America Is Committing War Crimes and Doesn’t Even Know Why
The United States has spent far more time obscuring its role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen than in explaining any rationale for it.
By any reasonable assessment, the U.S. government should have stopped providing direct military support to the Saudi Arabia-led air campaign in Yemen on the day after it started. Washington’s participation began on March 26, 2015, when a White House spokesperson announced, "President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations." On March 26, toward the end of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) asked U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin what the ultimate goal of the GCC air campaign in Yemen was, and for the general to estimate its likelihood of success.
By any reasonable assessment, the U.S. government should have stopped providing direct military support to the Saudi Arabia-led air campaign in Yemen on the day after it started. Washington’s participation began on March 26, 2015, when a White House spokesperson announced, “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations.” On March 26, toward the end of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) asked U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin what the ultimate goal of the GCC air campaign in Yemen was, and for the general to estimate its likelihood of success.
Gen. Austin answered with refreshing honesty: “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” Gillibrand replied, “Well, I do hope you get the information sooner than later.” In other words, the military commander responsible for overseeing the provision of support for a new air war in the Middle East did not know what the goals of the intervention were, or how he could evaluate whether it was successful. The United States had become a willing co-combatant in a war without any direction or clear end state.
Two inevitable results have followed. First, there have been a litany of war crimes of the sort perpetrated last weekend, in which Saudi planes, using American munitions, bombed a school bus killing dozens of Yemeni schoolchildren. Second, the U.S. government has responded to these crimes with silences that might seem chastened, but in truth must be classified as defiant, given the bureaucratic maneuvering undertaken to obscure the United States’ unthinking complicity both to outsiders and to itself. (The U.S. military claims not to even track the results of the Yemeni missions that its forces are involved in.) Neither President Donald Trump, nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has publicly addressed this latest massacre. A Pentagon spokesperson only requested that Saudi Arabia “expeditiously and thoroughly investigate this tragic incident.”
Three years into Yemen’s ever-worsening humanitarian nightmare, Congress and the American people have never received a clear response to Gillibrand’s preliminary and prescient question about whether the war has ever had a strategy at all. Civilian and military officials, for their part, have long since stopped pretending to clarify or defend America’s co-combatant status. Rather, they have highlighted their support for successive U.N. special envoys to broker a diplomatic peace process between the warring parties. Instead of clarifying U.S. policy, or acknowledging U.S. culpability for the indiscriminate air campaign that it facilitates, American officials have successfully offshored the problem to the United Nations.
There is a simple reason officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations have made no public efforts to justify the material support provided to the Saudi-led intervention: It is unjustifiable. Less than a month into the U.S. role, an anonymous Pentagon official provided what is probably the most sincere answer: “If you ask why we’re backing this … the answer you’re going to get from most people—if they were being honest—is that we weren’t going to be able to stop it.” This constitutes gross strategic negligence: effectively allowing the poor decisions of Gulf monarchies to determine U.S. military policy.
In off-the-record comments, Obama officials would try to make a policy rationale for participation in the Yemen war, connecting U.S. aid to Gulf militaries with their leaders’ support for the Iran nuclear deal. Since President Trump declared withdrawal from that deal three months ago, this already-tenuous justification no longer holds.
Now, some Trump officials I have spoken with make an inherently weak argument to rationalize the continued backing of the air war: that it serves to “check Iran’s malign influence” in the region. This might be true were it not the case that whenever the United States intervenes in the Middle East, or supports others’ interventions, it creates the chaotic conditions that amplify Iran’s malign influence. Moreover, it is preposterous that backing a horrific and indiscriminate bombing campaign, which primarily targets Iranian-supported Houthi forces, will compel any change in Iran’s behavior outside of its territory.
The only reason that I can guess why the United States continues to arm, train, and provide essential logistical support for the air campaign in Yemen, is that this support has occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations; as we learned in Vietnam previously and Afghanistan every day, where poor strategic decisions are made and sustained by administrations of both major political parties, there is no political advantage for the party out of power to critique current policy. The elected leaders—in the White House and on Capitol Hill—of both parties are deeply implicated and responsible for each new civilian fatality from a U.S.-made munition that makes the news. But when we are all morally stained, it is easier to echo some version of the stunning claim made by Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Sunday: “We are not engaged in the civil war. We will help to prevent, you know, the killing of innocent people.”
The United States has been directly engaged in the civil war since March 25, 2015, and its support has not prevented the killing of innocents. It is time to phase out and terminate America’s support for the Saudi-led component of this civil war, and, more importantly, never again go to war, or support other’s wars, without purpose or objectives.
Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans. Twitter: @MicahZenko
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