Yemen Is Dying. We’re Killing It
U.S. senators only pretend to care
The U.S. Senate’s Dec. 12, 2018 vote to compel the Pentagon to end its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in the Republic of Yemen was extraordinary.
First, it is rare that the top political leadership of the world’s foremost war-maker — the United States — takes action against ongoing military conflict. Second, U.S. media reported the vote as an unprecedented rebuke of Saudi Arabia.
It took the extrajudicial execution of Jamal Kashhoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi journalist and liberal dissident to shake the Senate loose. The war in Yemen is an opaque conflict with limited reporting on the ground, but estimates of the dead are easily in the high five figures, and likely more than 100,000. None of those tens of thousands wrote for The Washington Post, however, and so their deaths politically were meaningless to U.S. senators.
It’s here that we get to the point that the media are slow to admit — the resolution is also meaningless theater, and senators feel free to support it precisely because it won’t do anything. The vote has far more to do with domestic politics — assuaging the hypocritical outrage of the political class over Kashhoggi while sending a message to Donald Trump, who certainly doesn’t get it or care — than it does with defense of any sort of human rights.
U.S. House speaker Paul Ryan will cap his term by killing the resolution in his chamber. The incoming Democrat majority there is liable to pass it if the Senate approves it again in January 2019. It’s also true that Trump is certain to veto it. Everyone knows this, and there will not be enough support to overturn his veto.
We can be certain that if it actually undermined Saudi power or even the war in Yemen they would not take this action. That’s because the Yemen war is a strategic linchpin for the U.S. world order. This isn’t readily apparent to mainstream observers because it defies categorization into the bins normal commentary sorts wars into.
Left-leaning liberal analysis, for example, always “follows the money,” identifying the “blood for oil” sorts of motives at play. This is usually at least somewhat valuable, but it is of little immediate help in this conflict. Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries. It has less oil than Vietnam does, it’s slightly smaller than Texas without a single permanent river and less than five percent of the land is arable. It has no resources to grab.
More “realist” analysis has instead identified the conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yet while Iran has certainly seized what opportunities it could to assist forces struggling against its enemies, their support did not prompt the war nor has it been decisive in any way.
It’s Saudi propaganda that has mostly driven the narrative that the Houthis — a political movement rooted in the demands of Zaydi Muslims for greater autonomy — are Iranian proxies. They picked this line up from the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who made the claim in a bid for U.S. support in his struggles against the group.
Wikileaks released cables from that era that demonstrated strong skepticism by U.S. diplomats over the claims, which were never substantiated in any way.
Having taken power in the north they have won support outsize the Zaydi community by undermining corrupt patronage systems that have governed Yemen for decades. Iran has in fact shipped arms to them, but the amounts are very limited. Iran does not want direct confrontation with Saudi Arabia and any meaningful sponsorship of the Houthi war would be grounds for such a conflict.
The alleged proxy war in Yemen is a lazy shorthand for cable news, members of Congress and Saudi propaganda.
Yemen’s actual value is its location. Yemen is a strategic “pinch point” at the southern end of the Red Sea, which thanks to the Suez Canal is the direct route between Europe, East Africa and Asia. Saudi Arabia cannot maintain real hegemony over the region if Yemen is not subject to its will. The United States in turn cannot maintain its global imperial position without Saudi dominance in this region, and therefore Yemen is a rock in the shoe of the global ruling class.
It got there during the Arab Spring in 2011. In many countries the protests disintegrated after limited reforms or dismissals in countries such as Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Algeria. These ruling orders were maintained because no single force could claim leadership of the movement.
In Libya and Syria, on the other hand, the United States and its allies were able to seize the opportunity to overthrow some of the last independent Arab nationalist regimes. Saudi Arabia and friends helped the Bahraini government brutally suppress that country’s uprising, while Tunisia’s powerful General Labor Union gave direction to that revolution and oversaw major political reforms.
Egypt, for its part, had an independent, established political force capable of leading the revolution in the Muslim Brotherhood, but a military coup undid all of its gains.
Yemen’s Houthis provided political leadership that could challenge the state and sustain a struggle, but the U.S.-led order had no desire to smash Saleh’s government. There was also no countervailing institution such as Egypt’s military that was capable of cancelling out its power. The resulting political stalemate is a lethal dilemma for Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh either can tolerate a government that owes it nothing and doesn’t particularly like it, undermining its dominance of the region and therefore its very value to the global ruling order, or it can wage a war that it has little to no chance of winning. Saudi Arabia can only defeat the Houthis by taking their territory, which means a ground war in the mountains.
Of course this is great news for U.S. arms-makers … for now. The real political concern underneath the Senate’s sham vote is the contradiction at the heart of this war. We might be making money off the slow death of our most important strategic client. It’s a classic goose and golden egg situation.
Chances are the current moralizing will roll into a demand for a “political solution” to the conflict and sometime in the next couple of years they will find something to give to the Houthis to secure their assent. The threat to Saudi power will be tamped down again and everyone will get their Nobel and go home.
There will be a clear loser in all of this. The Yemeni people. A population robbed by its own government, exploited by faithless feudal bosses, bombed and starved and made to die by a powerful theocratic regime that sustains a system of grotesque religious chauvinism.
Lucky for the Yemenis, a prominent guy from the other side died, so now our rulers can pretend to care about them. And lucky for us that if we want to pretend like we’re doing something about it all, the Senate just put on a show for us.