By Ben Gladstone
Most Americans know very little about Yemen and its ongoing civil war.
NATO’s role in Iraq has, for many years, been a widely debated issue in American foreign policy — as has the war in Syria since refugees reached European shores. The conflict in Israel and Palestine has been at the center of attention of the American media and campus conversations for decades. And yet, Yemen is somehow ignored.
It is not because America is less involved in Yemen; as this article will describe, the American military is very active in the country. It is not because the plight of Yemenis is less severe than that of other residents of war-torn countries in the region. This certainly is not the case, as Saudi and Houthi bombs rock residential neighborhoods on a daily basis, Houthi forces pepper populated civilian areas with landmines, and a widespread water crisis devastates millions of people in this impoverished nation. It is not even that Yemen is less regionally significant, as its location on Saudi Arabia’s southern border and its historical prominence as a site for proxy wars between major powers make it a crucial battleground in which almost every important regional player (including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Hezbollah, and others) is heavily invested.
I submit that the issue is a racial one, as the ongoing civil war in Yemen does not directly impact white lives as much as it does in countries that are more often discussed. Iraq became a major concern to Americans when the Bush administration managed to convince them that Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti’s regime threatened the West. The American media began to focus on Syria only after the civil war began to seriously affect European countries. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has captured American attention for longer, possibly because Americans tend to think of Jews as white, despite the actual racial diversity and complexity of the global Jewish population and the fact that the majority of Israeli citizens have no European or white background at all. American involvement in Yemen, on the other hand, is primarily through funding and drone warfare, and the many other countries and actors that are involved are Arab (or, in Iran’s case, Persian), and not European. There is a reason that the Paris attacks generated global outcry, whereas Boko Haram’s Baga attacks were treated with silence. Discrimination against people of color in the American media is a longstanding and widespread problem — one that impacts not only Americans, but also the victims of American operations all over the world.
The purpose of this article, however, is less to explain why Americans care so little about Yemen and more to describe the result: very few people even question political and military involvement in Yemen that is both immoral and ineffective. The United States is guilty of being involved in both a deadly drone strike program that kills scores of civilians every year and strengthens Al Qaeda, and of supporting a brutal Saudi-led coalition in a war effort that often includes bombing civilian sites. Americans should be aware of their country’s role in Yemeni affairs, and should speak out against irresponsible United States policies.
As mentioned earlier, possibly the best known, although still little discussed, way in which the United States is involved in Yemeni affairs is through drone strikes. Often, criticism of America’s drone program centers on the abstract claim that distance from a battlefield may produce psychological detachment in soldiers and technicians, preventing them from applying the fullest extent of their moral judgment. This is true, relevant, and important, but it is not the only issue plaguing United States drone program.
Another issue is legal ambiguity. As Amnesty International has pointed out, “international law permits the use of lethal force in very restricted circumstances.” Militaries are not within their rights to kill citizens of other sovereign nations at will; rather, factors such as military necessity are relevant. The American government has sought to justify targeted killings with a claim that the United States is at war with Al Qaeda everywhere, and therefore that the laws of war apply and “military objectives” are viable targets in any country. Human Rights Watch, however, has pointed out that, “for a government to act on the assumption that international humanitarian law [the laws of war] always applies – effectively making all the world a battlefield and summarily rejecting international human rights law – will undermine international legal protections.” Moreover, even if the administration’s broad application of the laws of war were legitimate, it would still be hard to justify “signature strikes” against people whose identities are unknown but exhibit suspicious behavior, such as interacting with Al Qaeda members. In fact, drone strike victims are generally labeled combatants merely for being young and male, without any evidence that they have been involved in violent activities of any sort.
Moreover, the number of civilian casualties in America’s drone campaigns is atrocious. Advocates for drone strikes often note that, in theory, a drone is just as, or more precise than a manned fighter plane. Even a completely accurate strike, however, depends on intelligence that may be faulty, and targets are often wrongly chosen. According to a report by The Intercept reprinted by the Huffington Post, military documents reveal that up to 90 percent of people killed by drone strikes over a five-month span in Afghanistan, and likely an even higher percentage in Yemen, were civilians.
Aside from these significant moral issues, there is also a strategic failure in America’s drone policy in Yemen. As Hunter College Professor Jillian Schwedler wrote in her important Brookings Institution article, “Is the U.S. drone program in Yemen working?”, drone strikes turn public opinion severely against the United States. American drone policy enables Al Qaeda to recruit new militants and to operate in communities that were once hostile to terrorism, but have been driven to accept it because of their fear of American attacks. Even though Al Qaeda leaders are occasionally killed in drone strikes, those figures are easily replaced as the organization grows in membership and power.
Another way in which the United States is heavily involved in Yemeni affairs is through its support for the Saudi-led coalition that is now spearheading efforts to restore internationally recognized Yemeni President, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power. The coalition (including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, and others) has led a campaign of aerial bombings in support of military units and popular committees loyal to Hadi in their fight against military units and others loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen’s former dictator, who was ousted in 2012 in a popular revolution) and the Iran-backed Houthi militia. While the blame for starting the war rests on the Houthis, who took over the capital city of Sana’a in September 2014 and began a violent campaign of repression, both sides have committed egregious war crimes since that time. The United States’ primary role in perpetuating these crimes has been in enabling the reckless and indiscriminate bombings of the Saudi-led coalition.
Morally, Americans should be outraged at their government’s participation in what has become a massacre. Nearly 6,000 people have died in the war, around half of them civilians and many of them in Saudi bombardments of residential buildings, markets, wedding parties, health facilities, and civilian factories. Recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested that the coalition may be guilty of a war crime for its use of cluster bombs (provided by the United States) against civilians. The United States is instrumental in making Saudi war crimes possible, both through America’s material and financial support for the coalition (most rockets and bombs used in these raids are American), and through intelligence support, on which the coalition is very much dependent. The United States gives the Saudi military feeds from its spy satellites and reconnaissance drones, intelligence that Saudi Arabia then uses to hit civilians. If Saudi Arabia identifies a target with American intelligence and obliterates it with an American bomb, that blood is on American hands as well as Saudi. Incidents of that nature should certainly be of concern to Americans.
Strategically, also, this policy of blind support for the Saudi-led coalition should be reevaluated. American politicians often construe the purpose of backing the coalition as a way of supporting an ally against Iranian expansionism, and that is certainly a factor. While Iran’s relationship with the Houthis is more complicated than its relationships with its direct proxies — such as Hezbollah — the Houthis do receive support from Iran (in the forms of weapons, money, and training). Saudi Arabia is, in fact, reasonably skittish at the thought of a Houthi-controlled territory on its southern border. Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement, made an important trip to Iran in 1986 to learn how to counter Saudi-spread Wahhabism, and it was there that he became committed to the views delineated on his flag: “God is great; Death to America; Death to Israel; A curse upon the Jews; victory to Islam.”
Support for ruthless Saudi intervention, however, should not be the assumed counterpoint to Houthi advances. While public opinion in most of the country is against the Houthis, the militia is able to gain sympathy through its opposition to such violent foreign intervention. The Saba News Agency, which has become a mouthpiece for the Houthis, focuses on Saudi bombardments, portraying the Houthis as the lesser of two evils. Saudi aggression, and American support for that aggression, breeds justified anger at the United States and strengthens the pro-Houthi argument.
Moreover, continued American support for Saudi Arabia in this war sends a message to the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as he tests the waters for a more militaristic, more expansionist foreign policy than that of his predecessor: he can do whatever he pleases with impunity. If the United States will not cut off support over the massacres of thousands of Yemeni civilians, why should Salman think twice about executing a Saudi Shi’a cleric and minority rights activist like Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr over American protests? America has lost any leverage it once had over Saudi Arabia by proving that it will be complicit in even the foulest of Saudi policies.
American support for the Saudi-led coalition and its war crimes is not only an immoral policy, but also an ineffective one, damaging America’s reputation among Yemenis and emboldening the Saudi government to ignore American interests.
Of course, the United States is not the only actor with blood on its hands. Saudi Arabia and the other coalition members have agency as well, as do Al Qaeda, the Houthis, Saleh, Iran, and others. The Houthis and their backers in Tehran bear the blame for beginning the war, along with the ever power hungry Saleh, for perpetuating it. All sides have committed serious war crimes and regularly target civilians.
That said, Americans are especially ignorant of Yemeni affairs, and they have a special responsibility to hold their government accountable for its actions. American drone strikes and unquestioning support for the Saudi-led coalition are irresponsible policies: legally ambiguous, morally egregious, and strategically ineffective. It is up to the American people to raise their voices in protest.