Ideas

Ideas | Stephen Kinzer

Complicity in Saudi war on Yemen will be part of Trump legacy

Yemeni children attend the first day of class in a school that was damaged by an air strike during fighting between the Saudi-backed government forces and the Huthis.
AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images
Yemeni children attend the first day of class in a school that was damaged by an air strike during fighting between the Saudi-backed government forces and the Huthis.

MUCH OF THE chaos in today’s world may be traced back to disastrous decisions made by presidents of the United States. Jimmy Carter plunged needlessly into war in Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan intensified that war and promoted fratricidal conflict in Central America. Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia and recklessly pushed NATO forces to Russia’s border. George W. Bush invaded Iraq. Barack Obama destroyed Libya and dropped tens of thousands of bombs on Syria. So far, Donald Trump has proven less warlike than any of them. Yet he already bears an indelible taint that places him in the same category as his bloodstained predecessors. Even if he finishes his presidency without sending American troops into combat, history will not forgive his support of Saudi Arabia’s relentless war against Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s richest countries, may believe it has good reason to bomb Yemen, one of the poorest. By its calculations, the devastation of Yemen, which has included killing 100,000 people and setting off what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, apparently makes sense. Those calculations are horrifically wrong, but the United States has neither the moral nor political power to force other countries to be good. It can, however, choose not to be complicit. By refusing to do so, Trump has made the United States a co-belligerent in the Yemen war.

American “defense contractors,” under license from the Trump administration, provide the essential tools with which this war is waged. Missiles that devastate Yemeni villages are American-made. American planes refuel Saudi bombers in midair. American advisers help the Saudis select targets. The fact that the bombardiers are Saudi hardly exculpates the United States. This war could not be waged at anything near its present level without our direct and daily support.

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President Trump favors the Saudis mainly because they promise to spend billions of dollars buying American weapons, and does not seem to care how they use those weapons. His principal advisers, however, have a different motive. They care little about Saudi Arabia and even less about Yemen. To them, this war has a larger purpose. It is part of their hydra-headed campaign against the Middle Eastern country they most detest: Iran. They see Iran as a great sinner because it resists American power. The group that Saudi planes are bombing in Yemen, the Houthis, has Iran’s sympathy, so Trump’s advisers see killing Houthis as a way to hurt Iran.

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Expressions of outrage over the recent drone attack on a Saudi oil refinery reflect this lopsided logic. The Houthis claimed responsibility. But since Iran is friendly to the Houthis, we blame everything they do on Iran. It is part of a campaign to portray Iran as the truly guilty party in the Yemen war — not the Saudis, who are waging the war, or the United States, which provides indispensable support. Officials in Washington indignantly denounced Iran after the refinery attack, which caused much damage but no casualties. Yet when the Saudis hit a Yemeni school bus with a laser bomb made by Lockheed Martin, killing 40 children, they were silent. Their message is clear: Saudi Arabia may bomb the Houthis at will, but the Houthis may not retaliate.

Oddly, though, Trump does not seem to share the anti-Iran passion that drives his advisers. Just as he seems to want better relations with Russia but surrounds himself with Russia-haters, he seems personally open to coexistence with Iran but appoints advisers who are consumed by anti-Iran passion. In this he resembles his predecessors, who surrounded themselves with aides who were distinctly more interested in war than they themselves seemed to be. Carter, apparently a peaceful man, allowed his rabidly anti-Russia national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to talk him into joining Osama bin Laden and others who were fighting Russians in Afghanistan. Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, urged him to bomb Yugoslavia by asking “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Bush asserted during his campaign that the United States would be successful in the world “if we’re humble,” but the Cheney-Rumsfeld team on which he relied pushed him in the opposite direction. Obama’s foreign policy advisers, led by Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, pushed him toward bombing Libya and overthrowing its government. He later acknowledged that this operation turned Libya into “a mess,” but that is little consolation to Libyans.

War is lamentably part of the human condition, and although world peace is among the noblest of goals, it will never be fully achieved. Even if the United States cannot stop wars, however, we can refrain from waging or fueling them — especially those that serve no American interest. Congress is considering a measure that would cut off American support for the Yemen war. Passing it might be a way to pull Trump back to the peaceable instincts that terrify his conflict-addicted advisers.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and author of “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.” Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.