In the time it takes to read these words, a child under the age of five will probably die in Yemen.
And, as this is being written, the U.N. Security Council is meeting to discuss a gas attack in Syria. President Trump, with newly-appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton at his side, says he will decide on his course of action within 24 to 48 hours.
The Syrian people’s tragedy is enormous. So is the possibility for military confrontation between two nuclear powers.
But while the headlines focus on Syria, and as a multitude of voices call for increased military involvement there, don’t forget the tragedy in Yemen. We can save lives much more easily there. We don’t have to send troops or launch missiles.
All we have to do is leave.
Empathy and Intervention
Political scientists at the University of Toronto have linked empathy to left-leaning political views. Linguist George Lakoff associates the liberal personality with the “nurturant parent” model of the family. And the stereotypical American self-image, across the political spectrum, is that of someone who is willing to help others.
Interestingly, most Americans see other Americans as “selfish,” according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey.
Perhaps that’s why presidential candidate Bill Clinton used empathic language when he argued for US military action in Bosnia and Herzegovina – “because,” said candidate Clinton, “I'm horrified by what I've seen.”
That language reinforced what the New York Times called Clinton’s “aggressive tack” on the region.
Under President Clinton, NATO conducted years of bombing in the region and sent 60,000 troops to enforce the Dayton Accords. Clinton faced resistance from left and right. That conflict was, in the words of the New York Times Editorial Board, “not America’s war.” But Clinton and his team invoked the image of the US as the world’s leader – and the suffering of children – to make the case for intervention.
More Than Just a Place
In a 1995 speech announcing his decision to send peacekeeping troops, Clinton shrewdly leavened his liberal empathy (“In fulfilling this mission, we will have the chance to help stop the killing of innocent civilians, especially children”) with self-interest (“and at the same time, to bring stability to central Europe, a region of the world that is vital to our national interests.”)
Clinton then pivoted to the time-tested theme of the US as a uniquely generous and selfless military force. “America has always been more than just a place,” he said, adding:
America has embodied an idea that has become the ideal for billions of people throughout the world… America is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness … America has done more than simply stand for these ideals. We have acted on them and sacrificed for them. Our people fought two world wars so that freedom could triumph over tyranny.
This is how liberal interventionism has always been packaged in American politics: with the notion that our highest ideals are best expressed, not through diplomacy, but through the projection of military force outside our borders. In this telling, history has ended. We are the indispensable nation. We alone must balance the war-torn world on our khaki-clad shoulders.
A “Humanitarian War”
Perhaps that’s why, as the Bosnian conflict escalated, the Clinton Administration and other world governments ignored the nonviolent independence movement taking place in nearby Kosovo. It was only after that conflict turned violent, with the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army, that the Administration responded.
When Clinton addressed the nation on Kosovo, he didn’t rely on empathy for other people’s children. He called intervention the best course for American children and their future – saying it, not once, but three times.
Liberals and leftists were divided on this intervention, as they had been with Bosnia and Herzegovina. But Susan Sontag made the case for military action in the New York Times Magazine. In the American Prospect, Paul Starr called the Kosovo intervention a “humanitarian war” and thought a land invasion would be more effective than airstrikes, but concluded:
“Those of us who believe that the United States ought to use its power to prevent genocide and other high crimes against human decency are going to have to work a lot harder to convince our neighbors.”
Notice the phrasing: “the United States ought to use its power …”
What happens when the best way to prevent a genocide is by ending the use of American power? That seems to be a harder case to make in American political culture.
The Forgotten Catastrophe
Yemen, a nation long renowned for its beauty, has become a place of almost unimaginable horror. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently declared it ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and cited statistics that, once heard, should never be forgotten.
Here’s one such statistic: Every ten minutes, a child under five dies of preventable causes. (Based on the average reading speed, it should take ten minutes to read these words. That means a child is statistically likely to die while it is being read.)
Here are some more:
18 million people are food insecure, and 8.4 million Yemenis don’t know how they will obtain their next meal.
3 million acutely malnourished Yemenis are either children under 5, pregnant women, or nursing mothers.
Nearly half of all children aged between six months and 5 years old are chronically malnourished and stunted, conditions that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
Children are being forced to fight, or to work at very young ages. Many young girls are being forced into marriage before they are 18, or even 15, as a response to family debt and poverty.
Women and girls are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence.
Millions have no access to safe drinking water.
1 million people suffered from watery diarrhea and cholera last year. There is a high risk of another cholera epidemic.
More than ten thousand civilians – perhaps many more – have been killed in the fighting.
The problem isn’t that the US is standing by and doing nothing while this horror unfolds. It’s much worse than that. The US is actively working to cause these atrocities, by helping the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia in its relentless attack on Yemen.
Marjorie Ransom, a former diplomat in Yemen, writes of “direct U.S. military complicity in this long and pointless campaign,” adding:
“In addition to selling a vast arsenal of weapons to Saudi Arabia, our government’s military gave logistical guidance in the Saudi military headquarters in Riyadh and continues to provide intelligence to Saudi defense officials and aerial refueling during bombing runs.”
She concludes, “The Saudi-led coalition could not have conducted the two and a half years of bombing without the support of our military.”
How to Use Intelligence
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont joined with one of the Senate’s most conservative members, Mike Lee of Utah, as well as Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, to sponsor a resolution calling for an end to US involvement in Yemen.
44 senators voted for it, but 55 senators – including ten Democrats – voted against it. Some antiwar groups called it a step forward – but the war will not end.
Why haven’t progressives doing more to help the people of Yemen? Maybe it’s a problem of leadership. Nobody in a position of Democratic power is using their influence to end America’s involvement there. When the Clinton Administration was trying to build support for intervention in Yemen, it declassified intelligence photographs of the victims there and showed them to reluctant diplomats.
“It was an amazing example of how you can use intelligence,” Albright later reflected.
Why America Slept
Who in Washington’s national security establishment is handing out pictures of dying Yemenis? Nobody. It's government policy under President Trump, just as it was under President Obama. In the last year of Obama’s presidency, in fact, the US government dropped more than 20,000 bombs on seven countries. (There’s a map.)
There’s a lot of money to be made in arms sales. President Trump has approved massive US arms sales to Saudi Arabia (Estimates of the deal’s value vary widely.) We’re told that there are no contracts in place, which places even more pressure on the American government to comply with the wishes of Mohammad bin Salman, or “MBS,” Saudi Arabia’s new dictator.
Not that this government needs any convincing. Trump’s financial ties to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries deserve much deeper scrutiny. So do those of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
But it is our country’s defense-industry ties have been driving that “special relationship” for decades, through Republican and Democratic governments alike. Those ties also serve to promote military policies that involve the use of expensive weaponry all around the world.
As the New Yorker’s Nicholas Niarchos reports, one such weapon – a US-made bomb carrying 500 pounds of explosive – killed more than 140 mourners and injured 500 more during a Yemeni funeral in 2015. Among them was the mayor of Sana’a, who had been negotiating with several factions in an attempt to end the war
The bomb was manufactured by Raytheon.
But defense contractors aren’t the only powerful interest keeping us in Yemen. American oil corporations have benefited from the US-Saudi relationship for many decades.
Politicians have flattered and cajoled the country’s leadership all that time. So has the American media. With Mohammad bin Salman’s recent rise to power as “crown prince,” the self-interested servility of these elites is once again on display.
They call him “MBS,” as flattering pieces from the likes of Thomas Friedman affirm. Machiavelli wrote of princes like this a long time ago, saying “he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.”
MBS appears to be a nasty piece of work, even by Saudi standards, given his youthful threats – reportedly including, according to one story, a bullet in an envelope – toward anyone who stood in the way of his advancement. Then there’s the matter of his recent detention and torture of anyone who poses a political or financial threat to his power.
To cover up his brutality and flatter the thuggish potentate, the mainstream media dwells on MBS’ mild social liberalizations, like letting women drive and easing up on rules regarding live entertainment.
Wilkinson, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, says MBS’ social liberalizations were “designed to shift attention from this disastrous war.”
If so, it’s going well. While his opponents were undergoing incarceration and torture without warrant last November, albeit in a luxury hotel, Friedman wrote gushingly: “Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style.”
MBS may be a dictator, but in some people’s hearts he’s Number One – with a bullet.
As MBS was dazzling Friedman, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna was working both sides of the aisle to end our involvement in Yemen. The Republican-led House “overwhelmingly” passed a resolution calling US involvement in that country “unauthorized.”
This year, 44 senators voted against continued this country’s support for Saudi attacks on Yemen. Two antiwar groups, Win Without War and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, celebrated them who voted against it. Those groups are right: the tide is turning.
But in the meantime, the war goes on, ten minutes at a time.
And as we listen to the debates in the UN, while we wait for more information out of Douma, as the generals appear on television to discuss military options, these Yemeni children are deliberately being starved by the Saudi military – every day, all day long.
Look at them. The morality of empathy demands that we care about these children as much as we care about children anywhere – including our own, here at home.
Where are the marchers, the silent vigils, the mass actions for them?
Syria is a terrible tragedy, too – a tragedy caused by American intervention. Now we’re being told that more intervention is the cure.
Liberal interventionism is seductive. It’s hard to resist the messianic voices that tell us we’re the indispensable heroes of our time, the saviors of the world and its children.
But it’s time to ask: In countries like Yemen, who will save the world from us?