Web Only / Features » March 25, 2019
As War on Yemen Hits the 4-Year Mark, Here’s a Brief History of U.S. Involvement
As the political tide in the United States finally turns against the war, we must not let its U.S. proponents whitewash their wrongdoing.
Despite early warnings of the severity of the humanitarian crisis resulting from the Saudi-led military intervention, the Obama administration continued to fully back the operations.
On the fourth anniversary of the War in Yemen, this brutal and ongoing onslaught has taken the lives of more than 60,000 Yemenis and left half the population—14 million people—on the verge of famine. What began as a civil war in Yemen escalated into what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Yemen became an international killing field, with Saudi Arabia leading a vicious bombing campaign, which the Obama and then Trump administrations helped unleash. As the political tide in the United States finally turns against the war, we must not let its early proponents—and those who remained silent—whitewash their misdeeds. We must be willing to look honestly at what the United States has done to the Yemeni people, so that we can finally end this war, and prevent similar atrocities in the future.
A brief history
On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a surprise military attack on Yemen, destroying its air force and controlling its airspace within 24 hours. Officially, the Coalition also included Qatar (until June 2017), Morocco (until February 2019), Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and other Arab and African allies. The Coalition’s stated goal was to reinstate Yemen’s embattled president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, whose legitimacy had been undermined by the Houthi takeover of Sana’a months prior. However, Saudi intervention in Yemen is neither new nor surprising: Yemen’s strategic location has ensured a history of Saudi intervention in the country that escalated when monarchs or Saudi-allied presidents—like Hadi—came under threat.
The Saudi-led coalition was backed by Western allies including the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Hours after the intervention began, the Obama administration released a statement declaring, “In support of GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] actions to defend against Houthi violence, President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations.” The GCC is a political alliance that includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
While the statement emphasized “U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen,” it noted the creation of a “Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.” In reality, Obama initiated yet another unauthorized U.S. military foreign intervention without approval from Congress, thereby violating the War Powers Act of 1973, which authorizes Congress—not the president—to initiate war.
In the days, months and years that followed, it became apparent that U.S. military support for the Saudis and Emiratis was much more substantial than stated, and unwavering despite mounting evidence of war crimes committed by the Coalition. Under Obama, the United States supplied arms to the coalition, helped identify bomb targets and provided mid-air refueling of Saudi and UAE warplanes. But the United States also provided political cover for the war, shielding Saudi Arabia from scrutiny at the United Nations and persisently proclaiming the strength of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
Obama’s support persisted as millions more in Yemen faced hunger as a result of the blockade, and photographs of children’s emaciated bodies began to surface. It continued even after hospitals—including those operated by Médecins Sans Frontières—were repeatedly bombed despite prior knowledge of their coordinates. It continued despite large-scale bombings that caused mass civilian casualties, including the Hajjah market airstrike that killed 119 people in March 2016, and the October 2016 bombing that killed 140 mourners attending a funeral in Sana’a. The Obama administration's support also continued when evidence surfaced that the Saudis and Emiratis were working alongside America’s foremost enemy, al Qaeda.
Ostensibly, the intervention was meant to suppress Yemen’s Houthis who are accused of being Iran’s proxies. Yet, the Coalition was met by resistance not only from Houthis, but from Saudi’s former ally (and Houthi enemy), ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Several military units and security forces, including the Republican Guard, were still loyal to Saleh despite his ouster from power in 2011. Thus, Saleh and the Houthis formed an unlikely military alliance that helped thwart advances by the Coalition. Meanwhile, Hadi and members of Yemen’s Islah party stood in opposition alongside the Saudi-led coalition.
Today, Yemenis continue to suffer, with over 85,000 children under the age of five who have died of malnutrition and preventable diseases as a result of the naval and land blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition. Lacking access to food, medicines and water, a child under the age of five succumbs to hunger or disease every 10 minutes. Even in the early months of the war, the humanitarian crisis was severe: In July 2015, Oxfam cautioned that 20 million Yemenis were in need of safe water and 10 million were struggling to find food. In August of 2015, Peter Maurer of the International Committee of the Red Cross warned, “Yemen after five months is like Syria after five years.”
Support for war
In the early days of the intervention, Obama’s war went virtually unquestioned by most members of Congress. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) challenged Obama’s intervention in October 2015 and joined forces with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to limit munitions sales to Saudi Arabia the following year, but these two are notable exceptions. Their bill was tabled in a 71-27 vote in September 2016. Twenty-one Democrats, including Sens. Schumer (N.Y.) and Feinstein (Calif.), joined 49 Republicans and Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine) in voting against the bill.
Soon after taking office, Trump escalated the war in Yemen by reversing Obama’s decision to suspend the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and by sending U.S. Special Forces to the Saudi-Yemen border. While signing the 2019 National Defence Authorization Act, Trump also overrode restrictions put in place to minimize civilian deaths in the war on Yemen.
Efforts to end the war on Yemen in the Senate gained prominence when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined Sens. Murphy and Mike Lee (R-Utah) in challenging U.S. participation in the war by introducing S.J.Res.54, a bill that invoked the War Powers Act. Ten democratic senators, including those representing Rhode Island, where weapons manufacturer Textron is located, helped table the bill with their vote. Incidentally, this vote occurred on March 20, 2018—one day after the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The bill finally passed in the Senate in December 2018, when all Senate Democrats and Independents, as well as seven Senate Republicans, voted in favor, making the War Powers bill the first of its kind to pass in the Senate.
Instead of making its way to the House, however, the historic bill that passed in the Senate became symbolic, as by that time, House Republicans had already thwarted efforts by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) to pass a similar War Powers bill in the House. This was the second such maneuver in the House, where a year earlier, another War Powers bill introduced by Rep. Khanna was stripped of its privileged status. In 2017, however, Republicans weren’t solely to blame, as House Democratic whip Rep. Hoyer (D-Md.) helped block the War Powers bill.
Shifting political winds
While Congress spent years inching toward ending the war by challenging its legality, mounting protests from activists have pressured both chambers to take demonstrable action toward halting U.S. participation. In February 2019, Rep. Khanna’s bill finally passed in the House, and the following month, Sens. Sanders, Murphy and Lee once again succeeded in passing the War Powers bill in the Senate. As before, another hurdle appeared when House Republicans amended their version of the bill with a statement condemning anti-Semitism that, due to germaneness laws, prevented the exact bill from being passed in the Senate. Once again, anti-war efforts took two steps forward and one step back.
When the House bill is eventually passed, Democrats—including those running for office—will likely claim credit for helping to end the war on Yemen. The reality, however, is that these historic wins are the results of the efforts of a few within Congress: Murphy, Sanders and Lee in the Senate, as well as Khanna in the House. Others who previously voted in favor of perpetuating the war over the past four years will likely be let off the hook. This, after all, has become Trump’s war, despite beginning and expanding under Obama’s watch.
While Obama has yet to make a statement on Yemen, former senior officials in his administration have increasingly challenged U.S. support for the war in Yemen, going as far as drafting a letter that calls for an end to the U.S.’ role in the war. The statement acknowledged their collective “failure” while simultaneously misrepresenting the Obama administration’s support as in response to “a legitimate threat posed by missiles on the Saudi border.” Obama declared support for the Saudis on the day they began bombing—nearly three months before the first Houthi missile was fired into Saudi Arabia.
Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama, was among those who signed the open letter. During her crucial role in the Obama administration, however, she ignored the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and went as far as defending the intervention. Similarly, it took Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, nearly four years to acknowledge that “we were wrong to think that cautious and at times conditional support for the war in Yemen would influence Saudi and Emirati policy.”
As we come upon the fourth year of this devastating war, there are countless U.S. officials and leaders to blame: the Obama administration for participating in the war despite mounting evidence of war crimes, and the Trump administration for escalating the war by supporting the attack on the port city of Hodeidah that threatens to starve half the population.
Without U.S. weapons, intelligence, training, on-the-ground support and political blessings, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would be able to sustain their intervention much longer. Yet, the road to ending U.S. participation has been fraught with partisanship and lack of interest among most political leaders. Even if the War Powers bill forces Trump to end his support for the Saudi-led coalition, weapon sales (which so far have totaled in the tens of billions of dollars) will still flow between the two countries.
One day, this war will be over, and Yemenis will begin rebuilding what’s left of their country, piece by piece. When they look back, however, they will find countless countries who are responsible for destroying Yemen: Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and others who actively participated in the killing and starving of Yemeni civilians. They will also find countries like Canada, which profited from the war even as they occasionally uttered concerns for the loss of human life they helped end with the weapons they sold.
But there will also be heroes: ordinary people in the United States who did not hesitate to stand against their government's support of a war in a country few know anything about. People who wrote letters, held signs, attended vigils and fiercely protested despite the overwhelming and seemingly impossible task before them. Those are the people Yemenis will thank. And those are the people who will end the U.S.-backed war on Yemen.
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Shireen Al-Adeimi is an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University. Having lived through two civil wars in her country of birth, Yemen, she has played an active role in raising awareness about the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led war on Yemen since 2015. Through her work, she aims to encourage political action among fellow Americans to bring about an end to U.S. intervention in Yemen.