Yemen has long been the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Slaughtered civilians. Wrecked infrastructure. Millions hungry. Cholera epidemic.
Now COVID-19 is afflicting the vulnerable population. “Yemen is really on the brink right now. The situation is extremely alarming, they are talking about that the health system has in effect collapsed,” explained Jens Laerke, spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s priority is selling more arms, $478 million worth, to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Indeed, the administration might stop notifying Congress about impending sales to forestall legislative opposition.
It is difficult to explain why the U.S. government, typically so sanctimonious in lecturing the rest of the world on liberty and morality, ended up backing one of the world’s most oppressive nations in a blatant war of aggression.
Of course, the human carnage is of no concern to that country’s de facto ruler, who ordered the invasion of Saudi Arabia’s impoverished neighbor in 2015. In a war that was supposed to last weeks, not years, he planned to restore to office Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the pliant ruler who had been ousted by an unorthodox coalition between Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and a perennial opposition movement known as the Houthis.
But the Kingdom’s military turned out to be a vanity force, of little value other than to strike civilian targets — weddings, funerals, school buses, hospitals, apartment buildings, and markets. Thousands of civilians have been killed directly. Even more have died as a result of the widespread destruction civilian infrastructure.
Yemen never was important to American security. The country, which began as two states, has suffered through protests, violence, disorder, conflict, and war for the roughly six decades of its existence. Yemen also was regularly victimized by outside intervention.
Years ago Egypt and the Kingdom faced off militarily in backing separate Yemeni factions. Riyadh more recently promoted intolerant fundamentalist Wahhabism and paid off Yemeni politicians. In contrast, Iran’s role was modest. Regional specialists affirm that the Houthis, in the lead opposing MbS’s misbegotten legions, have never been tools of Tehran. But faced with the well-financed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), backed by America, the group had to turn somewhere for support, and Iran was only too happy to bleed the Saudis. Riyadh managed to turn Yemen’s perennial domestic instability into an international sectarian war.
The Obama administration, despite its humanitarian pretensions, made Washington complicit in the military equivalent of murder. The U.S. may be best known as the Kingdom’s enthusiastic armorer, but that is just the start. Reported the New York Times:
When a Saudi F-15 warplane takes off from King Khalid air base in southern Saudi Arabia for a bombing run over Yemen, it is not just the plane and bombs that are American. American mechanics service the jet and carry out repairs on the ground. American technicians upgrade the targeting software and other classified technology, which Saudis are not allowed to touch. The pilot has likely been trained by the United States Air Force. And at a flight operations room in the capital, Riyadh, Saudi commanders sit near American military officials who provide intelligence and tactical advice.
Yemen is America’s war too.
It is difficult to explain why the U.S. government, typically so sanctimonious in lecturing the rest of the world on liberty and morality, ended up backing one of the world’s most oppressive nations in a blatant war of aggression. Last year the Crisis Group surmised that
The story of U.S. complicity in the Yemen war is partly one of miscalculation, in that Washington initially overestimated its ability to shape coalition conduct and underestimated the devastation of the conflict it was helping enable. But it is also a story of the complicated relationships and perceived U.S. interests that led both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump — two very different leaders — to continue this assistance even after the miscalculations had been exposed.
The Obama administration’s decision was misguided, despite a degree of logic. It hoped to pacify the KSA, whose rulers opposed Washington’s negotiations with Iran over the nuclear deal. Today the agreement is in tatters while the U.S. continues to support Saudi depredations.
Although candidate Donald Trump was scathing in his criticism of the licentious, corrupt regime in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s capital proved to be his first stop as president. He returned to America in full thrall of the absolute monarchy, perhaps the least legitimate form of government on Earth today. At least Tehran’s clerics claim to believe in something beyond themselves. The Saudi royals, led by MbS, as the crown prince is known, take care of No. 1, themselves.
While Washington had no intrinsic reason to support the KSA, which shared few interests and values with the West, the U.S. was concerned about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active national branch of the terrorist network. Unfortunately, the Hadi government, Saudis, and Emiratis all variously accommodated or supported AQAP and other radical groups, in contrast to the opposition Houthis, who opposed al-Qaeda. The result of the invasion was to make Americans less safe.
Even after five years of conflict, no crime committed by the Saudi royals has been grievous enough to sacrifice the Trump administration’s support. Now the president wants to sell more precision-guided bombs to the monarchy — which will be used to kill more civilians.
The Houthis have behaved brutally, shelling indiscriminately, for instance, but have less capability to destroy and kill than the better-armed Saudis. Reported the New York Times last September: “Saudi authorities directing airstrikes in Yemen that have inflicted heavy civilian casualties and deepened the country’s dire humanitarian crisis may bear criminal responsibility for war crimes, the experts said in a report they will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva next week.” The Times added, “the United States, Britain, France and Iran could be complicit in abuses by providing intelligence and logistics support, and by making arms transfers that were of ‘questionable legitimacy,’ the panel said, and which perpetuated the conflict.”
The experts group presented its findings to the United Nations. One was that “The blockade, siege-like tactics, attacks impacting objects essential to the survival of the population and impediments to the delivery of aid deprive the population of necessary items amidst the unprecedented humanitarian crisis.” The blockade by the Saudi–Emirati coalition likely was a military tactic intended to destroy Yemen’s commercial infrastructure. In a detailed report from 2018, the Washington Post observed, “Economic measures, largely imposed by a Saudi-led military coalition backed by the United States, have helped produce what the United Nations considers the world’s most severe humanitarian catastrophe.”
The U.S. bears substantial responsibility for the results. Explained the expert panel: “the continued supply of weapons to parties involved in the conflict in Yemen perpetuates the conflict and the suffering of the population.” As noted earlier, Washington is the chief supplier for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The U.S. also provides intelligence and for years offered mid-air refueling.
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, subsequently wrote that “most civilian casualties are caused by airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition.” She also pointed to the complicity of the Hadi government, which Riyadh seeks to reinstall, and Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group backed by Saudi ally United Arab Emirates (UAE). She pointed to an attack the week before: “Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on the Community College building in Dhamar resulted in the killing of at least 109 people, and injuries to another 50 people. My office in Yemen is currently investigating this attack.” And so it continued, week in and out.
The experts’ report from 2018 was, if anything, more damning: “Coalition air strikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties. In the past three years, such air strikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.” The Group of Experts investigated as many cases as it could.
The report noted the results in great, depressing detail:
Residential areas have repeatedly been hit by air strikes, often resulting in significant destruction and civilian casualties. In 60 cases, the Group of Experts reviewed air strikes that hit residential areas, killing more than 500 civilians, including 84 women and 233 children. The Group investigated the 25 August 2017 air strikes that hit a residential building in the Faj ‘Attan area of the city of Sana’a, killing at least 15 civilians and injuring another 25, including 7 women and 11 children. It also investigated the 20 December 2017 incident in the Bab Najran area of the Sa’dah Governorate in which three coalition air strikes hit a family home, killing at least 12 civilians, including at least 3 women and 3 children.
At the time the Pentagon claimed that it was helping minimize the carnage on the ground. Yet, added the experts,
Despite the special protection afforded to medical facilities and educational, cultural and religious sites under international humanitarian law, many such facilities and sites have been damaged or destroyed by coalition air strikes throughout the conflict. The Group of Experts reviewed information concerning at least 32 such incidents. It received credible information that the no-strike list of protected objects was not being adequately shared within the coalition command chain.
Even operations of the humanitarian NGO Médecins sans Frontières were hit.
Alas, America’s allies also have been willing to violate human rights without utilizing aircraft. Reported the Group of Experts:
The Group has reasonable grounds to believe that the Governments of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are responsible for human rights violations, including enforced disappearance. As most of these violations appear to be conflict related, they may amount to the following war crimes: rape, degrading and cruel treatment, torture and outrages upon personal dignity.
The UAE, which generally kept a lower profile than the Kingdom, even though the former has the more competent military, treated captives with greater brutality. Explained the report:
The Group of Experts also investigated sexual violence, including rape of adult male detainees, committed by United Arab Emirates personnel. At the Bureiqa coalition facility, detainees described being interrogated while naked, bound and blindfolded, sexually assaulted and raped. At Bir Ahmed Prison, forces of the United Arab Emirates raided the facility and perpetrated sexual violence. In March 2018, nearly 200 detainees were stripped naked in a group while personnel of the United Arab Emirates forcibly examined their anuses. During this search, multiple detainees were raped digitally and with tools and sticks.
The White House has never paid the slightest concern to such grotesque behavior by governments dependent on its support. Despite candidate Trump’s criticism of the Saudis, he came back from his trip to Riyadh as if a eunuch in service of the Saudi court. Whatever it wanted, he supplied. Only when the U.S. shale oil industry was at risk did he toughen his administration’s stance toward the Saudi royals.
The best explanation of why is that Trump believes Saudi arms purchases deliver abundant jobs to America. In fact, the New York Times recently reported that Peter Navarro, Trump’s protectionist trade adviser, took the lead in persuading the president to sacrifice Yemenis’ lives for the benefit of munition makers. Noted the Times:
Year after year, the bombs fell — on wedding tents, funeral halls, fishing boats and a school bus, killing thousands of civilians and helping turn Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Weapons supplied by American companies, approved by American officials, allowed Saudi Arabia to pursue the reckless campaign.
Then “in June 2017 an influential Republican senator decided to cut [weapons sales] off, by withholding approval for new sales.” Which apparently spurred Navarro into action.
If the administration had to balance human lives and corporate profits, he wanted to make sure the president chose the latter. Reported the Times:
[Navarro] made it his mission to reverse the senator. Mr. Navarro, after consulting with American arms makers, wrote a memo to Jared Kushner and other top White House officials calling for an intervention, possibly by Mr. Trump himself. He titled it “Trump Mideast arms sales deal in extreme jeopardy, job losses imminent.” Within weeks, the Saudis were once again free to buy America weapons.
The basic choice was bad enough. But the numbers that the administration relied on were fraudulent. The president began by claiming that Saudi purchases would generate 450,000 jobs. Over time he steadily increased the number, ending up at a million. Yet the official White House announcement only spoke of tens of thousands of jobs.
The president’s figure of $110 billion in arms deals also was fake news. Reported the Washington Post:
[O]f all of the military sales agreements reviewed by The Fact Checker, most of the items on Trump’s $110 billion list did not have delivery dates or were scheduled for 2022 or beyond. There appeared to be few, if any, signed contracts. Rather, many of the announcements were MOIs — memorandums of intent. There were six specific items, adding up to $28 billion, but all had been previously notified to Congress by the Obama administration.
A recent report from the Center for International Policy estimated that total jobs per year due to Saudi purchases run between 20,000 and 40,000. Moreover, noted the Center, “10% of U.S. arms offers for 2019 involved licenses for the production of U.S. weapons overseas, further undercutting job creation in the United States.”
For this delusional mess of pottage tens of thousands of Yemenis have been killed. And more continue to die every day.
Yet the administration has proposed another round of arms sales. Democrats in both the House and Senate oppose the latest proposal. But as before the administration might ram through the purchase as an “emergency” measure. The department’s inspector general was assessing the legality of the earlier maneuver before he was summarily fired by the president at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s request.
Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) noted that the latest plan would license production in Saudi Arabia. Raytheon would profit handsomely, but the manufacturing jobs would be in the Kingdom rather than America. Moreover, Riyadh might become an exporter of U.S. munitions. How does that help U.S. workers? Is this what Navarro was promoting to the president? Murphy complained that promoting foreign manufacture “frankly robs the president of one of his primary arguments for why these sales are so necessary.” Asked Murphy, “If they’re going to kill civilians, further destabilize the Middle East, and it’s not going to create jobs, then what the hell is the point?”
MbS, however, desires more than bombs. He wants respect and praise. In the ultimate act of chutzpah in early June his government organized a donors’ conference for Yemen, while his military continued to ravage that devastated land and population, exacerbating the dire hardship that made aid necessary.
Perhaps even more shocking is Riyadh’s campaign for election to the UN Human Rights Council in October. Moreover, in November MbS is to play host to the G-20. Initially shunned by other leaders after the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and U.S. resident, the crown prince will treat this gathering as full rehabilitation.
Yet the crimes of MbS’s government extend well beyond waging brutal aggression against Yemen. It is worth reflecting on what Mike Pompeo’s State Department said about the royal regime’s disregard for basic human rights. The latest report runs 58 pages and is not complimentary:
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminalization of libel, censorship, and site blocking; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and movement; severe restrictions of religious freedom; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and prohibition of trade unions.
The Middle East has changed dramatically from when America first embraced the antediluvian Saudi monarchy. Washington should no longer allow the Kingdom to hold the U.S. hostage. President Trump should free U.S. policy and put America before the Saudi royal tyranny.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.