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As Yemen Faces World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis, Senate Refuses to End US Support for Saudi War

Mehdi Hasan and Medea Benjamin discuss the forces at work in Yemen.

On Tuesday, the US Senate rejected a bipartisan resolution to end US military involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen within 30 days, unless Congress formally authorizes the military action. The vote was 44 to 55, with 10 Democrats joining the Republican majority to block the legislation and Arizona Senator John McCain not casting a vote. The US-backed, Saudi-led airstrikes and naval blockade have devastated Yemen’s health, water and sanitation systems, sparking a massive cholera outbreak and pushing millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation. More than 15,000 people have died since the Saudi invasion in 2015. We hear part of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ speech against US involvement and speak with Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan and Medea Benjamin of CodePink.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Earlier this week, the Senate rejected a bipartisan resolution to end the US military involvement in Yemen within 30 days, unless Congress formally authorizes the military action. The bill would have forced the first-ever vote in the Senate to withdraw US armed forces from an unauthorized war. By a vote of 55 to 44, senators voted against a procedural motion that would have advanced the measure. This is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaking Tuesday before the vote.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Some will argue that American troops are not out there shooting and getting shot at, not exchanging fire, gunfire, with their enemies, and that we are not really engaged in the horrifically destructive Saudi-led war in Yemen. That’s what some will argue on the floor today, that we’re really not engaged in hostilities, we’re not exchanging fire. Well, please tell that to the people of Yemen, whose homes and lives are being destroyed by weapons marked “Made in the USA.,” dropped by planes being refueled by the US military, on targets chosen with US assistance. Only in the narrowest, most legalistic terms can anyone argue that the United States is not actively involved in hostilities alongside of Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

And let me take a minute to tell my colleagues what is happening in Yemen right now, because a lot of people don’t know. It’s not something that is on the front pages of the newspapers or covered terribly much in television. Right now, in a very, very poor nation of 27 million people — that is, the nation of Yemen — in November of last year, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator told us that Yemen was on the brink of, quote, “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades,” end of quote from the United Nations. So far, in this country of 27 million people, this very poor country, over 10,000 civilians have been killed, and 40,000 civilians have been wounded. Over 3 million people in Yemen, in a nation of 27 million, have been displaced, driven from their homes. Fifteen million people lack access to clean water and sanitation, because water treatment plants have been destroyed. More than 20 million people in Yemen, over two-thirds of the population of that country, need some kind of humanitarian support, with nearly 10 million in acute need of assistance. More than 1 million suspected cholera cases have been reported, representing potentially the worst cholera outbreak in world history.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Senator Bernie Sanders speaking on Tuesday before the Senate vote. Mehdi Hasan, could you comment on what he said, and also explain what Saudi Arabia is trying to do in Yemen and why the US is supporting Saudi Arabia?

MEHDI HASAN: It’s a good question, when you say, “Try and explain what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen.” I think a lot of people would wonder, “Yes, what is Saudi Arabia doing in Yemen?” including a lot of Saudis now, who are wondering.

This war was declared in 2015. It was supposed to be done quickly, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab nations against, quote-unquote, “Houthi rebels,” backed by Iran, allegedly. And this was the case where MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, at the time, wasn’t the crown prince; he was a deputy crown prince and the defense minister, and he was pushing this war. It was going to be a quick, simple war — you know, the richest countries in the Middle East against the poorest country. And yet, three years later, still mired in this horrific war, with all of those humanitarian consequences that Bernie Sanders mentioned on the floor of the Senate. It’s a disaster. It’s been called an apocalypse by U.N. officials. It’s been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

And, you know, by all intents and purposes, it is a US-Saudi war, Nermeen. It’s not just a Saudi-led war. As Bernie Sanders pointed out, it’s US refueling Saudi jets, it’s US providing arms and bombs, it’s US providing intel to Saudi officials, diplomatic cover in international forums. And yet, Americans don’t know enough about it, because the media doesn’t cover it. And when it does cover it, it doesn’t mention the Saudi role. And it’s been a disaster. There’s no end in sight. MBS said, in that 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, you know, “It’s all the fault of the Houthis, and it’s all the fault of Iran,” and showed no signs of any prospect of bringing this horrific war to an end.

We rightly get agitated about what goes on in Syria and the bombing — the bombings in Aleppo and elsewhere. But that’s a dictator who we are not arming, who we’re not supporting. And yet, in Yemen, there’s a war going on which has horrific humanitarian consequences, and that’s a dictator, the Saudi dictators, who we do support and arm. So, I find the whole thing slightly absurd and morally grotesque. But, you know, the US is not going to do anything.

To go back to the earlier question that we began the show with, MBS’s visit is such a big deal because he’s such a close ally of the US And Donald Trump, remember, came to office claiming he was going to be a Saudi critic. People forget, when Donald Trump was running for election, he accused the Saudis of being behind 9/11. He said he might not buy oil from the Saudis. He attacked Hillary Clinton for taking money from the Saudis, because they were human rights abusers. And yet, since coming to office, he went to Saudi Arabia first. The first foreign visit he made was to Saudi Arabia. He now praises MBS and his father, the king, Salman. He welcomed him to the White House on Tuesday, and he said, “They’ve got lots of money. We want that money. We’re going to have a great relation.” For Trump, it’s always about money. So, expect no change.

But although one — you know, one bit of good news: That vote, 55 to 45, I think it was, that’s much narrower than previous, quote-unquote, “anti-Saudi” votes on Capitol Hill have been. On Capitol Hill, at least, there’s far much more criticism of Saudi Arabia than there has been anytime that I can think of in recent memory.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we just interviewed Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who —

MEHDI HASAN: Who’s been great on this.

AMY GOODMAN: — joined with Sanders in pushing for this. Now, I wanted to ask you, Medea Benjamin — last year, the Trump administration approved the resumption of sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. President Obama had frozen some of those weapons sales last year due to concerns about civilian casualties in Saudi Arabia’s expanding war in Yemen. Now, Obama didn’t cut off the support, but he did restrict it. Trump took those restrictions off. You have been deeply concerned about this vote. Can you explain what happened on the floor of the Senate?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I want to give kudos to Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy and Mike Lee, a conservative Republican, who introduced this resolution using a very unique angle, which is the War Powers Act, to say this is an unconstitutional war. It has never been voted on by Congress. Congress has not only the authority, but the obligation, to declare war. And this certainly does not fit under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that was passed after 9/11 to attack those associated — involved in the 9/11 attack or associated forces. So, it was a very good argument. And I think it’s horrific that 10 Democrats defected and voted for this, and that so many — almost all of the Republicans have shown themselves to be the war party and to not want to take on their constitutional duty to declare war or not declare war, to allow President Trump to continue with this war in Yemen.

And so, I think we should go back and look at all of those who voted in favor of continuing this war, to tell them they have the blood of Yemeni people on their hands. And when we see those amateur graphs that President Trump held up to talk about all the weapons sales, and showed the states in which there were jobs being created by those weapons sales, showed them in red, think of them as the blood of the Yemeni people, that it’s their deaths and their famine that’s creating jobs in the United States, and then ask yourself about the morality not just of President Trump, but of this country and of our Congress, that will be delighted by the creation of jobs, on the backs of the people of Yemen, who are suffering the largest catastrophe, in the United States. What does this say about our country? What does it tell the rest of the world about the morals of the United States?

AMY GOODMAN: And to be clear, the man he’s sitting with, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, even before he was crown prince — and he’s taken over this power after arresting, what, hundreds of people in Saudi Arabia, a number of members of the Saudi royal family, right after Jared Kushner met with him in Saudi Arabia — he was in charge of this war, even before he was crown prince.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right. This is his war. And that’s why when anybody talks about him as a reformer, “No,” you have to say, “he’s not a reformer. He is a war criminal.” And the shakedown that he presided over in Saudi Arabia is one of the most bizarre things, taking over 200 of the elites of Saudi Arabia and bringing them into this gilded prison in the Ritz hotel and then demanding that they turn over a lot of their assets to him, under his control, before they would be allowed to leave, and 17 of them hospitalized, one of them killed. And this is seen as part of his anti-corruption campaign.

This is the same crown prince who, when he was on a vacation in France, saw a yacht that he liked, that was owned by a Russian vodka financier, and bought it for over $500 million, who owns a château in France that’s considered the most expensive house in the world, and that also bought a Picasso picture, the most high-priced painting ever sold in the United States — in the world. So, this is not Robin Hood. And he, himself, said on 60 Minutes, to be fair, that he is not Gandhi or Mandela. But he is a war criminal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, and he also said in that interview that he has a great deal of personal wealth and, exactly what you said, that he’s neither Mandela or Gandhi, and that this was — the way that he spent his money was entirely his own business. Let’s just go to a clip of that, responding to a question about his own extravagant lifestyle.

PRINCE MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: [translated] My personal life is something I’d like to keep to myself, and I don’t try to draw attention to it. If some newspapers want to point something out about it, that’s up to them. As far as my private expenses, I’m a rich person. I’m not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela. I’m a member of the ruling family, that existed for hundreds of years, before the founding of Saudi Arabia. We own very large lots of land. And my personal life is the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Mehdi Hasan, if you want to expand on this? And also, what has happened to the crown prince’s mother? Where is she?

MEHDI HASAN: So, just on the interview clip you played, I love the idea that “I’m not Mandela or Gandhi.” I don’t think anyone was really going to confuse the crown prince of Saudi Arabia with Mandela or Gandhi, although some in the US media —

AMY GOODMAN: Really? Even with the US press?

MEHDI HASAN: Yeah, I’ll add the caveat: Some in the US media may want to portray him in that way. And the bar is so low when it comes to the Saudis. So, he becomes crown prince, and he allows women to drive. And people in the West say, “Wow! He’s the emancipator of women,” because he allowed women to drive, rather than asking, “Why was Saudi Arabia the only country in the world where women were not allowed to drive?” Why not ask the question, as Medea pointed out: The death penalty for adultery, which disproportionately affects women, for sorcery and witchcraft, which disproportionately affects women, when’s he getting rid of that? No question from 60 Minutes about the death penalty. No questions about democracy or freedom or elections. The words didn’t come up during the interview. They keep calling him a revolutionary. I’ve never come across a revolution where the dictator is still in power at the end of it. I thought that’s the whole point of a revolution, is to get rid of the absolute totalitarian government. So it’s bizarre to call this guy a revolutionary.

To take your point about his mother, there have been reports in the news that this is a crown prince who basically detained, quote-unquote, “kidnapped” his own mother, in order to prevent her from stopping him from taking over from his father. He is one of many children. Saudi kings tend to have a lot of children. He’s one of many children to King Salman. King Salman, by most accounts, is really not in control of the kingdom. He may have dementia. He’s kind of out of it. He’s in his eighties. This guy, 32 years old, crown prince, basically runs the show now. He’s been very, very efficient in terms of taking power. You’ve got to give him that. He may — he may have botched the war in Yemen, but he’s been very good at asserting power at home. He got rid of his cousin, who was the crown prince, put him under palace arrest. He may have kidnapped his mother or detained his mother or hidden her away somewhere, so that she couldn’t get involved in his kind of power takeover from his siblings. He locked up all these princes and business leaders, as Medea pointed out. Basically, it was a shakedown, to use her very appropriate phrase.

And now he’s consolidated all this power, in himself, in the country, at this young age. But the problem is, he’s not very good at doing what he does in terms of foreign policy. Let’s see what he does on economic policy. He’s great pals with Jared Kushner. Nermeen mentioned earlier about how they hung out ’til 4:00 in the morning the week before the purge. He and Jared Kushner are great pals. That’s the connection to the Trump administration. And I always think they’re very — they’re very similar, Jared Kushner and MBS. They’re both 30-something spoiled brats who are deeply overrated and mess up everything they touch.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about Saudi Arabia and Iran. We’re also going to talk about the case that’s taking place in Israel-Palestine right now of 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi, who has just reached a plea deal with the Israeli military. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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