Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni man, filed suit against the United States government this week over the deaths of his brother-in-law and nephew in an unlawful 2012 drone strike. The suit is a tenacious follow up to an occasion in 2014 when Jaber was handed bundles of cash totalling around $100 grand which, according to the legal advocacy group Reprieve, came from the American government. But Jaber doesn’t want hush money. According to the language of the suit, Jaber wants to “hold accountable those responsible for [his family’s] wrongful deaths.” What he wants is for the CIA to publicly admit that it killed his loved ones.
But America’s preeminent spy agency has yet to publicly accept responsibility for the deaths of Jaber’s family or acknowledge its larger role in drone attacks in Yemen, years of which served as a prelude to the nightmarish violence that’s currently ripping the country apart: a Saudi-led attack on the Houthi government that’s displaced 150,000 people and left a third of Yemenis in dire need of medical care—a scenario the UN has called “catastrophic.”
Ostensibly, the Saudi goal is to wrest control from the ruling Houthi government (read: bomb it into oblivion), and to put former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is living in exile in Saudi Arabia, back in power. The Houthis are accused of being Iranian proxies simply for being (sort of) Shia, and therefore deserving of the full brunt of the Saudi military. As Sarah Phillips writes, though, “In reality, Iran’s ability to drive events in Yemen through the Houthis is limited; hard evidence of Tehran’s capacity to issue orders is scant. That dearth of evidence is underlined by Saudi Arabia’s willingness to assign geopolitical significance to symbolic or commercial ties, such as the new commercial flight route between Sana’a and Tehran.”
The United States has only officially supported Saudi Arabia’s reckless military attacks in Yemen since March, when the White House authorized “the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations.” The day after operations began, general Lloyd Austin, United States central command, said, “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” In other words, the White House decided to lend support to Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen without understanding why the Saudis were attacking or what their chances of “success” would be. Trés American of them.
After all, invasions inspired by paranoia over hard evidence—or even a coherent chain of causality—are a casus belli after America’s own heart. And we’ve been tripping over ourselves to offer the Saudis assistance. As reported in the Washington Post, Saudi Arabia “relied heavily on U.S. surveillance images and targeting information,” especially during the early days of the campaign. Much of this intelligence comes from our illegal drone program. “American military planners are using live intelligence feeds from surveillance flights over Yemen to help Saudi Arabia decide what and where to bomb,” U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal, those “flights” referring to the drones responsible for civilian deaths, like those in Faisal bin Ali Jaber’s family.
This, of course, suggests America is playing less of a supporting and more of a co-starring role in the making of the Yemeni humanitarian crisis. As if being the one to point and tell the Saudis to “shoot here” isn’t damning enough, America has also began to fast-tracking weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia. So it’s more like we’re handing the Saudis a gun, then telling them where to shoot.
But what’s more surprising about this entire debacle is the way in which the American style of military hubris and irresponsibility has worn off on the Saudis. The official Saudi line is that they’re attacking Yemen in order to protect Yemenis, which makes as much as sense as the old Vietnam-era dictum of destroying a village in order to save it.
The odd symbiotic relationship the American and Saudi militaries seem to have is most succinctly symbolized not in actual arms transfers or waging misguided wars, but in the cynical names of the Saudi operations in Yemen. The first phase, called “Operation Decisive Storm,” consisted of naval blockades and aerial strikes. That mix of bland aggression and self-assured banality eventually gave way to “Operation Restoring Hope.” As vacuous as it is sarcastic, “Restoring Hope” exudes self-mocking recognition of Saudi Arabia’s actual disregard of the welfare of the Yemeni people.
These titles are almost too blatant to function well as propaganda. They obviously come from an American heritage of operational names such as Just Cause, Enduring Freedom, and Urgent Fury, passed down to Saudi Arabia through our disturbingly close military relations with its autocratic monarchy. Saudi Arabia is America’s largest Foreign Military Sales customer, with open accounts valued at over $97 billion. As Defense One reported, “Saudi Arabia’s military is largely made up of American and European weapons, including Boeing F-15 fighters, Lockheed Martin C-130 cargo planes, Eurofighter Typhoon fighters, Boeing Apache attack helicopters, and General Dynamics Abrams tanks.” Saudi Arabia uses American weapons, with American training, and fights in an “American style”—reckless intervention with no real thought given to interventionist endgames.
One anecdote that illustrates this nexus of second-hand ideology and inherited material is the case of the Patriot missile. The official story is that Saudi Arabia used Patriot missiles to shoot down three Houthi Scud missiles this month. One imagines that the purpose of its telling is to convey to the world that Saudi Arabia is being attacked with super-scary Soviet hardware, but not to worry because American Cold War technology is saving the day. Gary Brecher, better known as “The War Nerd,” is skeptical. The Patriot missile, originally built to shoot down relatively vulnerable Soviet fighter-bombers, is a small proximity weapon. Scud missiles are primitive behemoths that are guided by Euclidean geometry and luck, not a sophisticated electronic targeting system. Shooting down a Scud with a Patriot is like rolling “a bowling ball full speed down the alley…then roll[ing] a normal-size billiard ball at it, at the same speed”—the odds aren’t good that you’ll shoot it down. As The War Nerd writes, “So, did those Saudi Patriots bring down those alleged Houthi Scuds? Since the Saudis aren’t one of those journalism-friendly armies (or countries), it’s difficult to know. It seems unlikely that the Houthi could have smuggled three gigantic Scuds to Saada intact and launched them effectively. In fact, who knows if the missiles launched were actually Scuds.” The myth of effective Patriot Missiles is something also inherited from the United States, during the Gulf War. There actually wasn’t any evidence that a Patriot ever downed a Scud. Just a bit of American post-Cold War bluster being awkwardly recycled by Saudi Arabia.
America’s interventionist legacy has two faces. One is that of Faisal bin Ali Jaber and the people directly victimized by American violence. The other is that of our client states—states that we’ve armed with both weapons and tactical training—turning into copycat interventionists, recycling the same propaganda and excuses for invasions and bombings that we use. Our legacy isn’t just the countries we wreck, but the countries that we inspire and enable to do wrecking of their own. It’s doubtful that Saudi Arabia will be able to oust the Houthis and set up their puppet president. If anything, they’re just strengthening AQAP, Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula—as “American” an outcome as one can expect from American tools and methods.