Earlier this year, three United States senators, including the Vermont progressive Bernie Sanders and the Utah conservative Mike Lee, authored a resolution to force the withdrawal of U.S. forces from a foreign war. But their effort did not concern Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria, as a casual observer of American foreign policy might expect.
They sought “to direct the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen,” explaining that “since March 2015, members of the U.S. Armed Forces have been introduced into hostilities” on the side of a Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, a Shia rebel group trying to overthrow the country’s regime.
Congress never approved a war in Yemen. Most Americans are unaware of the conflict or of the involvement of their military and tax dollars. The ongoing intervention is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the campaign rhetoric of President Trump, who led his voters to believe that he would preside over an “America first” foreign policy. And polling data suggests that the American public as a whole is specifically averse to funneling weapons and money to the Saudi Arabian regime (much like the citizens of both Britain and France).
Yet months after a serious congressional effort to stop the U.S. intervention, Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s secretary of state, is pushing to continue America’s involvement, even as bureaucrats in the State Department—the sorts of people Trump supporters denigrate as the “deep state”—are urging an end to U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia, the position that is more consistent with the Constitution, public sentiment, and the campaign rhetoric of the president.
“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed continued U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen over the objections of staff members after being warned that a cutoff could jeopardize $2 billion in weapons sales to America’s Gulf allies,” the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing a classified memo and sources familiar with the decision.
The newspaper added:
Mr. Pompeo overruled concerns from most of the State Department specialists involved in the debate who were worried about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen. Those who objected included specialists in the region and in military affairs. He sided with his legislative affairs team after they argued that suspending support could undercut plans to sell more than 120,000 precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a classified State Department memo and people familiar with the debate.
Weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition have already made the United States complicit in the grisly deaths of innocents. An especially catastrophic and well-documented example occurred in August, when a Saudi air-strike struck a school bus, killing 50 children and injuring 77 more. CNN established that the weapon that killed all those children was manufactured by the U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
“The bomb is very similar to the one that wreaked devastation in an attack on a funeral hall in Yemen in October 2016 in which 155 people were killed and hundreds more wounded,” the news organization added.
It went on to explain:
In the aftermath of the funeral hall attack, U.S. President Barack Obama banned the sale of precision-guided military technology to Saudi Arabia over “human rights concerns.” The ban was overturned by the Trump administration's then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The UN says more than 16,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed. And that figure represents only a fraction of the horrors suffered in the country, where ongoing war puts 8 million at risk of starvation without aid.
Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group sketched a disaster scenario that he now judges to be on the verge of happening. And at The American Conservative, Daniel Larison is scathing in his assessment of how the Trump administration has enabled past atrocities and made future carnage more likely, not only by selling the Saudi coalition weapons, but by falsely certifying that it is making humanitarian progress and signaling that excess death will have no consequences.
“The White House and Pentagon went to the mat to prevent the Senate from voting to cut off military assistance this spring, they green-lit the start of the Hodeidah offensive at the start of the summer, and Pompeo and Mattis lied on their behalf to keep refueling of coalition planes going in the fall,” he wrote:
One of the first things that the administration did was to end the limited restrictions that the Obama administration had imposed as they were on their way out, and they have made a point of giving the coalition free rein ever since. It is not a coincidence that civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes have risen over this same period of time. U.S. officials spend far more of their time concocting implausible defenses for U.S. military assistance than they spend on pressuring the coalition to stop attacks on civilian targets.
Unlawful. Unpopular. Inhumane.
Those are the characteristics of the war that the U.S. became involved in during the Obama administration and that it persists in prosecuting under Trump, even as the prospect of death by starvation for millions mounts. It is one more example of Trump rising to power by critiquing an unsavory aspect of America’s governing elite, only to enter the White House and continue the same behavior with less shame and more callousness.