When Will Obama Aides Come Clean About U.S.-Saudi War Crimes?

Now that Saudi Arabia has become a P.R. liability, Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes have quietly condemned the war in Yemen. But when they had the power to stop it, they were complicit.

Sarah Lazare October 22, 2018

Benjamin Rhodes, then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, then-United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. President Barack Obama attend a Bilateral meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemarian Desalegn (not pictured) at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on September 25, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images)

It took the appar­ent mur­der and dis­mem­ber­ment of Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Jamal Khashog­gi for the vio­lence of the Sau­di monar­chy to final­ly reg­is­ter with the U.S. media and polit­i­cal elite. Since March 2015, the Unit­ed States, Sau­di Ara­bia and oth­er allies have waged a war on Yemen that has killed tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, pushed the poor­est coun­try in the Mid­dle East to the brink of famine and unleashed a dev­as­tat­ing cholera out­break. On behalf of its Sau­di part­ner, the Unit­ed States has shipped arms, refu­eled bomber jets, deployed troops and pro­vid­ed polit­i­cal cov­er — all with­out a con­gres­sion­al vote, seri­ous polit­i­cal debate or mean­ing­ful media coverage.

Understated and self-serving admissions by Power and Rhodes demand an examination of what real accountability should look like when one is complicit in unjust war.

Recent­ly, the dogged work of activists and the war’s unde­ni­able bru­tal­i­ty have led to greater scruti­ny from some in Con­gress. Also among the war’s new crit­ics are for­mer high-rank­ing Oba­ma aides, includ­ing for­mer UN Ambas­sador Saman­tha Pow­er and Deputy Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor Ben Rhodes, both of whom got in line behind the U.S.-Saudi war on Yemen and defend­ed the inter­ven­tion. As U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in Sau­di war crimes becomes a P.R. lia­bil­i­ty for those who built their per­son­al brands on the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion’s sup­posed moral author­i­ty, for­mer aides’ crit­i­cisms force us to grap­ple with what con­sti­tutes atone­ment for com­plic­i­ty in mass killing — and how to dis­tin­guish true account­abil­i­ty from a hol­low exer­cise in image rehabilitation.

On Sep­tem­ber 26, Pow­er tweet­ed her sup­port for a bill intro­duced by Rep. Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.) to invoke the War Pow­ers Res­o­lu­tion and end U.S. back­ing of the Sau­di-led war. Not­ing the hor­rif­ic, point­less blood­shed,” she acknowl­edged we in the Oba­ma admin should have cut off aid.” On Octo­ber 4, Rhodes called the War Pow­ers Res­o­lu­tion a much-need­ed check on a human­i­tar­i­an and strate­gic cat­a­stro­phe in Yemen.” While any acknowl­edge­ment of wrong­do­ing, no mat­ter how under­stat­ed, is bet­ter than noth­ing, their half-heart­ed attempts demand a more thought­ful exam­i­na­tion of what real pub­lic atone­ment — and jus­tice — should look like when one admits to com­plic­i­ty in an unjust war of aggression.

What we do know is that, when Pow­er in her role as a UN ambas­sador actu­al­ly had the pow­er to help stop the war on Yemen, by pub­licly break­ing with her boss and encour­ag­ing mean­ing­ful action at the Unit­ed Nations, she did noth­ing. Instead she embraced a pol­i­cy of silence — and shield­ed the U.S.-Saudi coali­tion from mean­ing­ful inter­na­tion­al scruti­ny as it dropped bombs on homes, schools, hos­pi­tals and funerals.

Rhodes, for his part, as deputy nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor, did not pub­licly dis­sent from Obama’s deci­sion to send the Unit­ed States into the war. Rhodes acknowl­edged his cul­pa­bil­i­ty in a revi­sion­ist Octo­ber 12 piece for The Atlantic, which down­played the Oba­ma administration’s direct respon­si­bil­i­ty for atroc­i­ties. He wrote of the Yemen war, Look­ing back, I won­der what we might have done dif­fer­ent­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly if we’d some­how known that Oba­ma was going to be suc­ceed­ed by a Pres­i­dent Trump.” In real­i­ty, the hor­rors of the war were ful­ly under­way dur­ing the Oba­ma administration.

In an eye­brow-rais­ing tweet pub­lished Octo­ber 21, Rhodes claimed that the Oba­ma administration’s rela­tion­ship with Sau­di Ara­bia grew chilly.” In real­i­ty, through­out his pres­i­den­cy Oba­ma offered the king­dom more than $115 bil­lion in weapons, as well as mil­i­tary equip­ment and train­ing, and at the end of his tenure, he col­lab­o­rat­ed with Sau­di Ara­bia on an aggres­sive war that is still ongoing.

Under­stat­ed and self-serv­ing admis­sions by Pow­er and Rhodes demand an exam­i­na­tion of what real account­abil­i­ty should look like when one is com­plic­it in unjust war. Neither’s cri­tique includ­ed an exhaus­tive account of their wrong­do­ing or a robust plan to make things right. Pow­er and Rhodes are fol­low­ing the well-trod path in which law­mak­ers and White House offi­cials sup­port U.S. wars of aggres­sion only to admit, years lat­er and with lit­tle per­son­al con­se­quence, that they made a mis­take. From Sen. Kay Bai­ley Hutchi­son (R‑Texas) to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D‑N.Y.) to Hillary Clin­ton, qui­et­ly acknowl­edg­ing that the Iraq War was a bad idea has become a polit­i­cal rite of pas­sage. These pen­i­tents fail to men­tion that their actions (or lack there­of) con­tributed to the deaths of more than a mil­lion Iraqi peo­ple. And the media allows them to sim­ply issue a vague mea cul­pa and move on.

Politi­cians and offi­cials like­ly make the cal­cu­lus that it’s less polit­i­cal­ly risky to sup­port bipar­ti­san wars at the time, even if it means hav­ing to apol­o­gize for it lat­er. (Of course, fol­low­ing the polls is not always a win­ning strat­e­gy over the long run, as Clin­ton learned when she lost to Oba­ma in the 2008 pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, like­ly due to her sup­port for the Iraq War.)

Pow­er and Rhodes’ sup­port for the War Pow­ers Res­o­lu­tion is one step toward rec­ti­fy­ing the harm they have done. Oba­ma, mean­while, remains silent. But the archi­tects of war must not be allowed to deter­mine the para­me­ters of their own account­abil­i­ty. The ques­tion remains: What would a real pub­lic apol­o­gy for mass mur­der entail? Vow­ing to leave pub­lic life, ded­i­cat­ing one’s remain­ing days to end­ing the war and repair­ing the dam­age? Who should decide what repa­ra­tions mean? Cer­tain­ly, Yeme­nis who have been harmed, includ­ing those who were chil­dren when Oba­ma led the Unit­ed States into the war in 2015 and must now grow up with a dec­i­mat­ed edu­ca­tion and med­ical sys­tem, should be at the forefront.

Noth­ing is stop­ping Pow­er and Rhodes from giv­ing a full and hon­est account of who was respon­si­ble for advo­cat­ing, over­see­ing and cov­er­ing up the hor­rors of the Yemen War, start­ing with them­selves. This would pro­vide use­ful infor­ma­tion about how U.S. insti­tu­tions func­tion, whose inter­ests were served at the expense of the Yemeni peo­ple, who is unde­serv­ing of re-elec­tion and polit­i­cal pow­er, and what keeps the war machine whirring. It would build polit­i­cal pres­sure to final­ly end the war, far more than a hand­ful of mut­ed tweets and arti­cles ever could.

But that’s not like­ly to hap­pen. Far more like­ly is that for­mer aides will issue vague regrets with­out pro­vid­ing any real inven­to­ry of their own roles, while rak­ing in undis­closed — and pre­sum­ably high — fees for lec­tures on human rights and for­eign pol­i­cy. Instead of buy­ing into this ex post fac­to rebrand­ing, it’s up to all of us to make the launch­ing of unjust wars of aggres­sion polit­i­cal­ly nuclear — and to ensure that no one can get away with shrug­ging off the killing of tens of thou­sands of peo­ple as an unfor­tu­nate, but for­giv­able, mis­take.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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