The pro-war consensus on Yemen unravels

January 10, 2019

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman could once count on bipartisan support in the U.S. for his agenda, but that’s changing fast, writes David Moulton.

FOR NEARLY four years, the U.S. has been enabling the destruction of Yemen.

In March 2015, Barack Obama gave Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners the green light to attack Yemen in Operation Decisive Storm. This intervention was meant to destroy the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen and reinstall the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

What was sold as a quick operation turned into a bloody stalemate. Around 56,000 Yemenis have been killed directly in the fighting. In addition to these casualties, many more have succumbed to hunger and disease, largely due to the actions of the coalition.

The Saudi bombing campaign has systematically targeted civilian infrastructure as well as food production and distribution. This, along with an intermittent blockade and economic warfare, has led to an unprecedented cholera epidemic and widespread famine.

Activists rally against the U.S.-backed war on Yemen in San Francisco
Activists rally against the U.S.-backed war on Yemen in San Francisco (Yemeni Alliance Committee | Facebook)

The UN estimates that, out of a total population of about 28 million, as many as 13 million may be at risk of starvation if the war continues.

Along with diplomatic cover, the U.S. has supported the coalition through midair refueling, intelligence sharing and billions of dollars in arms sales. U.S. involvement was never authorized by Congress and for most of its duration has received scant public attention or debate.


SUPPORT FOR the Saudis has been bipartisan over the years, and the silence of the mass media has spanned the liberal-conservative divide. From the middle of 2017 to mid-2018, cable network MSNBC did not run a single story on the U.S. war in Yemen.

In the latter half of 2018, however, the situation has begun to change. In August, the Saudi coalition dropped a bomb on a school bus in Yemen, killing at least 40 boys between the ages of 6 and 11. It was an act heinous enough to finally break the media’s virtual blackout on Yemen, with both CNN and MSNBC running segments on the bombing and U.S. complicity.

Shocking at it was, this atrocity was consistent with the coalition’s general strategy of war on Yemen’s children. The aid agency Save the Children has estimated that 85,000 children under 5 have died from malnutrition due to the war. Already in 2016, it was reported that the Saudi regime bribed the UN to have itself removed from a list of countries that routinely abuse children.

This information didn’t stop Thomas Friedman and others from heralding Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Crown Prince and chief architect of the war, as a “bold reformer” and the great new hope of the Middle East. Just last spring, MBS went on a goodwill tour of the U.S., in which he met with Donald Trump and defense contractors, as well as various Hollywood celebrities and the tech world.

Today, however, the lovefest between the Saudi autocrat and Western elites has receded. In October, U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi consulate in Turkey and assassinated on the personal orders of MBS. The murder of a powerful and wealthy figure has elicited more outrage than mass slaughter in Yemen ever did.

Without exactly apologizing, Friedman had to retract some of his earlier praise. Former Obama officials scrambled to downplay their own legacy of backing the Saudis. Even perpetual warmonger Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed outrage and called on MBS to step down. While Trump and his administration continue to stand by bin Salman, it’s clear that a large section of the U.S. ruling class no longer sees him as a desirable partner.


THIS IS the context of the potentially historic vote that took place in Congress last month.

On December 13, the Senate passed Joint Resolution 54 by a margin of 56 to 41. This bill invokes the 1973 War Powers Resolution to cut off aid to the Saudi coalition within 30 days. Although the bill does include an exception for drone strikes against al-Qaeda suspects, it would be the first time Congress has ever acted to compel the president to end a war.

At the same time this passed in the Senate, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan ensured that there would be no such vote in the House of Representatives. He did this by adding language to the farm bill blocking debate on Yemen before the end of the year. As Congress reconvenes in 2019, new legislation will have to be introduced and the voting process will have to start over again in both houses.

At that point, if it passes, the legislation could face a presidential veto. Moreover, some scholars have argued that, even if it does become law, this legislation would prove more symbolic than legally binding.

“Through our advocacy and organizing, we aim to equip our communities with the tools to challenge national security and foreign policies that impact Yemeni Americans and their families here and in our homeland,” said Jehan Hakim, a Yemeni American and co-founder of the Yemeni Alliance Committee, in an interview with Socialist Worker.

The Yemeni Alliance Committee was formed in early 2017 to oppose Trump’s Muslim ban and support local Yemeni-American communities in the Bay Area.

Recently, their focus has been to advocate for legislation to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. California Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna have both met with the group. Because Nancy Pelosi would not return their e-mails, the group held a November 20 protest outside her San Francisco office.

Hakim recognizes that Yemen is also riven by internal factions, and her group does not endorse the politics of either the Houthis or the Islah movement in Yemen. She adds that extreme forms of tribalism have long divided and oppressed many Yemenis. She believes outside interventions have made these problems worse. “We are totally against foreign intervention,” Hakim says, “whether it is by our neighbors or by Western forces.”

When asked what it will take to achieve peace and freedom for Yemen, Hakim stresses that it will be a long process:

The U.S. must end support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and back legislation that will support the peace process...the U.S. and other arms exporters must stop selling arms to the Kingdom; the U.S. and its partners, such as the UAE must suspend the covert mercenary operations that have assassinated Yemenis in the southern part of Yemen; all foreign actors, including Iran, must withdraw support of their involvement in all capacities in this war.

From there, hopefully, internal factions will find ways to resolve their differences, rebuild Yemen’s infrastructure and ensure a representative political system. Hakim describes passage of the Senate resolution as “an amazing victory,” but adds that ending the war in Yemen is a fight that will have to be pursued on many fronts, but passage of a war powers resolution would be a step in the right direction.

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