The Forgotten War in Yemen and the Unchecked War Powers of the Presidency in the Age of Trump
The long national nightmare that was the 2016 presidential election is finally over. Now, we’re facing a worse terror: the reality of a Trump presidency. Donald Trump has already promised to nominate a segregationist attorney general, a national security adviser who is a raging Islamophobe , a secretary of education who doesn’t believe in public schools, and a secretary of defense whose sobriquet is “Mad Dog.” How worried should we be that General James “Mad Dog” Mattis may well be the soberest among them?
Along with a deeply divided country, the worst income inequality since at least the 1920s, and a crumbling infrastructure, Trump will inherit a 15-year-old, apparently never-ending worldwide war. While the named enemy may be a mere emotion (“terror”) or an incendiary strategy (“terrorism”), the victims couldn’t be more real, and as in all modern wars, the majority of them are civilians.
On how many countries is U.S. ordnance falling at the moment? Some put the total at six; others, seven. For the record, those seven would be Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and, oh yes, Yemen.
The United States has been directing drone strikes against what it calls al-Qaeda targets in Yemen since 2002, but our military involvement in that country increased dramatically in 2015 when U.S. ally Saudi Arabia inserted itself into a civil war there. Since then, the United States has been supplying intelligence and mid-air refueling for Saudi bombers (many of them American-made F-15s sold to that country). The State Department has also approved sales to the Saudis of $1.29 billion worth of bombs — “smart” and otherwise — together with $1.15 billion worth of tanks, and half a billion dollars of ammunition. And that, in total, is only a small part of the $115 billion total in military sales the United States has offered Saudi Arabia since President Obama took power in 2009.
Why are American bombs being dropped on Yemen by American-trained pilots from American-made planes? I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a glimpse of the results.
“On the Brink of Abyss”
The photographs are devastating: tiny, large-eyed children with sticks for limbs stare out at the viewer. In some, their mothers touch them gently, tentatively, as if a stronger embrace would snap their bones. These are just a few victims of the famine that war has brought to Yemen, which was already the poorest country in the Arab world before the present civil war and Saudi bombing campaign even began. UNICEF spokesman Mohammed Al-Asaadi told al-Jazeera that, by August 2016, the agency had counted 370,000 children “suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” and the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) says 14.4 million people in Yemen are “food insecure,” seven million of them — one fifth of the country’s population — “in desperate need of food assistance.” Before the war began, Yemen imported 90% of its food. Since April 2015, however, Saudi Arabia has blockaded the country’s ports. Today, 80% of Yemenis depend on some kind of U.N. food aid for survival, and the war has made the situation immeasurably worse.
As the WFP reports:
“The nutrition situation continues to deteriorate. According to WFP market analysis, prices of food items spiked in September as a result of the escalation of the conflict. The national average price of wheat flour last month was 55 percent higher compared to the pre-crisis period.”
The rising price of wheat matters, because in many famines, the problem isn’t that there’s no food, it’s that what food there is people can’t afford to buy.
And that was before the cholera outbreak. In October, medical workers began to see cases of that water-borne diarrheal disease, which is easily transmitted and kills quickly, especially when people are malnourished. By the end of the month, according to the World Health Organization, there were 1,410 confirmed cases of cholera, and 45 known deaths from it in the country. (Other estimates put the number of cases at more than 2,200.)
Both these health emergencies have been exacerbated by the ongoing Saudi air war, which has destroyed or otherwise forced the closure of more than 600 healthcare centers, including four hospitals operated by Doctors Without Borders, along with 1,400 schools. More than half of all health facilities in the country have either closed or are only partially functional.
The day before the U.S. election, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the U.N.’s envoy on Yemen, described the situation this way: “People are dying… the infrastructure is falling apart… and the economy is on the brink of abyss.” Every time it seems the crisis can’t get any worse, it does. A recent Washington Post story describes such “wrenching” choices now commonly faced by Yemeni families as whether to spend the little money they have to take one dying child to a hospital or to buy food for the rest of the family.
The Saudi-led coalition includes Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. Between March 2015 and the end of August 2016, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent, nonpartisan group of academics and human rights organizations, the coalition launched more than 8,600 air strikes. At least a third of them struck civilian targets, including, the Guardian reports, “school buildings, hospitals, markets, mosques and economic infrastructure.” Gatherings like weddings and funerals have come under attack, too. To get a sense of the scale and focus of the air war, consider that one market in the town of Sirwah about 50 miles east of the capital, Sana’a, has already been hit 24 separate times.
Casualty estimates vary, but the World Health Organization says that, as of October 25th, “more than 7,070 people have been killed and over 36,818 injured.” As early as last January, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees reported that 2.4 million people (nearly one-tenth of the population) were already internally displaced — that is, uprooted from their homes by the war. Another 170,000 have fled the country, including Somali and Ethiopian refugees, who had sought asylum from their own countries in Yemen, mistakenly believing that the war there had died down. Leaving Yemen has, however, gotten harder for the desperate and uprooted since the Saudis and Egypt began blockading the country’s ports. Yemen shares land borders with Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman — the only Arab monarchy that is not part of the Saudi-led coalition — to the east.
In early October, Saudi planes attacked a funeral hall in Sana’a where the father of the country’s interior minister was being memorialized, killing at least 135 people and wounding more than 500. Gathered at the funeral, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), were a wide range of Yemenis, including journalists, government officials, and some military men. HRW’s on-the-ground report on the incident claims that the attack, which intentionally targeted civilians and involved an initial air strike followed by a second one after rescuers had begun to arrive 30 minutes later, constitutes a war crime. The Saudi-led coalition acknowledged responsibility for the bombing, blaming the attack on “wrong information.”
U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon was horrified and called for a full investigation. “Aerial attacks by the Saudi-led coalition,” he said, “have already caused immense carnage, and destroyed much of the country’s medical facilities and other vital civilian infrastructure.”
For once in this forgotten war, the international outcry was sufficient to force the Obama administration to say something vaguely negative about its ally. “U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” commented National Security Council Spokesman Ned Price, “is not a blank check.” He added:
“In light of this and other recent incidents, we have initiated an immediate review of our already significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led coalition and are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with U.S. principles, values, and interests, including achieving an immediate and durable end to Yemen’s tragic conflict.”
That “check” from Washington did at least include the bombs used in the funeral attack. According to HRW’s on-the-ground reporters, U.S.-manufactured, air-dropped GBU-12 Paveway II 500-pound laser-guided bombs were used.
What’s It All About?
Why is Saudi Arabia, along with its allies, aided by the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom, fighting in Yemen? That country has little oil, although petroleum products are its largest export, followed by among other things “non-fillet fresh fish.” It does lie along one of the world’s main oil trading routes on the Bab el-Mandeb strait between the Suez Canal at the north end of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in the south. But neither Saudi nor U.S. access to the canal is threatened by the forces Saudi Arabia is fighting in Yemen.
The Saudis have specifically targeted the Houthis, a political movement named for its founder Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a Zaidi Shi’a Muslim religious and political leader who died in 2004. The Zaidis are an ancient branch of Shi’a Islam, most of whose adherents live in Yemen.
Officially known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), the Houthi movement began in the 1990s as a religious revival among young people, who described it as a vehicle for their commitment to peace and justice. Ansar Allah soon adopted a series of slogans opposing the United States and Israel, along with any Arab countries collaborating with them, presumably including Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. As Zaidi Muslims, the movement also opposed any significant role for Salafists (fundamentalist Sunnis) in Yemeni life and held demonstrations at mosques, including in the capital, Sana’a.
In 2004, this led to armed confrontations when Yemeni security forces, commanded by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, attacked the demonstrators. Badreddin al-Houthi, the movement’s founder, was killed in the intermittent civil war that followed and officially ended in 2010. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar government’s news agency, has suggested that President Saleh may have used his war with the Houthis unsuccessfully to get at his real rival, a cousin and general in the Yemeni army named Ali Mohsen.
During the Arab Spring in 2011, the Houthis supported a successful effort to oust President Saleh, and as a reward, according to al-Jazeera, that sameGeneral Mohsen gave them control of the state of Saadra, an area where many Houthi tribespeople live. Having helped unseat Saleh, the Houthis — and much of the rest of Yemen — soon fell out with his Saudi-supported replacement, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. In January 2015, the Houthis took over Sana’a and placed Hadi under effective house arrest. He later fled to Saudi Arabia and is believed to be living in the Saudi capital Riyadh. The Houthis for their part have now allied with their old enemy Saleh.
So, once again, why do the Saudis (and their Sunni Gulf State allies) care so much about the roiling internal politics and conflicts of their desperately poor neighbor to the south? It’s true that the Houthis have managed to lob some rockets into Saudi Arabia and conduct a few cross-border raids, but they hardly represent an existential threat to that country.
The Saudis firmly believe, however, that Iran represents such a threat. As Saudi diplomatic documents described in the New York Times suggest, that country has “a near obsession with Iran.” They see the hand of that Shi’a nation everywhere, and certainly everywhere that Shi’a minorities have challenged Sunni or secular rulers, including Iraq.
There seems to be little evidence that Iran supported the Houthis (who represent a minority variant of Shi’a Islam) in any serious way — at least until the Saudis got into the act. Even now, according to a report in the Washington Post, the Houthis “are not Iranian puppets.” Their fight is local and the support they get from Iran remains “limited and far from sufficient to make more than a marginal difference to the balance of forces in Yemen, a country awash with weapons. There is therefore no supporting evidence to the claim that Iran has bought itself any significant measure of influence over Houthi decision-making.”
So to return to where we began: why exactly has Washington supported the Saudi war in Yemen so fully and with such clout? The best guess is that it’s a make-up present to Saudi Arabia, a gesture to help heal the rift that opened when the Obama administration concluded its July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. Under that agreement’s terms, Iran vowed “that it will under no circumstances ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons” in return for the United States lifting years of economic sanctions.
U.S. Boots on the Ground
The munitions the United States has supplied to the Saudis for their war in Yemen include cluster bombs, which sprinkle hundreds of miniature bomblets around an area as big as several football fields. Unexploded bomblets can go off years later, one reason why their use is now generally considered to violate the laws of war. In fact, 119 countries have signed a treaty to outlaw cluster bombs, although not the United States. (As it happens, Saudi Arabia isn’t the only U.S. ally to favor cluster bombs. Israel has also used them, for instance deploying “more than a million” bomblets in its 2006 war against Lebanon, according to an Israel Defense Forces commander.)
We know that U.S.-made cluster bombs have already killed civilians in Yemen, and in June 2016, many Democratic members of Congress tried to outlaw their sale to Saudi Arabia. They lost in a close 216-204 vote. Only 16 Democrats backed President Obama’s request to continue supplying cluster bombs to the Saudis. Congressional Republicans and the Defense Department, however, fought back fiercely, as the Intercept has reported:
“‘The Department of Defense strongly opposes this amendment,’ said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Committee on Defense Appropriations, during floor debate. ‘They advise us that it would stigmatize cluster munitions, which are legitimate weapons with clear military utility.’”
Perhaps some weapons deserve to be stigmatized.
These days it’s not just American bombs that are landing in Yemen. U.S. Special Operations forces have landed there, too, ostensibly to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the local terror outfit that has been expanding its operations amid the chaos of the war in that country. If anything, the air war has actually strengthened AQAP’s position, allowing it to seize more territory in the chaos of the ongoing conflict. In the ever-shifting set of alliances that is Yemeni reality, those U.S. special ops troops find themselves allied with the United Arab Emirates against AQAP and the local branch of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and also, at least temporarily, with a thriving movement of southern Yemeni separatists, who would like to see a return to the pre-1990 moment when there were two Yemens, north and south.
In the beginning, the White House claimed that the special ops deployment was temporary. But by June 2016, the Washington Post was reporting that “the U.S. military now plans to keep a small force of Special Operations advisers in Yemen… for the foreseeable future.” And that has yet to change, so consider us now directly involved in an undeclared land war in that country.
Compared to the horrors of Iraq and Syria, the slaughter, displacement, and starvation in Yemen may seem like small potatoes — except, of course, to the people living and dying there. But precisely because there are no U.S. economic or military interests in Yemen, perhaps it could be the first arena in Washington’s endless war on terror to be abandoned.
Missing (Reward Offered for Sighting It): Congressional Backbone
I vividly recall a political cartoon of the 1980s that appeared at a moment when Congress was once again voting to send U.S. aid to the Contra forces fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Having witnessed firsthand the effects of the Contra war there, with its intentional military strategy of attacking civilians and public services as well as its use of torture ,kidnapping, and mutilation, I found those Congressional debates on sending money, weapons, and CIA trainers to the Contras frustrating. The cartoon’s single panel caught my mood exactly. It was set in the cloakroom of the House of Representatives. Suspended from each hanger was a backbone. A blob-like creature in a suit could just be seen slithering out of the frame. The point was clear: Congress had checked its spine at the door.
In fact, in every war the United States has fought since World War II, Congress has effectively abdicated its constitutional right to declare war, repeatedly rolling over and playing dead for the executive branch. During the last 50 years, from the Reagan administration’s illegal Contra war to the “war on terror,” this version of a presidential power grab has only accelerated. By now, we’ve become so used to all of this that the term “commander-in-chief” has become synonymous with “president” — even in domestic contexts. With a Trump administration on the horizon, it should be easier to see just what an irresponsible folly it’s been to allow the power of the presidency and the national security state to balloon in such an uncontrolled, unchecked way.
I wish I had the slightest hope that our newly elected Republican Congress would find its long-lost spine in the age of Donald Trump and reassert its right and duty to decide whether to commit the country to war, starting in Yemen. Today, more than ever, the world needs our system of checks and balances to work again. The alternative, unthinkable as it might be, is looming.
It’s 2016. We know where our bombs are. Isn’t it time to bring them home?
By Rebecca Gordon
Source: Tom Dispatch