U.S. needs a different role in Yemen
In other parts of the globe, like the Republic of Yemen, lethal forces are stalking victims whom Americans cannot always picture in complicated political scenarios we may not quickly grasp. So the average American blinks, and in that blink opportunists make deals with undemocratic, unprincipled bullies.
By selling arms to the Saudi Arabians, the United States has become complicit in a military campaign that has obliterated hundreds of thousands of Yemenis. It is more like genocide than war fighting, and it is the antagonistic opposite of spreading democracy.
Last week the U.S. Senate woke up. The Senate approved a resolution calling for an end to American military assistance to Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Whether or not the vote was a factor, a ceasefire went into effect Tuesday following talks brokered by the United Nations. The truce applies to the Red Sea port city of Hodeida. It will surely be hard to maintain; Saudi forces turned their attention Wednesday to the capital, Sanaa, which is outside the ceasefire zone, bombing an air base there.
The ceasefire emerged abruptly during talks in Sweden within a day of the Senate break with the policy of the Trump administration. It came after four years of a war that has driven one of the poorest Arab nations ever deeper into misery and after the killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi put a spotlight on Saudi thuggery. The agreement at last provides an opening for a UN peacekeeping mission.
An estimated half-million Yemenis have died from air attacks, street fighting, cholera, and food and medicine shortages. A preventable epidemic of diphtheria is now raging among unvaccinated Yemenis, many of them children. Children have been the primary victims of starvation caused by inflation and economic disorder as much as by a shortage of food. In a country of 28 million, it is estimated that three-fourths are dependent on aid to survive the food shortages. Famine is looming.
The ceasefire in Hodeida is expected to allow supplies back into the country, which is held by opposing camps in different regions. Fierce conflict has been ongoing since 2004 but got little attention in comparison with the wars in Iraq and Syria. Houthi rebels, a group of militant Shiite Muslims based in the northern part of Yemen, are fighting against the crippled Yemeni government, with evidence of backing from Shiite forces in Lebanon and Iran. Countries friendly to the largely Sunni government — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate, notably — armed with U.S. weapons, have responded at a level that suggests a policy of eliminating the civilian population and any sympathizers.
To his great credit, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has been hammering relentlessly on the administration’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and the humanitarian crisis the war has caused. Murphy co-sponsored the bill to limit presidential war powers with Republican Mike Lee of Utah and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The vote was 56 to 41, with seven Republicans joining all Democrats in the majority.
The political cards should now be clear enough for the Trump Administration and Saudi leaders. The Senate has taken its stand and the House will surely back it once Democrats take control come January.
The bipartisanship is heartening. It’s just a shame that the Senate didn’t act until hundreds of thousands of noncombatants were allowed to die, including one skeletal little girl whose photograph in The New York Times helped Americans to see what this war our country has been supporting really looks like. The child has since died.
A sectarian conflict, which the Yemen war clearly is, presents a challenge to the United States and other Western-style democracies. In the case of Yemen, however, the immediate choice has to be to save the people. The United States must do whatever it can to sustain the ceasefire, foster the next round of talks in January, and support the United Nations peacekeeping work.
Saudi Arabia needs to understand it has gone too far, and the Trump administration needs to know the world won’t stand for another genocide while the United States blinks.