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.

Shireen Al-Adeimi March 25, 2019

President Barack Obama speaks as King Salman bin Abd alAziz of Saudi Arabia looks on during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House September 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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.

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.
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