The United States faces a question that it seems to want to ignore: What kind of nation are we? The question looms up in the face of America’s complicity in an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. We are helping Saudi Arabia starve the people of Yemen — men, women, and children — into submission to the Saudi will.
It is in part a geopolitical question: Why should America align itself with Saudi Arabia’s designs in the Middle East? The kingdom wants to thwart any greater power accumulation in the region on the part of Iran, which the Saudis say is meddling in the Yemeni civil war.
This is an exaggeration, as Iranian involvement in Yemen is limited, as Asher Orkady makes clear in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. He argues that the Yemen crisis is less an iteration of the sectarian war between Sunni and Shia stretching back to the first stirrings of Islam in the 7th century than it is a result of internal struggles for power and a better life.
But for America this is also a moral question. America besmirches itself with its participation in a man-made humanitarian disaster that doesn’t further U.S. national interests by any degree whatever — and which couldn’t continue but for U.S. support.
Yemen, one of the poorest nations in the Arab world, has been embroiled in a conflict between the forces of deposed leader Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi (a Sunni) and those of Houthi rebels (Shia) who overran much of the country in 2014 and 2015.
The Saudis (Sunni) want to retake the country’s northern reaches from the Houthis and give them back to Hadi, who has established a skeletal government in the south. But it isn’t clear just what kind of support Hadi would have. “Effective leader” is not a term that settles upon him like a well-fitted cloak.
The Saudis have been conducting bombing strikes against the Houthis’ northern positions that have killed thousands, including many civilians. The campaign is abetted by America, which has provided weapons, logistics, and intelligence to the Saudis so they can control the air space over Yemen and conduct their air campaign, called “Decisive Storm.” This indiscriminate Saudi bombing has targeted hospitals, schools, and marketplaces. One well-documented attack killed dozens at a funeral.
By the end of this past October, some 5,159 civilians had been killed by the bombing, more than 20 percent of them children, while some 8,800 others have been wounded, according to the United Nations. The U.N. Human Rights Council has decried these “unrelenting violations of international humanitarian low.”
But the real atrocity is the Saudi blockade, imposed on incoming goods via land, sea, and air. The U.N. warns that this total blockade likely will trigger “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades.” Consider that some 90 percent of Yemen’s food, fuel, and medicine comes from outside the country. Water in Houthi strongholds must be purified, which requires fuel that is nearly nonexistent now. Cholera is rampant. Starvation is on the rise and could reach epic proportions.
California’s Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who has joined others in Congress in trying to get a debate going on all this, says, “There is a big difference in being complicit with doing harm and not being able to stop harm. Right now the problem is that we’re complicit with Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations.” But congressional leaders don’t want a debate, presumably because they don’t want to bestir the American people about what their government is doing.
Why is it doing this? It began with President Obama, who somehow viewed the Houthis as a threat to America. But the Houthis aren’t motivated by any jihadist zealotry against Americans — or at least they weren’t before America began assisting in their slaughter. This is an internal matter, a civil war stemming from local factors and passions.
Saudi Arabia is next door, and so it has at least some claim on being interested in what happens in its neighborhood. Fine. But why does that justify American complicity? If the United States ceased its war support tomorrow, the Saudis would have to concede that they can’t dislodge the Houthis. The fighting would stop. The outcome might not be to the liking of the Saudis, but why should we care? What possible difference could the outcome make to U.S. national interests?
I write above that the question facing the United States is in part a moral one. I don’t use that term much in foreign policy discourse because I generally oppose deploying U.S. military might in behalf of moral causes unrelated to vital national interests. As I have argued, U.S. blood should not be expended for such causes. But that’s a different question from the question of whether we should be engaging in humanitarian assaults against innocent civilians in poverty-stricken countries far from our shores or from any locus of true national interest. That’s a truly moral question for national consideration.
The country needs to debate this matter. The U.S. Yemen policy needs to be forced out into the sunlight of national discourse so Americans can determine how they feel about what their government is doing to the poor folks of northern Yemen. Going around the world in search of good works to perform is bad enough, but these are bad works. There’s no justification for it.
• Robert W. Merry, editor of The American Conservative, is the author of the recently released “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century” (Simon & Schuster).