The intense anti-U.S. sentiment in Yemen should be a wake-up call for Americans: if you don’t care about the millions of suffering Yemenis, you might think about the future blowback.
Two U.S. Senators, the Republican Rand Paul and the Democrat Chris Murphy, understand full well the implications and have been trying to halt the weapons sales. “The United States has no business supporting a war that has only served to embolden our terrorist enemies, exacerbate a humanitarian crisis, and incite fear and anger among the Yemeni people toward the United States. This will come back to haunt us,” warned Murphy.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration and the majority of U.S. senators have failed to heed their call. On 13 June, their resolution to stop the Saudi sale of precision-guided munitions was narrowly defeated by a 53-47 vote.
The vote broke down mainly along party lines, with four Republicans and five Democrats breaking ranks. It also broke down along another divide: peace and humanitarian aid groups vs. the Trump administration, lobbyists for the Saudi government and the weapons industry.
Paul, an anti-interventionist Republican pushing the resolution, railed against the senators who were more concerned about the jobs the weapons manufacturers could generate than the lives of Yemeni children. “I am embarrassed that people are talking about making a buck while 17 million people are threatened with famine,” he said.
He didn’t mention that many of the senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, have taken tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the same corporations benefitting from the sales.
Despite the loss, the vote reflected an unprecedented level of Senate opposition to the sale. A similar effort during Obama’s presidency failed 71-27. “Today’s vote total would have been unthinkable not long ago, but Congress is finally taking notice that Saudi Arabia is using US munitions to deliberately hit civilian targets inside Yemen,” Murphy said.
The more cynical interpretation would be that Democrats are more willing to criticize Saudi weapons sales under a Trump administration than under a Democratic one.
Yemenis are desperate to end this conflict, now in its third year. Nearly 19 million people require assistance and 6.8 million are at risk of famine. This has been compounded by a cholera outbreak that has surpassed 124,000 cases and is projected to double every two weeks. Almost half the country’s medical facilities have been destroyed. A Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes from the combined effects of hunger and lack of medical facilities.
Saudi forces have targeted farms, food facilities, water infrastructure, marketplaces, and even the port of Hudaidah, where most of the humanitarian aid was entering the country. Meanwhile, extremist groups such as al-Qaida and Isis have seized upon the chaos to expand their reach.
U.S. backing for the Saudi-led intervention against the Yemeni Houthi rebels is not new. But after Saudi Arabia bombed a funeral procession in October 2016 that resulted in 150 causalities, the Obama administration put a halt to the sale of munitions that would be used in Yemen and pulled back on U.S. logistical support.
Donald Trump has been quick to resume weapons sales, bragging about clinching an enormous $110bn deal during his trip to the kingdom in May. With the growing chorus against U.S. support to the Saudis, the royal family promised Trump that their military would undergo rigorous U.S. training to reduce civilian casualties, signing a $750m training program.
The Saudis also agreed that U.S. advisers would sit in their air operations control center; previously, only a small U.S. team was allowed to operate from another office to coordinate logistical assistance.
But U.S. training or having a seat in the operations control center will not stop the conflict; only a ceasefire and political talks will do that. In December 2015, UN peace talks were launched in conjunction with a ceasefire but no agreement was reached; the same happened in October 2016.
The United Nations Security Council is now making another attempt to address the conflict, calling on all parties to allow unhindered access to humanitarian supplies, to keep all ports functioning (especially the critical port of Hudaidah, which the Saudis have threatened to take from Houthi control), and to make a good-faith attempt to find a political solution.
This is where the United States should be putting its efforts. People in the region understand that until there is a serious U.S. interest in a political solution, it won’t happen. Even if Trump is only interested in “putting America first,” he would do well to stop being involved in dropping bombs on Yemenis and instead use his “art of the deal” to join with the United Nations in ending this catastrophic conflict.
This article first appeared in The Guardian. It reprinted here with permission.