How US-Saudi War Turned Yemen into the Biggest Crisis on Earth
Medea Benjamin discusses the US-Saudi war on Yemen and attempts by peace activists and Congress to stop the conflict
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.
For nearly four years now, the United States has supported a devastating war on Yemen which has unleashed the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world, leading to the preventable deaths of well over 100,000 children and the destruction of an entire society which may unleash the largest famine the world has seen in 100 years. Well, while this is happening, inside the U.S. Congress and in the antiwar movement there has been a massive movement to actually push back against this war and to try to withdraw U.S. military forces from the conflict.
Well, we’re joined by one of the leaders of the campaign to try to end the war in Yemen. I’m joined in the studio by Medea Benjamin, who is the author of several books, including The Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection, and of course she is the co-founder of the women-led peace group Code Pink. Thanks for joining us, Medea.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Good to be here with you, Ben.
BEN NORTON: So there’s a lot of we could talk about with the war in Yemen. And before we talk about the important victories in Congress we’ve seen, and legislation that has passed in the Senate and has been introduced in the House to try to withdraw U.S. military forces from the war, maybe we can take a step back and talk about this conflict.
Really for years, until recently, it did not get much attention in the mainstream corporate media even when it was the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. The United Nations has said that for years now. And from the very beginning, from March 26, 2015, when Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen, our government has been deeply involved. Can you talk about how the U.S. military has played a key role in the Saudi war in Yemen?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Absolutely. I mean, it has been said by Senator Chris Murphy, for example, that were it not for the U.S. support, the Saudis would never have been able to launch this bombing campaign, much less keep it going for over three years. And he has said explicitly the blood of the Yemeni people is on our hands. So the U.S. has been deeply involved. Let’s start out with selling the weapons to the Saudis, selling planes to the Saudis, maintaining those weapons and planes, giving the logistical support, helping with the targeting. And then refueling the planes in the air so that they didn’t have to come down and could just keep bombing for a greater amount of time. So on all of these levels.
But I think there’s another level, which is diplomatic cover. And that’s such an important one, because you brought up this segment talking about it wasn’t in the news very much. I think a lot of that is the diplomatic cover that the U.S. was giving to this war. So it was happening out there. It was the Saudis who were our allies, our friends. It was couched in this we’ve got to contain Iran, and the Houthis are with Iran. And even because it was so difficult for journalists to get inside for a long time, we didn’t see the pictures of the fighting, or the pictures of the starvation that the bombing and the war had led to.
So for all too long it was a hidden war. And then really, it is quite recently that the American people have learned more about this. And of course it’s with the murder of Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, that it has really started to peel the layers away from the war itself and the U.S. alliance with the Saudis.
BEN NORTON: I want to talk more about why the political opinion is shifting, and of course the killing of Jamal Khashoggi is a big part of that. But before that, let’s talk about the arms sales and the forms of U.S. military involvement. It’s important to understand that this war began under Barack Obama and has continued and accelerated under Donald Trump. It was a bipartisan war for years, although now we’ve seen that it’s kind of become a partisan issue. And you have the Trump supporters in the Republican Party who are defending the war as a way of defending Trump. And then the Democrats, with some Republicans, voting against the war.
We also saw that the Obama administration offered more than $112 billion of arms sales in different ways, military assistance and arms sales, to Saudi Arabia. And then Trump came along and signed an arms package that was another $110 billion. Although as you pointed out in your book, that $110 billion that $110 billion figure in fact includes some of the deals that had been signed under Obama and never went through. So can you talk about how until quite recently this was a bipartisan war?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Absolutely. I mean, under Obama he did help the sale of the weapons to Saudi Arabia. It was close to the end of his final term that he started getting qualms about it. It was, I think, at the time when there was the massive killing of the funeral that he started to say, OK, we should put in place some restrictions and-.
BEN NORTON: This in October 2016 when there was a double tap strike. So a plane dropped a bomb, and then came back and dropped another bomb on a funeral in Sana’a, the capital, killing well over 160 people and wounding another 500.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Right. I think it was 168 people in the end who were killed in that. And Obama after that said, OK, we’re going to put a halt on these “precision munitions” that were being sold to Saudi Arabia. And we saw in the interview that he had with Jeffrey Goldberg how he was saying how Saudi Arabia had to learn how to live in the region with Iran. So there was a beginning, way too late in his presidency, to start creating a little bit of distance between the U.S. government and Saudi Arabia. But for the most part for his eight years it continued with business as usual.
And let’s not just blame it on Obama. You know, this goes back to the founding of Saudi Arabia, the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the World War II famous meeting of FDR and the Saudis-
BEN NORTON: On FDR’s last Valentine’s Day.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes, yes, on Valentine’s Day. And a number of different agreements that were reached by Democratic and Republican administrations alike saying that we will protect the Saudi regime. So Obama was just continuing with what has been U.S. policy basically since the founding of the Saudi family dynasty in 1932.
BEN NORTON: And let’s talk about some of the talking points we hear on the war in Yemen from those who defend it. One of the things that we hear a lot is that the Houthis–this is the rebel movement inside Yemen that took over the capital Sana’a in late 2014, in November 2014. The argument is that these are a proxy for Iran, and that Iran is supposedly destabilizing Yemen. What do you say to people who try to defend the war by saying that this is the legitimate government of Yemen, which has requested international assistance to try to unseat the rebels who took over the capital?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: That the Iranians were not involved until the Saudis got involved. In fact, it seems that the Iranians told the Houthis not to go in and take over Sana’a, that it was not a good idea, and that it was the Saudis who pulled the Iranians into this.
And so now it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the Houthis have looked wherever they can to get support. But I think all along it has been an excuse for the U.S. and the other Western countries to continue their arms sales to Saudi Arabia to couch it in the terms of Iran. But this is not a war around Iran. The Houthis are a nationalist group. The Houthis have risen up before in Yemen. And the Houthis, as we’re seeing now, are not looking to Iran to say what do we do at these peace talks. I mean, they are totally an indigenous group. And this is not a a war that was pushed by Iran in any way.
BEN NORTON: And what’s interesting is that we’ve heard again and again from the Trump administration that supposedly Iran is supporting militarily the Houthis, and it’s possible that there have been arms shipments. But we still have yet to see any photos or videos of IRGC fighters inside Yemen. There was even allegations of Hezbollah support, and we still have yet to see any evidence for any of this.
But let’s move on to another key point about this war, and that is that Saudi Arabia is supporting the internationally recognized government, and the President Hadi has actually been living not in Yemen while he’s been fighting the war; he’s been living in Saudi Arabia.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: And is supposedly captive in Saudi Arabia by the Saudis themselves, who don’t want him to go back to Yemen, even if he wanted to. But is he the internationally recognized government? He was at one point, but that was during an interim period. He was supposed to be in power for one year. That one year has long since passed. He was “elected” when he was the only one on the ballot to be elected. So this was an interim period that has long since passed. And so I think it’s actually strange that we keep calling it the internationally recognized government, because it shouldn’t be seen as that anymore. It should be seen as the Saudi-Emirate backed government, and it really should not have the imprimateur of the international legitimacy.
BEN NORTON: Let’s talk about the humanitarian toll. This has been absolutely devastating. More than 18 million people are on the verge of famine. The numbers on the civilian casualties have varied greatly. And in fact, we’ve seen in the corporate media for many years, for well over a year now, we’ve seen the same figure: at least 10,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed. 10,000 10,000. The number has not increased. Patrick Cockburn, the British award-winning journalist, I recently interviewed. And he cited scholars who estimate that the death toll simply from violence, from violent deaths, is probably between up to 70,000 to 80,000 and that’s not including–a recent study found that well over 85,000 Yemeni children have probably died, but that figure is probably much higher. Well over 100,000. So what has the humanitarian toll been?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: I’m a nutritionist. That was my original profession and I hate when I hear on the brink of famine. They’re always saying the brink of famine, the brink of famine. Children are dying from this war, and from the hunger that’s related to the war, every single day. Now, we’ve been told once it was every 10 minutes. I’ve heard other reports saying every five minutes. The famine is there. The malnutrition is acute. It’s hundreds of thousands of children that are acutely malnourished, many of them dying every single day. And then many of them will be stunted for the rest of their lives.
So there is a famine condition, as far as I see it. And the numbers are–it’s ridiculous to talk about 10,000. It’s way more than that. But I think we ought to add in the people who are dying from hunger into the numbers of people who are killed by this war, because it really doesn’t matter if you’re killed by a bullet or you’re killed because the food is not being allowed to get to you or because your family has been totally disrupted and lost their lands and everything, and been displaced because of this war. So those are all casualties of war, as well.
BEN NORTON: And it’s easy to be in doom and gloom about all of this. It’s very depressing. And it’s been catastrophic for the people of Yemen. But we as Americans, what can we do to try to stop this war? We’ve seen some growing efforts in the Congress. We’ve seen in the antiwar movement led by groups like Code Pink a kind of concerted attempt to end this war.
There has been a great attempt most recently in the last couple of months a tremendous coalition of different groups. One of the largest contingents within that is the humanitarian aid organizations, and they are quite strong. They have a lot more staff people than people in the antiwar movement have. And they have been very active in pressuring the Congress, both in the House and the Senate. You have the antiwar movement, and then you have groups that kind of come in and out of the antiwar movement like Move On, Indivisible, that’s not an antiwar group but has been involved in this kind of work. And so it’s not just been the smaller antiwar groups, it’s been a much larger movement, And I think has done pretty amazing work in terms of not just petitions, but calls, visits, visits in district. Having a list of who is on the fence, who is with us, who we really have to pressure, and quite a good coordinated effort.
I must say that coming out of Rio Khanna’s office, Congressman Ro Khanna has been a tremendous effort there to get the support within the House. And then from Bernie Sanders’ office, and Mike Lee and Chris Murphy in the Senate. So it’s been quite a remarkable effort, both working with people on the inside and people on the outside to get these numbers. And as you see from the votes that have been happening since last year, you know, each time a vote happens we get more and more of the members of the Senate and the House on our side, to the point where we’ve had a really historic vote where we actually passed it in the Senate.
BEN NORTON: And let’s talk about that. On December 13, the U.S. Senate voted in a pretty significant margin to support a piece of legislation that would cite the War Powers Resolution, which is a 1970s law that would that would allow the Congress to exercise its constitutional right to withdraw U.S. military forces from an unauthorized war. This is a historic vote. It’s the first time the War Powers Resolution has successfully been cited to try to end a war abroad. What is the significance of this, and what can the outcome be in the House coming up in January?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it’s historic in several levels. I mean, one, it’s so significant that it’s coming that it’s sending this enormous message to the Trump administration and to the Saudis that the U.S. public and now–you know, the Congress is always way behind the U.S. public; they’re just trying to catch up right now–is saying we don’t want to continue U.S. support for the war. And so it’s had a tremendous impact on the talks that have been going on in Sweden to try to find a solution to the fighting in Yemen, which is what this is all about.
And so on that level it’s important. On another level it’s important because we’ve had the wars raging since the 9/11 attacks that the Congress has not voted on. And so to bring in the War Powers Act, which came out of the Vietnam War, to say that Congress, by the Constitution, is supposed to be the entity that declares war, and Congress has not been doing its job, and particularly in the last 17 years, to use the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that came out in 2001 and then another one in 2002, and to say that still is relevant 17 years later for any war that the administration wants to get us involved in is a terrible thing that’s happened. And so finally to find this vehicle, the War Powers Act, and use it to start putting the brakes on U.S. military involvement, and having it come from Congress, then opens up the doors for us if we’re able to use it and to build as an antiwar movement to start putting the focus on all the other wars that the U.S. is involved in, and force Congress to debate those issues and have votes on them.
BEN NORTON: What do you say to critics of this bill, which is cosponsored by Bernie Sanders, among others? He’s taken strong leadership on this. But critics, however, have pointed out that this bill allows for war on al Qaeda. It only allows for withdrawing U.S. military forces that are not fighting al Qaeda. So some antiwar voices have expressed concern that it doesn’t go far enough.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it doesn’t go far enough there, and it doesn’t go far enough in that it doesn’t cut off weapons sales to the Saudis. But we’re talking about a Congress that has not taken a position on these issues in so many years. We have to take the steps that we can take. And when you have this incredible catastrophe that’s going on in Yemen, just the fact that these debates are going on in the U.S. Congress means that the message that it sent when the sides are talking for the first time face-to-face in Sweden, and this is happening at the same time, has had a tremendous impact already. And people should recognize that. I don’t think that we would have seen the outcome of the talks in Sweden that we’ve seen were it not for the debates, the efforts, the resolutions, the War Powers Act that has been going on in Congress.
BEN NORTON: And then finally, Medea, we’ve also seen historic peace talks sponsored by the United Nations in Sweden between the Houthi government and between the Saudi-backed government in Yemen. Can you talk about the significance of this as well?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it’s the first time they’ve ever been face-to-face. It was very important that there was an agreement to put the port of Hodeida under UN supervision. We’ll see it’s going to be a hard thing to work out.
BEN NORTON: This is the lifeline to Yemen.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: This Is the lifeline. Almost all of the food, whether it’s humanitarian aid or commercial food, is imported into Yemen. And 70 percent of that goes through the port of Hodeidah, and then agreed to have humanitarian corridor, and agree to have new talks, which will be in January, and agreed to a massive prisoner swap, which will probably include about 15,000 prisoners.
So the talks, if we can hold on to them, are great. It hasn’t been a cease fire for the whole country. Hopefully they will get further in the talks in January. But it’s important to recognize that there have been some breakthroughs in the talks in Sweden, and that we need to continue to do our work in Congress in the coming January session, as those new peace talks start up again in January.
BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our conversation there. I was speaking with Medea Benjamin, who is a leader in the antiwar movement in the United States, and a co-founder of the women-led peace group Code Pink. Go to The Real News Network, that’s TheRealNews.com, and you can see or other interviews here in the studio with Medea. We’re going to talk about U.S. support for the Saudi monarchy and whether or not the Trump administration will actually pursue a war on Iran.
For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.