Twenty days after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) bombed a school bus full of children in Yemen this August, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis hosted officials from the two US allies at the Pentagon. They were all gathered as part of a meeting of representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council, at which Mattis thanked them for their “regional leadership and years of close cooperation with the United States.”
The US bears tremendous responsibility for the August attack, and for broader devastation and suffering in Yemen, where it is waging not one, but two wars.
There is the first, ongoing war that started under President Bush — and was dramatically escalated under Obama — as part of the so-called “War on Terror.” Since 2002, the US has killed over 1,000 people in Yemen through drone strikes, cruise missile attacks and other activities involving Special Operations personnel — and has brought untold death and misery the world over under the banner of “counterterrorism.”
The second war is the one that has garnered more headlines recently and has eclipsed the first in its destruction: The aerial siege prosecuted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE with extensive cooperation from the United States. The coalition has carried out over 16,000 air strikes since 2015, framing their operations as an intervention on behalf of Yemen’s nominal government since the country’s Houthi opposition seized the capital, Sanaa.
In this war, the Saudi and Emirati militaries are dropping the bombs, and the United States plays a critical role in every step of the operations. The coalition’s munitions are made in the US, as are the planes dropping them — all of which were sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in deals brokered by the US government. The US is supplying intelligence as the coalition selects its targets. And the US Air Force is running a program of fueling coalition aircraft midair, as they fly their deadly missions. With US personnel and US planes, the United States is literally fueling the war.
It is remarkable that — despite the international spotlight on the war in Yemen resulting from the highly publicized school bus bombing — Trump administration officials continue to embrace Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their operations. The killing of dozens of children and wounding of dozens more in the bombing was not itself an aberration from the daily operations of the war — which have involved the coalition targeting weddings, funerals and markets with alarming regularity. What stood out about the attack however, was the level of attention that it received in the US.
Both The Washington Post and The New York Times editorialized against US involvement in the war. In a move that may be unprecedented, CNN not only covered the atrocity extensively, but also reported on the US weapons manufacturers who made the bombs for that and other attacks.
Criticism of the war — and US involvement — even extended to Capitol Hill. Representative Ro Khanna sponsored a war powers resolution as part of an effort in the House to end US support for the coalition, getting 41 co-sponsors. Similarly, Sen. Chris Murphy introduced an amendment to the 2019 defense appropriations bill that would make continued US funding to the coalition contingent on a certification from the secretary of defense that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not committing war crimes. Republican opposition prevented the amendment from coming to the Senate floor.
Congress actually wrote a similar requirement into the military budget that it passed this summer, calling on the defense secretary to review the coalition’s actions and certify that it is taking steps to avoid civilian casualties. After Trump signaled in a statement that he made upon signing the legislation that he intended to ignore this restriction, Secretary of State Pompeo offered his certification that the coalition was doing enough to minimize harm to civilians. He did so the month after the coalition bombed the school bus.
Looming in the background of the tensions and conflicts throughout the Middle East — as well as the US involvement in them — is a showdown between the United States and its allies on one hand and Iran on the other. The ongoing catastrophe in Syria, for example, is driven in great part by a struggle between these two sides — each intervening directly and with combatants acting on their behalf.
Yemen’s civil war cannot be neatly framed as a proxy struggle in this way. Iran is not participating in Yemen in a way that drives the conflict — though the Trump administration and the coalition say otherwise. While, in the polarization between Riyadh and Tehran the Houthis gravitate toward cooperation with Iran, they are not acting as an agent of the regional power. Even Stephen Seche, a former US ambassador to Yemen who very much considers Iran to be a “threat” that the US and its allies should confront, has testified to the US Senate that the Houthis are a “100 percent Yemeni phenomenon” — not one conjured or backed in any decisive way by Iran.
Nevertheless, in the regional struggle against Iran, the Obama administration backed its Saudi ally, and Trump has belligerently escalated this policy.
Having undone Obama’s signature Iran nuclear deal, Trump devoted a large portion of his recent speech at the UN to vilify Tehran — and rally his friends against it.
Central to Trump’s approach has been giving a green light to the US’s favorite allies in the region — Saudi Arabia and Israel, each with its own axe to grind against Iran — to do whatever they want. Trump’s moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was his signal to Israel, and his continued support — both military and rhetorical — for Saudi Arabia’s crimes in Yemen is the US’s carte blanche to that regime.
The president has combined this with an open hostility toward international law. His stance was on full display during his UN speech, particularly when he denounced the International Criminal Court, saying, “as far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.”
The United States has long flouted international law. But Trump is taking its defiance of any notions of accountability whatsoever, and its tolerance for blatant war crimes, to a new level. It is openly assisting those crimes in Yemen. After all, the US is enthusiastically supplying weapons to countries that demonstrate a clear pattern of targeting civilians. The coalition has also committed the crime of targeting medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, and has only received affirmation, weapons and other support from the United States.
The US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have dug in. Evidently, the sheer atrocity of the coalition’s actions in Yemen, and the depth of Yemeni suffering alone are not enough to force a question to the US’s commitment to the disaster. Those of us who stand in solidarity with the people of Yemen and oppose the coalition’s war must also dig in for a serious fight — to do our part to stop the crimes that the US government is committing in our names.