The Uproar

America’s Forgotten War

It+is+the+duty+of+the+legislature+to+ensure+that+wealth+%28and+income%2C+by+default%29+is+not+concentrated+in+the+hands+of+a+powerful+few%2C+because+to+do+so+is+to+begin+destroying+the+fabric+of+America.
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America’s Forgotten War

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

graphic by Alex Flagg

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

graphic by Alex Flagg

graphic by Alex Flagg

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

Roshie Xing

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“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin (attributed)

American foreign policy is complicated. Although we prefer imagining (rationalizing) that all our foreign policy decisions are for the greater good, promoting peace and stability and freedom in the world, the fact of the matter is that many decisions made are the lesser of multiple evils, moves to ensure temporary stability and promote American interests. We have supported dictators and brutality, turned a blind eye to genocides and then wondered why anti-American sentiment is so prevalent in the world.

After the brazen murder of one man — Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian expatriate writing for the Washington Post — ordered, according to American intelligence, by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, erstwhile friend of America’s establishment and media darling, a reckoning of the American-Saudi relationship was forced. MBS is, of course, the same 30-year-old strongman who imprisoned his family members to consolidate power, kidnapped and forced the resignation of the prime minister of Lebanon, and tried (to varying degrees of success) to force goodwill through manipulation of oil prices. He is also sponsoring the murders of thousands of civilians in Yemen, an endeavor in which America is aiding him, that has resulted in the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today and that has concerned relatively few people. But what exactly has been going on in Yemen, this nation roughly the size of Colorado and Kansas combined, and why has the United States been involved, when we have seen so clearly the unintended and often grievous consequences of American interference in other nations?

This tragedy has been entirely man-made.”

The war in Yemen itself began in 2015 with the collapse of the government and an attack against Houthi rebels by a Saudi-led coalition. But, as is often in the Middle East, there were many other factors to the war. The first thing to note is that Yemen is 99% Muslim, with approximately 65% Sunni (mostly Shafi’i) and 35% Shi’ite (mainly Zaidi); this religious divide has influenced much of the Middle East’s conflicts to date. Yemen is also the poorest country in the Middle East. The modern Republic of Yemen was created in 1990 after communist South Yemen merged with the north. In 2009, government troops and the new Shiite rebel group known as Houthis clashed in the north, killing hundreds and displacing a quarter of a million people. Following the American-supported Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East, Yemen’s longtime authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh (Shiite, ruled 33 years) was forced out in 2011, leaving the presidency to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi (Sunni, currently in power). Unfortunately, this transition failed. At the time, al-Qaeda remained a present threat, there was massive unemployment and food insecurity, and many military officers remained loyal to Saleh. So in 2014, a group comprised of Houthi rebels, ordinary Yemenis discontented with Hadi (including Sunni Muslims), and Saleh loyalists began taking control of northern Yemeni territories, eventually capturing the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. This group — backed, supposedly, by Saleh in an attempt to regain power — moved south to take control of the entire country, forcing Hadi to flee in March 2015 to Saudi Arabia. As the Houthi rebels have been linked tenuously to Iran (specifically through the provision of ballistic missiles, though Tehran denies involvement), a Saudi-led coalition of 9 majority-Sunni Arab states began an air campaign against the rebels to restore Hadi to power, essentially making Yemen a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. This coalition was given logistical and intelligence support (and later, weapons) from the UK, US, and France. The US had previously been involved in Yemen since the early 2000s through drone strikes to target leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The coalition’s operation, named Operation Decisive Storm, began with a blockade. As three countries’ navies guarded the Yemeni coast, Saudi and Emirati (United Arab Emirates) forces advanced inward and the Saudis began a campaign that blanketed Yemen with bombings, turning the already weak country into an indiscriminate killing field. In April 2015, the name of the mission was changed to Operation Renewal of Hope, a cruel moniker as the campaign has done anything but. These bombs have been violent and horrific, wreaking havoc on an already gravely damaged nation and acting as recruitment material for AQAP and a rival faction of the Islamic State. Yemen’s infrastructure has been virtually eradicated. Nearly a third of these airstrikes have hit “non-military targets” like hospitals, markets, and mosques and 60% have hit civilian targets. Both the Houthi rebels and their allied groups and the Saudi coalition have committed atrocities, but it is the coalition airstrikes that have perpetrated the greatest number of civilian casualties which, according to the UN, likely amounts to war crimes. And America is complicit. In October 2016, an American-made bomb dropped on a funeral hall, killing 155. The Saudis blamed “incorrect information” for the strike, and then-President Obama (who had, to be fair, started the American policy of massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia) banned the sale of precision-guided military technology to Saudi Arabia, as such technology was being used to indiscriminately murder civilians. In March 2017, that ban was overturned by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In August 2018, a strike hit a school bus, killing at least 40 children (most between 10 and 13). The Saudi government called it a “legitimate military action” before international pressure forced them to admit some measure of wrongdoing. The bomb that hit the bus was made by Lockheed Martin, an American weapons manufacturer, and part of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Since June of this year, civilian casualties have drastically increased to about 166 deaths per month as the Saudi coalition has attempted to retake the key city of Hodeidah from rebels.

The United States does not directly make targeting decisions for the coalition. But it, along with France and Great Britain, supplies the coalition with billions of dollars in arms sales (the US provides 61% of Saudi weapons imports), refuels Saudi combat aircrafts, shares intelligence, and provides weak defenses of atrocities by pointing the finger at Iran and the Houthis. Should we truly be providing such vast and devastating weaponry to a group that makes “mistake” after costly mistake in targeting innocent civilians, condoning their scheme of mass murder? In response to these “mistakes,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis have baldly defended the Saudis as taking sufficient steps to protect civilians; in just one Friday last month, the coalition bombed 22 children and four women. That seems the adequate amount of caution. The president has called these billion-dollar arms sales to Riyadh as necessary to the American economy, generating hundreds of thousands of jobs. As always, these numbers have been inflated, creating at most about 17,000 jobs per year, or about .01% of the US workforce. On the other hand, Germany, Denmark, and Finland have stopped arms sales to Saudi Arabia. So there we have it. At a time when it could act as a moral leader and pressure Saudi Arabia’s coalition to cease its reckless war crimes in Yemen or at least reduce civilian casualties because Saudi Arabia needs the United States far more than we need them, America will continue full-throatedly backing them without any compunction because money and jobs and oil are more important than the growing normalcy of the rubble of a bus obliterated by a bomb with “Made in America” emblazoned on it surrounding children’s bodies.

What has been more brutal to Yemen’s civilian population, however, as in any war, has been famine and disease. Prior to the civil war, 8 million of Yemen’s 26 million people were already classified as facing famine conditions. After the rebels took Sanaa, Yemen ceased to function completely. In the eastern seaport city of Mukalla, AQAP even briefly ran its own de facto state, simply because it was willing to clean trash off the streets. Today, more than ¾ of the population are in need of aid and protection under the UN’s definition, half (11.3 million) of whom require immediate assistance to survive. There have been nearly 18,000 civilian casualties in Yemen. According to Save the Children, an international NGO*, more than 85,000 children have starved to death since the start of the war, 20-30% of those from acute malnutrition. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed a sea and air blockade on Yemen, restricting access to aid and imports of essential goods like food and medicine for starving civilians. The bombing of civilian infrastructure including water treatment plants and Houthi mismanagement of sewage, furthermore, have sparked a massive cholera outbreak that affected over a million people. Former president Saleh’s death in 2017 by sniper fire has yielded in more chaos, and more than 3 million people have fled the country and 2 million have been internally displaced. Yemen is, of course, included in the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” that was upheld by the Supreme Court. On November 26, five of the world’s major humanitarian organizations directly placed a share of the responsibility on the US for the more than 14 million Yemenis at risk of starving to death, the world’s worst mass famine in a century. This tragedy has been entirely man-made.

Thousands will die from airstrikes, millions will irrevocably be touched by famine or disease, and we will be left with yet another Middle Eastern state leveled by bombs and open to radicalization. ”

But there are glimmers of hope, or at least the potential for some sort of break in this impasse that has taken over Yemen. At this point, the president and leaders of his administration, the Houthi leader, and the UN are supporting a cease fire, though a UN Security Council ceasefire agreement has been stalled by the US. Unfortunately, the president’s obsequious overtures to Saudi Arabia means that there will likely be little executive pressure on Saudi Arabia to do so as well. There is currently aA Senate bill, sponsored by Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Mike Lee (R-UT), to end US involvement in the war Yemen’s war without Congressional approval (the legality of which is dubious by triggering due to the 1973 War Powers Resolution) has just been passedadvanced to be debated. A similar bill in the House (HR 138), sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), had been introduced but was stopped barred preemptively from being debated in a stunning act by Republican leadership. A clause in a bill to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list (really?!) was added to prohibit debate on Khanna’s bill, which would have forced the president to remove the US military from Yemen within 30 days. This cowardly act — reminiscent of Speaker Paul Ryan’s last-minute removal of a repeal of the expansive post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force from a defense bill — is exactly why there is so much frustration with Congress. Ending American involvement in Yemen, be it arms sales or targeting intelligence, is a bipartisan issue, especially as it was never approved by Congress. If members of Congress as diverse in ideology as Sen. Mike Lee (thinks addressing climate change will hurt the economy, calls highways and public schools precursors to a civil war), Sen. Bernie Sanders (literal democratic socialist), Sen. Rand Paul (grandstanding “libertarian” that nevers fails to cave), and Rep. Thomas Massie (Republican libertarian), then a bill ending US involvement in Yemen should pass. Of course, because of the interests of a few entrenched Congressional leadership figures, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive lobbying, and the foreign policy establishment’s military industrial complex, that bill never stood a chance. Fortunately, the reintroduction of Khanna’s bill in a new Democratic House and its likely success as well as the passage of the Senate bill (with the support of prominent former government officials) would effectively end American involvement in Yemen and thus pressure Saudi Arabia to end the war, even as the President and much of the foreign policy establishment oppose such actions. But at what cost? These bills will take many months to pass  and the human cost of such a delay will be unfathomable. Thousands will die from airstrikes, millions will irrevocably be touched by famine or disease, and we will be left with yet another Middle Eastern state leveled by bombs and open to radicalization. But more than that, the United States and we, its people, will be left to reckon with the realization that we supported a devastating, reckless genocidal war and that had Jamal Khashoggi not been so brazenly killed, had MBS been more cunning in his power grabs, we likely would have continued supporting it.

*The author is a member of the advocacy branch of Save the Children

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