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 Obama administration basically followed a policy of cold, corporate pragmatism–while dressing up its gunrunning in national security cliches.
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.
Before the events leading to the Saudi-led intervention, Yemen was ruled by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, one of the Arab world’s wiliest leaders. For more than twenty years—since the reunification of the country’s previously distinct northern and southern states—he balanced Yemen’s many tribal and political factions through a delicate network of personal patronage, sacrificing national institutions and stability while bathing in corruption. Presiding over the Arab world’s poorest large country, Saleh was also able to pull the right strings to keep Yemen’s emaciated economy from totally tanking—mostly by seeking benefaction from the United States. After September 11, 2001, and the launch of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” Saleh began playing up the threat of Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate. Cooperation with the United States’ ensuing drone war against the militant group yielded a steady stream of economic aid, and the capital and international backing he needed to stay in power.
Despite U.S. support, Saleh kept a fragile regime, and it came crumbling down when the Arab Spring reached Yemen in 2011. Mass protests broke out from north to south, with thousands demanding economic stability, more democracy, and the ouster of the president. A year later, protestors succeeded in forcing Saleh to step down—though, as a replacement, he appointed his vice president. It was around this time that an insurgency began to brew in the north of the country, led by the Houthis, a political movement loosely influenced by Iranian clerics and officers. Rapidly growing amid the disorder, the Houthis had by September 2014 garnered enough power that they were able to storm Yemen’s capital city. Six months later, the new president, his back against the wall, fled by boat to Saudi Arabia; by the time he arrived in Riyadh, Saudi war planes had descended on Yemen. Over the next two weeks, a coalition of ten Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, launched dozens of air strikes in the country, halting the Houthis’ progress and killing more than 1,000 people, mostly civilians.
“Operation Decisive Storm” was a Mohammed bin Salman original. As the Saudi defense minister, MbS had internalized an obsession with the Houthis held by the House of Saud for decades. Even though the Houthis’ ties to Iran were tenuous at best, Saudi royals were outraged by the prospect of Iranian influence in their backyard. As a son of the Saudi king, MbS was also insatiably ambitious, and defeating the Houthis would have been the perfect belt notch in his quest to skip to the front of the royal succession line.
Samantha Power could have held the Saudi-led coalition to account. But she did the opposite.
The leadup to the assault caught the Obama administration in the final stages of its negotiations of the historic nuclear deal with Iran—itself a cause of consternation for the Saudi government. Seeing a need to appease Riyadh, the White House decided to lean into intervention. Some in the administration were worried about getting into a possibly bloody quagmire, but then, the business opportunity was too good to give up over trifling concerns like human rights violations. Jets, helicopters, drones, tanks, ships artillery, missiles, bombs, defense systems, training, spare parts—Saudi militarism has been a boon to the U.S. weapons industry, and an excuse for U.S. armed forced to spread their tentacles in the Middle East.
In the early months of the assault—as civilian bodies started piling up, Houthi defenses proved resilient to the coalition onslaught, and ancillary warring factions began adding to the chaos—Obama administration officials needed to find ways to justify their complicity.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s then-thirty-seven-year-old deputy national security adviser, tried to sell the war as a calculated effort to combat Iran’s growing local presence. During a press call in September 2015, he emphasized “Iran’s destabilizing actions in places like Yemen,” and described U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive as a way to “counter that Iranian activity.” While not a lie on the scale of “WMDs,” this was nevertheless a huge stretch: Iran has probably provided small arms and training to the Houthis, but in the words of Middle East scholar Thomas Juneau, the assistance has been “limited and unlikely to buy Iran more than marginal influence” in Yemen. Rhodes knew this well enough. In 2019, he admitted to The Nation that, even though the Saudis saw Yemen “as part of a broader Iranian ascent in the region,” the Obama administration “didn’t share that analysis. We did not see the Iranians as directing the Houthis.”
Other Obama administration officials had different strategies for defending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition—though, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes pointed out, the media rarely pressed them to do so. In an interview with Hayes in June 2016, Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, claimed that the Saudis sought to “make certain that they’re acting responsibly and not endangering civilians.” Then, stealing a tactic straight out of the Israeli government’s media playbook, he shifted blame onto the Houthis, claiming that they “have a pretty good, practiced way of putting civilians in danger, depending on where they attack from and where they shoot from and where they hide.” Kerry also denied that U.S. support for the coalition had much to do with Iran. “I don’t think it is a proxy war,” he told Hayes. “Saudi Arabia was literally threatened by virtue of [the Houthis] placing missiles along the Saudi border, aimed at Saudi Arabia, and there were cross-border incidents taking place.” This was even more dubious than the Iran defense. An all-out murderous air assault is not a proportional response to an impoverished rebel movement heaving scrounged missiles over a border.
The Obama administration’s cover for the intervention also extended to the United Nations. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States, under its ambassador, Samantha Power, could have held the Saudi-led coalition to account. But Power did the opposite. The first post-intervention Security Council resolution on Yemen, which she supported, read like a Saudi press release: It placed all responsibility to “end the use of violence” on the Houthis, who were expected to “withdraw their forces from all areas they have seized”—creating impossible preconditions that have stifled UN-sponsored peace talks to this day. When European member states twice led efforts to establish a strong UN mission to investigate human rights abuses in Yemen, Power also allowed Saudi Arabia to threaten its way into watering down the proposals.
Once out of office, some Obama alumni, like Rhodes and Power, began to change course, occasionally criticizing the Saudi-led coalition. Still, for nearly two years after Trump’s inauguration, their Democratic party remained mostly happy with the war in Yemen—at least happy enough to do nothing about it. When Representative Ro Khanna, Senator Bernie Sanders, and others introduced bills aimed at forcing Trump to end U.S. backing for the coalition, Democratic leadership organized against the efforts, killing them before floor debate.
What changed things was the death of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. The grisly murder of the Saudi-born Washington Post columnist—a U.S. resident, and a frequenter of Washington press and policy circles—at the order of MbS played directly to American ruling class sympathies. Seemingly overnight, the Saudi prince and former media darling became a public enemy in the United States, giving former Obama officials and other Democratic elite an incentive to call for an end to U.S. support for his war in Yemen.
For nearly two years after Trump’s inauguration, their Democratic party remained mostly happy with the war in Yemen.
Of course, the Democrats’ changeup was a balancing act; there would be no talk of the Obama White House’s culpability. A little over a month after the Khashoggi murder, thirty senior Obama administration officials, including Rhodes and Power (but not Kerry), signed an open letter to the Trump administration calling for an end to “America’s role in this disastrous war in Yemen.” They wrote that Trump had “demonstrated the folly of unconditional support” for the Saudi-led coalition; their “conditional support,” however, was fine—a “response to a legitimate threat,” conducted “in an effort to gain leverage to push the coalition to abide by international humanitarian law.”
In The Atlantic, Rhodes also published his own piece, ten days after the Khashoggi murder, criticizing “the Trump administration’s refusal to champion democratic values around the globe.” Detailing the rise of MbS, Rhodes portrayed Obama as an antagonist to Saudi human rights violations—in direct contrast with Trump. At points in the piece, he offered what seemed to be sincere reflections on his team’s Yemen policy. But the introspection had a hard ceiling; as journalist Sarah Lazare has written, Rhodes’s article seemed to pretend that, in Yemen, “atrocities weren’t already in full swing under Obama.” Indeed, Rhodes’s central critique of Trump’s Yemen policy applied equally to his own administration’s: “In the absence of any U.S. pressure,” he wrote, “the conflict escalated, and a humanitarian crisis spiraled out of control with no political endgame in sight.”
This presidential primary season, as usual, there has been little meaningful debate on U.S. foreign affairs—even if, for once, somewhat competing visions are actually on the table. Bernie Sanders hopes to demilitarize U.S. international relations, and he has helped lead the fight to end U.S. support for the assault on Yemen in the Senate. In fact, he’s railed about the siege at many campaign rallies, and his calls to cut the military’s budget and confront the human rights abuses of U.S. partner countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel are nearly unprecedented in contemporary presidential politics.
By contrast, Joe Biden’s foreign policy mostly boils down to the fact that foreign leaders “know” him. He has called for making MbS a “pariah” on the international stage, but, with typical hypocrisy, he—like most of the candidates who have dropped out—only started clamoring for an end to his former boss’s war on Yemen after declaring his own candidacy. Then again, what else can you expect from a man whose campaign is funded, advised, and lobbied by the defense industry?
If Biden wins the nomination, as seems likely, as well as the presidency, his administration is likely to fall back on the same old, inhumane Democratic foreign policy. Certain Democratic icons are already shooting their shots at positions of influence: while Kerry is spending his time campaigning for Biden (and reportedly hoping to be rewarded for it with a cabinet position), Rhodes and Power are working toward elevating their personal brands—taking advantage of Trump-fueled nostalgia for the Obama era to prop themselves up as elder statesmen ready to make American foreign policy great again.
Rhodes has upped his front-facing popularity via Crooked Media—the beloved podcast company run by Obama alumni—offering charming and accessible analysis of world affairs as co-host, along with former National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor, of Pod Save the World. (Curiously, Rhodes skipped out on the two episodes of Pod Save the World dedicated to Yemen.) Meanwhile, on the back end, Rhodes co-chairs National Security Action, an anti-Trump initiative staffed by a bunch of former Obama officials, which applies to foreign policy the Democratic establishment’s detached notion that the United States urgently needs to return to a pre-Trump era of politics—one of “American leadership” and “respect” for the “institutions that have made the United States secure at home and a beacon around the world.”
Joe Biden only started calling for an end to his former boss’s war on Yemen after declaring his own candidacy.
Power has taken a slightly different approach, embarking on a more introspective branding tour, as evidenced by the title of her recent memoir, The Education of an Idealist. In the book, she narrates the arc of her career, from Pulitzer Prize-winning anti-genocide firebrand to pragmatic diplomat who has supposedly learned the importance of changing the system from the inside. But her self-reflection leaves a lot to be desired, as she downplays certain stains on her human rights record—from her central role in the disastrous intervention in Libya, to her embrace of genocidaire Henry Kissinger, to her role in Yemen, which she fails to mention at all. In the words of Yemeni-American professor and anti-war advocate Shireen Al-Adeimi, Power’s scrubbing of her record in The Education of an Idealist shows that she “remains neither educated nor an idealist.”
Despite their popularity tours, Rhodes, Power, and other Obama administration officials have earned the ire of leftist and anti-war crowds in the United States—who, in addition to naming and shaming, have rightly focused their energy on ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. As many Yemeni advocates, like Al-Adeimi, have pointed out, that’s the main precondition for much-needed—if sure to be messy—peace in the country.
Post-Khashoggi, however, this is now mostly held as common sense: All except the most hawkish in Washington agree that the United States must end its support for the diastrous Yemen siege, and instead leverage its diplomatic power in favor of a political solution between the now-several warring factions. This near-consensus (to which Trump does not subscribe) is welcome. But most liberal power players still see crises like Yemen as flukes, or cases of ally mismanagement, rather than what they are: the natural end of a bipartisan commitment to war.