Yemen Was Called the Forgotten War, but Activists Are Refusing to Forget

Janine Jackson: When observers who have spent years in war-rocked places describe events as “staggering,” you know you’re talking about a disturbing new order. That’s how the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen responded to the September 1 bombing by Saudi Arabia of a detention center in southwest Yemen that killed more than 100 people, some believed to be prisoners of war. And yet this horror must take its place amid myriad horrors Yemenis are enduring, with 80 percent of the country’s people in need of assistance, after years of civil war made infinitely more destructive by the intervention of third states—including the United States, which a UN panel says may be complicit in war crimes.

The situation in Yemen calls for multiple responses, but for the US, ceasing to contribute to the catastrophe should be job No. 1. Joining us now to talk about making that happen is Hassan El-Tayyab. He’s legislative representative for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Hassan El-Tayyab.

Hassan El-Tayyab: Thank you so much for having me.

Looking just at fragments of the news, a Washington Post video has the headline, “As Yemen Civil War Rages On, a Father Helplessly Watches His Son Die of a Treatable Infection.” It’s hard to overstate the degree of hardship that Yemenis are enduring and have been enduring. I’m not sure that it’s clear that we’re not talking about people “in the line of fire,” or people “engaged in a war”; it’s important to understand that it’s civilians that are bearing the brunt of this conflict, right?

Yeah, absolutely. As a result of the Saudi/UAE blockade around Yemen, we see 14 million people living on the brink of famine; 1.3 million cases of cholera, 10,000 new cases each week. And like you said, a lot of this illness and death is treatable and preventable, if they can get the aid that they need into the country, and humanitarian orgs are on the ground in Yemen doing amazing, courageous work. But with the blockade, the prices of essential goods are just so out of reach for the average Yemeni. So, again, this is on top of the airstrike campaign by the Saudi/UAE coalition. This is just a blockade that’s preventing critical aid from getting into the country.

Now we have a UN panel saying that not only the Saudis, not only the Houthis, but also the United States, the UK and France and Iran may be deemed complicit in potential war crimes that they’re seeing in Yemen. New York Times readers might not know it: The paper’s headline was “War Crimes Committed by Both Sides in Yemen, UN Panel Says.” Other outlets weren’t so coy about putting the United States right in the headline. What is the current state of the US role in Yemen? What should we know about it?

The reason why the United States is complicit is because of our military aid to the Saudi-led coalition. We are providing logistical support and intel-sharing for their aerial campaign; we’re doing spare-part transfers, making sure that all those F-15s that are dropping bombs on civilian targets in Yemen are up to speed; and we also are providing a moral cover by continuing this assistance. And obviously, there’s sending rockets and providing bomb sales to the coalition. So all those ways, we’re just deeply complicit.

You see language in media about the US “turning a blind eye” or “remaining silent,” and that’s not what’s happening, but I want to say, media have shown some of the devastation in Yemen. I’ve even seen editorials in the Washington Post and in the New York Times against US involvement there. But we need to go the next steps. So talk about the tools of intervention that we do have, and what’s happening in the movement to get the United States out of the conflict in Yemen.

For a long time, the Yemen civil war and the US part in it—you know, Yemen was called the “forgotten war,” but there have been some members in Congress that are refusing to forget, and activists around the country that are refusing to forget.

And what we’ve had is several votes on a resolution called the Yemen War Powers Resolution. And this is a bill to basically get Congress to reassert its constitutional Article 1 Section 8 war authority. And we’ve had several votes over the past several years, until the eventual passage in the spring of 2019. Again, the House and Senate both passed this resolution; it was one of Trump’s first vetoes of his administration. And with each of these votes, we did see more news coverage, but again, not enough, for sure. But it has been promising to see so many activists and people starting to wake up to what’s happening and the US role in this war.

I’ve seen the sign-on letter from FCNL and others in coalition. Is there something afoot right now that folks can grab ahold of and come out for?

Yes, after the Yemen War Powers Resolution was passed, it was vetoed by the Trump administration. But during consideration of the 2020 national Defense budget, several amendments were actually attached to that budget on the House side; one would do pretty much the same thing as the Yemen War Powers Resolution and cut off logistical support to the coalition. There’s an amendment in there to do a one-year ban on bomb sales. And there’s also an amendment to stop spare-part transfers to the coalition. So we think the three of those combined could completely remove the United States from the war.

And it is pending; there are joint conference negotiations happening to reconcile the differences between the Senate version of the bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, which doesn’t have any of these amendments, and the House version that does have those amendments. So we’re trying to get the conferees, that are making these critical decisions, to make sure that those amendments that we care about, that could end US involvement in the war in Yemen, to make sure they stay in the final bill that goes to the president.

So our coalition work is to try to pressure the House Armed Services and the Senate Armed Services Committees, in particular, to keep those provisions in. The key players right now are Adam Smith from Washington, Senator Reed from Rhode Island, obviously Speaker Pelosi, Senator Schumer from New York, Representative Engel and Senator Menendez—those are the top people that have the power to keep this in the bill. Obviously, there are key Republicans that we’re reaching out to as well; Senator Risch and Senator Inhofe are really important in this decision.

I have to say about media, I sometimes worry that for folks who get their understanding of foreign policy primarily through media, foreign policy is basically a question of: “Who is it OK to kill? What side of this war should we be on? Who should we be at war with?”

It seems as though, in the media and in public conversation, nonmilitary responses are like the sad sacks in the corner. That’s not really “doing” anything, you know, as if diplomacy doesn’t also call for deep thought and robust energy and engineering. And I just wonder if, in terms of the way media talk about Yemen, but also talk about conflicts everywhere, there needs to be some kind of primary shift where it’s OK to be for peace and diplomacy.

I couldn’t agree more. And just to add on top of that, I think the media need to stop taking it for granted, the fact that Congress has the power to declare war in the first place. It’s usually just accepted: OK, well, what is the president going to do? Is he going to send us into war with Iran? Are we going to continue supporting Saudi Arabia?

But we’ve got to stop for a second and get back to basics. Article 1 Section 8 is absolutely clear that only Congress has the power to declare war. And, yes, we do need to look at the world, and see our role in it as not just using the military to enforce hegemony and our country’s will, but try to play a more constructive role by bringing people to the peace table.

We’ve been speaking with Hassan El-Tayyab. He is legislative representative for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. You can find their work online at Hassan El-Tayyab, thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

Thanks for having me.