and recruited AQAP members during the course of the war. It has been an open secret that the coalition’s focus on the Houthis has allowed AQAP and ISIS to flourish, and our government is well-aware of the coalition’s alliances of convenience with jihadist groups. If preventing these groups from growing stronger is something that Nicholson thinks the U.S. should be doing, he should be squarely opposed to supporting the Saudi coalition.
There is no serious reckoning with the extent of U.S. involvement or with the costs of the war. Nicholson acknowledges the humanitarian crisis in passing with a link, but he doesn’t mention and doesn’t seem to grasp that the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition bombing campaign and blockade are responsible for most of the suffering of Yemen’s civilian population. He does not confront his readers with the number of people at risk of dying from famine (more than eight million), the number of food insecure Yemenis (more than 17 million), the number of people infected with cholera (more than one million), or the figure that a Yemeni child dies every ten minutes from preventable causes. He mostly keeps his readers in the dark about the consequences of the policy he is defending, and spends a lot of his time chiding Kristof for telling his readers the truth.
He is much angrier at Kristof for so-called “moralistic sermonizing and reductionism” (i.e., the parts in his column where Kristof correctly holds the U.S. responsible for causing enormous suffering) than he is at the Obama and Trump administrations for helping to create the catastrophe. Nicholson is very offended by one line from Kristof’s column in particular:
To say that Americans “are willing to starve Yemeni schoolchildren” because “we dislike Iran’s ayatollahs” is so simplistic as to be immoral in itself. That kind of sentimental, grade-school analysis of complex events gets us no closer to discerning a just course of action.
Kristof’s remark was aimed at the Iran-obsessed Trump administration, and it summarizes one of the official rationalizations for supporting the Saudi coalition war fairly well. As far as the administration is concerned, Yemeni lives are expendable if it means keeping the Saudis and Emiratis happy and opposing the imaginary Iranian “expansion” that Nicholson mentioned earlier. The desire to keep arms sales flowing is another reason for continued backing for the war, and that was confirmed in recent WSJ reporting on Pompeo’s bogus Yemen certification. Nicholson is upset with Kristof’s description not because it is “so simplistic,” but because it is an accurate, damning indictment of U.S. policy. A just course of action would involve refusing to enable coalition war crimes and pressuring the coalition to lift the blockade that is causing so much misery for millions of Yemenis. Nicholson gestures in this direction by saying that the U.S. should rein in the Saudis and Emiratis, but never tells us how the policy should be changed.
Instead, Nicholson goes off on a fairly irrelevant tangent:
The real question here is whether the US should spend more time and money trying to re-unify a country that shouldn’t have been unified to begin with.
That is not the “real question” before us, and Yemen’s political future is not for our government to decide. The real question is whether the U.S. should remain a party to a war in which our government is aiding and abetting war crimes and supporting despotic regimes as they starve millions of people to death. Nicholson is more interested in talking about some possible future partition that has very little to do with resolving the current conflict. Kristof has done a great service in calling attention to the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and in holding our government accountable for its significant part in causing that disaster, and with any luck it will persuade many more members of Congress to support the important antiwar resolution, H.Con.Res. 138, that was introduced in the House earlier this week.