THIS WEEK MARKS THE FIFTH ANNIVERSARY of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Billed by Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a shock-and-awe campaign to nip a rebel insurgency in the bud, the operation has since spiraled out of control, bringing the poor Arabian nation to the point of collapse. Though accurate numbers are difficult to come by, those we do have are hard to fathom: the war has already cost over 100,000 civilian lives; more than 80,000 children under the age of five have likely died of starvation; and infrastructure damage has led to the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, with over a million cases. An overwhelming majority of Yemen’s nearly 30 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, as they have been for years. All this in a nation that ranked near the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index before Saudi Arabia began its bombing campaign in March 2015. And there’s no telling how the fast-approaching coronavirus will make things worse.
Yemen is an American war. Though very few American troops are on the ground, and American planes aren’t dropping the bombs, the U.S. government has from the outset been the Saudi-led coalition’s biggest enabler. Not only is the United States, by a wide margin, the Saudi government’s largest weapons supplier, it also provides crucial logistical services to their military, such as targeting assistance and intelligence. Nor has the U.S. government had any qualms in supporting the Saudi-led naval and air blockade on Yemen— a country that imports more than 85 percent of its food and medicine—which United Nations experts largely blame for the deadly food crisis unfolding there.
Every once in a while, something about this carnage will make its way into the American news cycle. A U.S.-made bomb dropped from a Saudi plane will hit a wedding, a funeral, a bus full of children; the press will remind us that Yemen is experiencing “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”; and establishment figures will groan about ending America’s “forever wars”—while endorsing the politics that brought those wars about.
The endless cycle of concern trolling and amnesia precludes deeper analysis. Why is the United States abetting Saudi violence? Who are the enemy, and what’s the point of so savagely bombarding them? What’s to be gained from this barbaric siege? There is little reflection on such questions, either in American media or in American political circles. In the words of Yemeni human rights activist Radhya Almutawakel: “Most American officials look at Yemen like a black hole. They don’t understand it. They don’t care, and they don’t see a solution.” This is of course true of the Trump administration, which rubber stamps war crimes without a second thought. But it was equally true of the Obama administration, which initiated the policy of U.S. support for the Saudi assault and greenlit more than $100 billion in arm sales to the Saudi government, despite strong evidence that Saudi planes were deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen.
The Obama administration basically followed a policy of cold, corporate pragmatism—protect the client and the revenue streams—while dressing up its gunrunning in national security clichés. Officials occasionally aired limited expressions of concern for the ballooning humanitarian crisis, but they never amounted to more than public relations control and ass-covering to avoid accountability in the press and on the international stage.
Since abdicating power, however, many of them have made a curious volte-face. Out of office, the likes of Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power have rebranded themselves as foreign policy resistors—even as humanitarians, leveling lukewarm criticisms against the Saudi-led offensive, as well as at the Trump administration for removing the few restrictions Obama had placed on it. Instead of facing accountability, these Obama alumni find themselves shrouded in a bizarre sanctimony by liberal media. With the Democratic party now coalescing around Obama’s vice president, they seem to be positioning themselves for another run at power.