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Obama and the War on Yemen

The decision to back the Saudi coalition's war was one of the worst policy decisions in decades, and Obama and his officials need to answer for it.
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Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports on Biden’s belated reckoning with the Obama administration’s disastrous support for the war on Yemen and Obama’s continued silence on the subject:

What Obama has is a choice. He’s chosen so far not to acknowledge his culpability for what the United Nations calls the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe or to try to publicly atone for it. He’s also assessed that the killing of a U.S. resident by a U.S.-aligned government with whom he worked closely — selling them more weapons than any other president — doesn’t meet the bar he’s set and Rice talked about. It’s possible to debate whether expectations of apology tours are fair or smart politics. It’s indisputable that the current situation is a curious one for a man whose moral authority is often cited as his defining characteristic.

“He should have never allowed support for the intervention back in 2015,” said Jehan Hakim, the chair of the Yemeni Alliance Committee, a Yemeni-American advocacy group. “The Yemeni community does not see the war in Yemen as a Trump war.”

“An apology is a moral imperative,” she added, but it’s only the beginning of a process of accountability that she said should include more aggressive support from Obama and his team for attempts to immediately end the U.S. role in the conflict.

U.S. support for the war on Yemen began under Obama and continued for almost two years without any public comment on it from the president. Obama administration officials spoke about U.S. support for the war, and they told some egregious lies about the war, but Obama himself said nothing. That policy remains one of Obama’s most shameful and destructive legacies, and it is a black mark on his foreign policy record that won’t be erased by anything he says now. It may be that Obama thinks that he can avoid scrutiny of this part of his record by not calling attention to it, but if so he is mistaken. Biden’s newfound opposition to the war should make it impossible for Obama to escape that scrutiny. It also requires Biden to explain why it took him so long to turn against such an obviously catastrophic policy.

Some former members of the Obama administration remain stuck in denial:

“It’s undeniable, as we have said, that the Obama administration’s approach did not succeed at limiting and ultimately ending the conflict in Yemen,” said Price. “You won’t find anyone who isn’t heartbroken at the tragedy that has unfolded there. But it’s also demonstrably wrong to argue that the Obama administration forged a glide path for the Trump administration’s approach toward Yemen. The two approaches are fundamentally different in terms of the strategies, objectives, and values that undergird them.”

This is preposterous excuse-making that isn’t fooling anyone. Trump inherited this policy from Obama, continued it, and then escalated it. If that’s not a “glide path,” what is it? What was “fundamentally different” about the Obama administration’s support for the Saudi coalition that distinguishes it so clearly from Trump’s? Trump has been an unabashed supporter of the Saudis in his public statements, but in practical terms the weapons sales and military assistance have been virtually identical. The current administration is more shameless in pushing Saudi propaganda, but the previous administration did plenty of that, too. The main difference seems to be that Obama administration officials were more likely to say privately that they knew the war would fail from the start, but for reasons known only to them they kept supporting it anyway. The Obama administration was also very well aware of the war crimes that U.S. support enabled, but just like the current administration they disingenuously claimed that U.S. support was making the Saudi coalition’s bombing campaign better:

The Obama administration has engaged in an “incomplete reckoning,” according to Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“We repeatedly provided evidence [of Saudi misconduct] to Obama administration officials, but they would insist, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, that the support they were providing was reining in the Saudis and helping improve their ability to comply with the laws of war,” she wrote on the Just Security blog last year. “This is not a case of hindsight knows best. The Obama administration should have known back then.”

Obama and other members of his administration have been given a pass for more than four years for their role in starting the disastrous policy of supporting the war on Yemen. The decision to back the Saudi coalition’s war was one of the worst policy decisions in decades, and Obama and his officials need to answer for it. We can agree that Obama’s successor took this terrible policy and made it even worse, but if it weren’t for Obama’s decision to side with the Saudi coalition there would have been no policy for Trump to continue.

It is understandable that so few Obama administration veterans want to talk about Yemen, and even fewer want to face up to the administration’s role in the catastrophe. It is one of their great failures. The war is indefensible. The humanitarian crisis created by the war remains the worst in the world, and it imperils the lives of millions of people. But it because it is such a horror show and because the destructive U.S. role began on their watch that they have to be made to confront what they did.

One reason that there is never any accountability in foreign policy is that officials are allowed to wash their hands of the disasters they helped to create after they leave government. Former presidents are never made to answer for the decisions they took while in office. U.S. policies can wreck entire countries, and the authors of those policies face no consequences of any kind. If we are ever going to change U.S. foreign policy to make it more peaceful and restrained, it is imperative that we begin holding people responsible when they pursue monstrous policies.



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