President Trump is being pushed to expand an undeclared war of choice in a faraway land, according to an article published late Sunday in the Washington Post. The newspaper reported that the secretary of defense, former general Jim Mattis, wants the White House to lift restrictions on “military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a protracted civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.”
That wouldn’t be a fight against terrorists bent on attacking us––it would be geopolitical positioning in alliance with Saudi Arabia, a major sponsor of Islamic extremism.
If a cabinet official was pushing President Trump to arrest flag burners, execute warrantless searchers, or torture death row inmates, the Washington Post would presumably note that acceding to the request would violate the United States Constitution.
By contrast, even as the newspaper’s article on Yemen policy notes that “approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift,” since “U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism,” it leaves unmentioned these crucial bits of context: that the U.S. Congress has not declared war on Houthi rebels; and that participation in Yemen’s civil war cannot possible be justified under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force that allows the president to wage war against the perpetrators of 9/11 and associated forces.
Secretary Mattis is urging extra-constitutional war-making. And almost no one has noticed.
The way the Washington Post covered the story––and the failure of many media outlets to cover it at all––stem in large part from the anemia of America’s anti-war movement. That isn’t a criticism of the small group actively engaged in that cause: It is an observation that very few Americans are active, whether that means street protests or writing letters to Congress or working within the infrastructure of the political parties.
Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been at war, the longest continuous conflict in its history. Its citizens have witnessed a failed surge into Afghanistan, a catastrophe in Iraq that helped destabilize vast swaths of the Middle East, an unconstitutional war in Libya that created a power vacuum exploited by ISIS, and a drone war that has killed hundreds of innocents in a half-dozen countries. The last two presidents campaigned against dumb wars and won. The more interventionist candidate has lost every election since 2008.
Yet the anti-war faction that mobilized against the Iraq War shrunk precipitously during the Obama years, and is less noisy as Trump takes office than anti-pipeline protesters.
Meanwhile, as Glenn Greenwald notes, “Trump has escalated the 16-year-old core premise of America’s foreign policy—that it has the right to bomb any country in the world where people it regards as terrorists are found—and in doing so, has fulfilled the warped campaign pledges he repeatedly expressed. The most recent atrocity was the killing of as many as 200 Iraqi civilians from U.S. airstrikes in Mosul. That was preceded a few days earlier by the killing of dozens of Syrian civilians in Raqqa province when the United States targeted a school where people had taken refuge, which itself was preceded a week earlier by the U.S. destruction of a mosque near Aleppo that also killed dozens. And one of Trump’s first military actions was what can only be described as a massacre carried out by Navy SEALs, in which 30 Yemenis were killed; among the children killed was an eight-year-old American girl (whose 16-year-old American brother was killed by a drone under Obama).”
The absence of significant protests in the face of this inhumane militarism is a major reason why it is neither emphasized in the press nor kept in check by the most effective brake on killing among those who lack a moral compass: political consequences. Trump and most Republicans won’t worry about civilian deaths until they’re affected by them. Neither will most Democrats.
That isn’t to say that there are no skeptics. Here’s Senator Rand Paul speaking about Yemen policy at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this month:
We’re supplying the Saudis with bombs, refueling the planes, picking the targets. I assume that we didn’t pick the target of a funeral procession, but we wounded 500 people and 140 people — I say “we;” the Saudis did it, but with our armaments. You think that Yemenis don’t know where the bombs are coming from?
We recently had a raid — and I don’t blame our soldiers. I mean, I have members of my family who actively serve. They do what they’re told. But we’re the policymakers. I mean, we sent them into Yemen. I’ve still not been told why we went to Yemen. Someone’s got to make a decision: Did we — in killing, you know, a few of the al Qaeda members in that village — was that worth the fact that we had to kill women and children, or women and children were inadvertently killed in that, including an American citizen? I guess my question to Dr. Rand is: Do you think we’re adequately weighing whether we’re creating more terrorists than we kill, whether we’re doing more good than we are doing harm, whether we are safer or more risk? I think your testimony was at least reasoned in the sense that it asked will we be better off. Yes, we can take a new port in Yemen. We can do anything. But in the end, will we be safer, better off if we continue the way we’re continuing?
Paul’s skeptical view of interventionism and frank inquiries about potential blowback put the Kentucky Republican in a minority faction within his political party.
I’d have thought more Democrats would speak up.
Granted, much of the Democratic Party made peace with drone strikes during the Obama administration, and then nominated the notoriously hawkish Hillary Clinton as its nominee in 2016, despite her long record of foreign policy misjudgments, most notably her support for the Iraq War and the invasion of Libya. The Democratic coalition therefore couldn’t run as skeptics of dumb interventions. Who knows how many U.S. troops President Clinton would have in Syria by now?
But the Democrats who spent the aughts fulminating over George W. Bush’s foreign policy might presently consider how many Trump voters have no particular desire to spend American blood or treasure helping immoral Saudis fight a brutal civil war in Yemen; that the $100 million-plus price tag for that failed SEAL raid in Yemen alone would look awfully costly to voters in competitive House districts if they knew about it; and that Trump’s foreign policy is likely making Americans less safe.
The moral case for distancing America from Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is compelling too. Read Micah Zenko’s lament about what America is complicit in doing:
...the Saudi-led bombing has been conducted in an immoral and indiscriminate manner from the very beginning, including with U.S.-supplied cluster munitions, the use of which is widely condemned internationally. As the U.N. Panel of Experts documented in its excellent report released in January, the Saudi-led coalition has violated international humanitarian law and human rights law with its use of air power at least 10 times in 2016. The 10 documented strikes resulted in “292 civilian fatalities, including at least 100 women and children.”
Most horrific was the Oct. 8, 2016, “double-tap” bombing of a community hall in the capital of Sanaa that resulted in at least 827 civilian fatalities and injuries. The airstrike targeted a funeral gathering, first with a U.S.-supplied “GBU-12 Paveway II guidance unit fitted to a Mark 82 high explosive aircraft bomb,” dropped at 3:20 p.m., followed by a second one minutes later as mourners were still reeling. As the U.N. report notes, “the air campaign waged by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, while devastating to Yemeni infrastructure and civilians, has failed to dent the political will of the Houthi-Saleh alliance to continue the conflict.” According to the most recent United Nations estimate, 5,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed and over 8,000 injured during the past two years, with an additional 21 million Yemenis, or 82 percent of the population, in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Surely there is some constituency for opposing even deeper American involvement? Additional U.S. war-making is likely to kill more innocent civilians and stoke further hatred of Americans––and cost us hundreds of millions in the process.
Congress should force the Trump Administration to stop. And it should be clear that, should his approval rating continue to crater, they won’t stand for him “wagging the dog.”
But Congress won’t assert itself absent a political angle. “The frustrating reality is that both the Obama and Trump administrations have been able to back the war without ever having to face much serious scrutiny from Congress or most of the media, and so they have not had to defend a policy that has shamefully encountered relatively little criticism and minimal resistance,” Daniel Larison writes. “Even when the U.S. role in fueling and arming the coalition’s planes has been acknowledged in reports, it is often mentioned only in passing and then minimized. It is very difficult to organize opposition to a policy that most people in the country may not even know is happening. I suppose it is good that our officers are sickened by what the U.S. has been helping the Saudis and their allies do, but most of our politicians and policymakers don’t appear to be bothered in the least.”
What’s needed is clear: a reinvigorated antiwar movement.
Just as Republican deficit hawks are at maximum strength when Democrats are in the White House, the reality of partisan hypocrisy dictates that anti-war Democrats make the most headway when a Republican is in the White House waging war.
I’d prefer a consistent, principled anti-war faction, but I’ll take what I can get, because Trump certainly cannot be trusted to exercise prudence or restraint on his own. Obsessed with projecting strength and out of his depth on all matters of foreign policy, he is now being influenced by a Washington foreign policy establishment that still resembles a cocky 19-year-old at a billiards hall who would do well to play defense and bide his time, but invariably insists on attempting the cue-behind-the-back, jump-the-8-ball combination, as if the odds favor the chosen ball banking off three different rails and falling in the pocket where he is pointing.
A wise anti-war movement will push the Trump administration to keep our commitments to NATO, a great force for stability, without expanding it; to use force only as a last resort, to stop an imminent attack or kill a senior leader of ISIS or al Qaeda; and say hell no (and pressure Congress to do the same) if or when President Trump, or Secretary Mattis, or John McCain, or Lindsay Graham, or any of the hawkish Democrats, urge a triple-combination bank shot, where victory requires arming the right faction at the perfect moment in coordination with an unreliable ally in hopes that the proxy of our enemy falls in just the right way, enabling a post-conflict reality that doesn’t just hand terrorists newly destabilized territory.
The foreign policy establishment wasn’t smart enough to pull that off with Clinton, Bush, or Obama at the helm. Attempting any such thing under Trump, a commander-in-chief with the attention span of a child, is madness. If the powers that be don’t see that, a newly energized anti-war movement needs to focus their attention.