YouTube video

The UN warns millions of Yemenis could starve as US-backed Saudi and Emirati forces attack Yemen’s port city of Hodeida. TRNN’s Ben Norton speaks with Medea Benjamin, who is campaigning to try to end the cataclysmic war

Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

Today I’m joined by Medea Benjamin, who is a peace activist from the women-led peace group Code Pink, and we’re talking about one of the most disastrous wars going on in the world today. On June 13, Saudi and Emirati forces launched an assault on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida. This is a disastrous war that the United Nations has warned could lead to famine that starves millions of Yemenis. Thus far, 8.4 million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation, and by the end of the year another 10 million Yemenis, for a total of 18.4 million Yemenis, could starve. And this conflict is getting even worse. The U.S. is deeply involved in this battle for the port of Hodeida, which is where 80 percent of aid enters Yemen, which is the poorest country in the Middle East. The United States is providing intelligence and other military assistance to the Saudi and Emirati forces in their attack, and the U.S. military is also doing in-air refueling for this attack on the port of Hodeida. This will likely be the bloodiest battle in the three-year war. The United Nations has warned that 250000 Yemenis could be killed in the brutal fighting.

So while this is going on, there has been a bipartisan campaign here led by congressmen from both the Democratic and Republican parties. They published a letter to Secretary of Defense Mattis, also on June 13. They noted that U.S. participation in the war in Yemen has never been authorized by Congress, and violates the Constitution. This letter campaign was led by Wisconsin Democratic Representative Mark Pocan, who wrote, quote: “The Saudi and Emirati assault on Yemen’s major port with U.S. logistical aid could threaten 250000 lives, and force millions more to starve to death.” Mark Pocan added, quote: “Democrats and Republicans are demanding the Pentagon to stop the operation and disclosed unauthorized U.S. participation in this war.” Thanks for joining us, Medea.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me on, Ben.

BEN NORTON: So, you have been at the forefront, you and your group Code Pink, helping to organize against the war in Yemen, and exposing the key role the U.S. has played in this war through military support, arms sales. Can you talk about this recent battle, and the role that our government plays?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: We have been worrying about this assault on Hodeida for a long time now, trying to stave it off, getting Republicans and Democrats to speak out about it. And now it is happening before our eyes. The United Nations is meeting today on this. And as you said in the introduction, Ben, this is already such a catastrophic situation. The numbers are mind boggling. But I think when Americans get to see, which we rarely do, a picture of one Yemeni child already starving, I mean, this is not just the brink of famine. This is people starving every single day. And when you think that this port is the entry port for now over 70 percent of the food that comes into Yemen, Yemen is totally dependent on outside sources for food. It’s a nation that was already poor before the fighting began in 2015.

This is a disaster. And it is such a shame that the international community has not been able to stop this attack on the port, and that the U.S., despite protestations to the contrary, where Mike Pompeo acts as if the United States is not supporting this attack. The attack would never happen were it not for U.S. weapons, U.S. bombs, and U.S. diplomatic cover that’s been going on for the past three years.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and let’s talk more about the war. You mentioned that this is a three-year war. It’s actually intensifying now, but it began in March 2015. Throughout this war the U.S. has sold billions of dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia, also to the UAE, the two countries leading the war. The U.S. has provided in-air refueling. Thousands of in-air refueling sorties. The U.S. has provided targeting assistance, and there have been American and British military officials in the Saudi command and control center for the bombing campaign. So this is not new, of course, although the war is intensifying. Can you talk about efforts by you, peace activists, and others in the U.S. to organize against this U.S. involvement?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: We have been trying to get our members of Congress to say, one, you have the responsibility, not the executive branch, to declare war. The U.S. has been involved in this war now for three years. It’s time to tell the executive, i.e. Donald Trump, that he is not authorized to do this. The other is to say that we have been selling these weapons to the Saudis [from] the time of the Obama administration bragging about the hundred billion dollars in weapons sales, and then Trump coming in with his first trip after he got elected, going to the capital of Saudi Arabia to glow about how many more weapons sales he was going to receive.

And what we’ve been doing is trying to stop not only the U.S.’s assistance for the refueling, the U.S. involvement in the logistics, but to stop the weapons sales. We came close in March, when there was a vote in which we got 44 senators to say no to the weapons sales. Now we have to move that from 44 to 51. That’s not that many. It’s just seven more senators we need to get on our side. And there will be another vote coming up soon. We need to make sure that we are putting all the pressure we can on our representatives to say stop the next round of weapons sales.

BEN NORTON: And what’s interesting, you mentioned this vote last year. This was a bill introduced, or there’s actually another bill introduced this year by Bernie Sanders that was defeated. There was a vote last year as well. And what’s interesting is with both of these votes, it wasn’t a strictly partisan issue. I mean, it was a largely partisan vote. But there were Democrats who sided with the Republican majority, and then there were Republicans who sided with the Democratic majority. So this is also fascinating because there’s been this bipartisan campaign that’s being led against the war, specifically the letter that was published on June 13, warning against the attack on Hodeida. It was signed by Mark Pocan, who who helped lead it, but it was also signed by Republicans, including Justin Amash, is the, he’s a self-described libertarian, and he chairs the House Liberty Caucus. And Mark Pocan is the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.

So you have the leaders of the Progressive and Liberty Caucuses uniting to try to stop this war. Can you talk about the bipartisan opposition?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes. When you look at who has signed on to letters, and who has voted against the weapons sales, or you look at op-eds that have come out in the papers, positions that organizations have taken, there is a lot of bipartisan opposition. You can see that the Koch brothers have come out against this. Freedom Works. The Cato Institute. So you would think with all of this opposition we would be able to get more members of Congress to vote against weapons sales, or to try to stop the Trump administration from its support for the Saudi and Emirati-led war.

Unfortunately, I think this goes into the issue of the corrupting effect that the military-industrial complex has on Congress in that so much of the money that is given to their congressional campaigns comes from the very companies that are profiting from this war.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. Can you talk more about that? Code Pink has been leading a divestment campaign to divest from the war machine, pressuring congresspeople and also other institutions to divest from these, you know, military corporations, arms manufacturers, and other companies that are fueling a lot of these conflicts.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes, you talked about the Democrats, who voted in favor of weapons sales. Well, we traced the amount of money that they were getting from the weapons industries. And it was about three times what the Democrats who voted against the weapons sales were getting. So there’s a direct correlation, which is why we’re going to our members of Congress and saying it is a total conflict of interest, because you not only vote on the Pentagon budget, half of which goes back to these weapons companies, and then you take campaign contributions for them, but you fail to stop the, the wars that are making these companies so wealthy.

So we’ve got about 15 members of Congress so far to take a pledge not to take money from the NRA or the top five weapons companies. And this is just the beginning of the campaign. So we hope anybody watching this will join us. You can go either onto the website or the website and see the pledge that we are asking our members of Congress to take. But there’s also other ways to get involved. I’m on a tour around the country right now trying to drum up more support for this campaign, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm. People going to their city councils to pass resolutions against investing in weapons manufacturers, going to their universities and asking their endowment plans to get out of the business of war. Also going to their pension funds. So there’s a lot that individuals can do, and you can go on to either of those two websites to find out more about the campaign.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And then finally, returning to Yemen for a moment here. There are a lot of things happening right now. Donald Trump was just in Singapore. He met with Kim, the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and they signed a peace-, some kind of peace declaration, or at least a declaration that they will eventually move toward peace. It was extremely significant. But then, the significance of the summit would be hard to overstate. It’s just, you know, unprecedented, historically. Well, the New York Times reported that while the Singapore summit was going on, the Emiratis were campaigning to launch the Hodeida attack, because they knew that there would, all the eyes would be diverted to Singapore, and to many other scandals that are going on. So it seems like this issue is not getting much attention. The war in Yemen in general has been ignored for three years. It hasn’t gotten much media coverage. There haven’t been many protests. Can you talk about why you think there is so little attention to the war in Yemen, which has created the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world? And again, to stress this, could potentially, with this attack on Hodeida, lead to starvation of millions of Yemenis?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s been very hard for reporters to get into Yemen. And this is precisely because the Saudis and their allies are controlling the airspace, controlling the waterways. And the reporters, some of them who get in are getting in because they are allowed in by the Saudis. And so they’re getting the Saudi perspective on this. So the reporting has been very difficult. It also, I think people have to put it in context of this has become one of the proxy wars that the U.S. is involved in, supporting the Saudis. The Iranians have gotten involved. They weren’t involved in the beginning, and now it’s always talked about as the Iranian-backed Houthis. They are now Iranian-backed precisely because the Saudis got involved in an internal conflict. But this is part of now the proxy wars that are happening in the Middle East.

And it’s one of the ways that the U.S. is attacking Iran, by keeping this war going and supporting the Saudis. So I think it’s time to turn the attention to Yemen. Hopefully this will be happening now at the United Nations, an understanding that if it weren’t enough that so many children are dying, that over a million people have been suffering from cholera, that the Saudis have been using U.S. weapons to bomb clinics and hospitals and marketplaces, and all kinds of civilian targets, now with the threat of the port, where 70 percent of the humanitarian aid is coming through, this better be the final warning warning call for the U.N. and the international community to get involved and not only call for a stop to the attack on the Hodeida port, but call once and for all for a diplomatic solution to this crisis, and an end to the ongoing bombing campaign that has been so devastating for the Yemeni people.

BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our conversation there. We were joined by Medea Benjamin, who is the co-founder of Code Pink, which is a women-led peace group that has helped to spearhead a lot of the opposition to the war in Yemen. They’ve been organizing protests, but also working with congresspeople to endorse several pieces of legislation that’s trying to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and withdraw U.S. military forces from the war in Yemen. We were discussing the attack on the port of Hodeida, which the U.N. has warned could lead to famine that starves millions of Yemeni civilians. Thanks for joining us, Medea.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you so much, Ben.

BEN NORTON: For The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She has been organizing against U.S. military interventions, promoting the rights of Palestinians and calling for no war on Iran. Her latest work includes an effort to stop CIA drone attacks, and she is the author of a new book, "Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection"