U.S. Bombs: How We Helped Break Yemen

America dropped 26,000 bombs last year. This is the story of a few.

Politics Features Barack Obama
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U.S. Bombs: How We Helped Break Yemen

The United States is helping Saudi Arabia bomb the poorest country in the Middle East. We need to stop.

The nation of Yemen stands on the brink of starvation. Serious famine could result from the continued application of American might; we will be party to even more serious crimes if we continue to back the Saudi regime’s agenda. Yesterday, a primary school was hit in an air strike by Saudi forces.

Last fall, the Obama administration decided to block arms deals to Riyadh. That’s not enough. Our fingerprints are all over this one.

The Yemen conflict started on March 26 of 2015, but the strife is one with a long backstory. The simplest version goes like this: to quote the World Bank, “An Arab coalition of nine countries led by Saudi Arabia initiated a military campaign to restore President Hadi’s government to power.”

In other words, the Saudis and their friends, including America, are intervening in Yemen. The Saudis are afraid that Iran is setting up a new puppet government there, so they want to put the old moderate government back in charge.

That’s the clinical explanation. What’s actually happening is that a lot of poor people are being killed by missiles, and bombs, and other munitions. Washington nods, and smiles, and gives the go-ahead. Americans refuel Saudi aircraft. Americans provide coordination with the Saudi military. Americans offer the Saudis a hundred other little favors. We are co-conspirators.

As a wise man once said, there are two powers in the world, America, and global opinion. A good rule of thumb for understanding world politics: whenever an American ally makes a big move in the realm of foreign affairs, the ally usually clears it with the American government first. This is not universally true, but it’s usually the safe way to bet.

That’s why this country is tangentially complicit in so many different kinds of human rights outrages. America pretending to have clean hands in world politics is like the beat cop pretending to not notice organized crime operating under his nose. Where our allies are concerned, we have a huge amount of influence.

Example: until recently, the Americans peddled all kinds of munitions to the Saudi military; we sold $20 billion of them in 2015. We only stopped on Dec. 13, 2016, when the Administration halted a sale by Raytheon to the Saudi Kingdom. The White House was getting it from human rights groups and couldn’t proceed as before. In fact, the Obama administration, to quote Reuters, has sold the Arabian Kingdom over $115 billion in various war goods, more than “any U.S. administration in the 71-year U.S.-Saudi alliance.”

Remember, this is all being done under the watch of a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, so it’s totally morally cool.

Twenty-three illegal air strikes, using our weapons, have killed children and other civilians. This all got noticed, by the way, when our weapons flattened over one hundred and forty people last October, during a funeral in Yemen.

The funeral in question occurred in the al-Sala al-Kubra community hall during the mourning for Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the government’s interior minister, Jalal al-Rawishan. The funeral time and guest list was announced on Facebook on Oct. 7. The two munitions, dropped at 3:30 PM, were—it is alleged—deliberately planned to land during the peak hour of mourning, when the civilian population would be the greatest.

According to Human Rights Watch:

Human Rights Watch identified the munition used as a US-manufactured air-dropped GBU-12 Paveway II 500-pound laser-guided bomb. The identification was based on a review of photos and footage of an intact guidance fin assembly with legible manufacturer’s markings and other weapon remnants. The photos and video were taken at the scene of the attack by Mwatana, a leading Sanaa-based human rights organization, journalists from the British news channel ITV, and a local activist, who visited the site on October 9.

As NPR points out, although our efforts in Syria and Iraq are famous, our involvement in Yemen is not so well-known:

Since March 2015, the U.S. has been providing support to a Saudi-led military coalition fighting Houthi rebels. The Houthis ousted Yemen’s government and forced the president, Abed Mansour Hadi, to flee to Saudi Arabia. Initially the Saudis thought they could easily uproot the Houthis, but the conflict has ground on much longer than the Saudis expected.

The Washington Post described a “bloody and futile intervention in Yemen” by Saudi Arabia:

Pushed by its ambitious, 31-year-old deputy crown prince, the kingdom plunged into Yemen’s civil war in 2015 and since then has carried out some of the most brutal attacks in a war-ravaged Middle East with substantial American support. Human rights groups have accused the Saudis of bombing hospitals, schools and other civilian sites and of employing cluster munitions, all in violation of international law.

According to writer Ben Norton, a famine monitor “created by the U.S. government has said the conflict is responsible for creating the gravest food security crisis on the planet.”


If you’re surprised that this is happening, and that we’re involved, it’s understandable. This isn’t the kind of conflict you see on the nightly news; it doesn’t make an inspiring story. Beltway opinion likes the Saudis very much, and so most of the mainstream media prefers to keep quiet about our morally-compromised alliance with an absolute monarchy. But in the past several months, our involvement has become too problematic to deny.

What follows is a lot of names and information you might find strange, and details that may at first seem boring. I promise this is important. These are real people. This is a real place.

Look at a map of the Arabian Peninsula. See the lower left corner of that region, the part that touches Africa? That’s Yemen, home to 24 million people. Yemen is a Muslim country. Fifty-five percent of the citizens of Yemen are Sunni; the rest are Shia.

Yemen had a revolution in November 2011, an Arab Spring of their own. The uprising threw out a strongman named Saleh. This led to a new government being put in place, by Saleh’s deputy, Hadi. Hadi became President. The government in Yemen was Sunni, and was recognized as legitimate by the international community.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of problems for a new government in an ex-authoritarian, impoverished country. To quote the World Bank again, “Yemen was facing challenges on several fronts that have been exacerbated by the conflict—high population growth, severe urban-rural imbalances, food and water scarcity, female illiteracy, widespread poverty, and economic stagnation.”

There is a clan inside Yemen named the Houthi, who follow a version of Shia Islam, like Iran. After Hadi took over, his Sunni government struggled to maintain control of its territory. Houthis seized parts of the north, and eventually took over the capital. Hadi and his regime fled.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky. The Houthis are an independent sort of people. They fought against Saleh when he was in power. They are currently fighting the Hadi government. But guess who also wants the new Hadi government gone? The former boss, Saleh. He is now in an alliance with the Houthi. If this seems confusing and contradictory, welcome to Middle Eastern politics.

It is alleged that Iran is funding and giving weapons to the Houthi. Per the International Business Times:

The degree to which the Houthis are being funded by Iran is unclear, although most Yemen watchers believe Tehran is funnelling both weapons and military advice to the rebels. Just like its backing of Lebanese militia group Hezbollah, the Houthis make an excellent proxy on the border of Iran’s most significant ideological and geopolitical enemy, Saudi Arabia. But analysts equally see the hand of Saleh behind the Houthi advance, which may also serve to explain why the Houthis have been willing to spread so far from their north-western heartlands.

As you may know, in the Middle East, there is a long-running struggle for power between Saudi Arabia (Sunni Islam) and Iran (Shia Islam). As the IBT points out, the Saudis do not want an ally of Iran on their doorstep. They have struck an alliance with the Yemeni government to fight the Houthi rebels. So it’s the Saudis, various allies, and the government of Yemen on one side, and Iran and the Houthi on the other. In steps the United States, friend to Saudi Arabia.


In other words, this conflict comes down to a fight for power in a small country in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Is it worth this cost? We should care that thousands of ordinary people are being killed in the crossfire, and we are still helping. We’re like a man who shut down his dog-fighting ring Tuesday and declares himself ready for sainthood on Wednesday. According to the BBC,

More than 6,800 people have been killed and 35,000 injured since March 2015, the majority in air strikes by a Saudi-led multinational coalition that backs the president. The conflict and a blockade imposed by the coalition have also triggered a humanitarian disaster, leaving 80% of the population in need of aid.

Just under half of the population is below eighteen. The BBC continues:

The UN says 3.1 million Yemenis are internally displaced, while 14 million people are suffering from food insecurity and 370,000 children under the age of five are at risk of starving to death. More than 1,900 of the country’s 3,500 health facilities are also currently either not functioning or partially functioning, leaving half the population without adequate healthcare.

There is no clear victor yet, and twenty-one months of fighting have not changed the position of the combatants. The last hope for a peace settlement was in Kuwait in April 2016. Three months later, the discussions failed, and everyone went back to the knife.

Forget the other issues: that Yemen sits atop the Bab al-Mandab strait, a water-passage that most of the world’s oil passes through. Choke that one point, and you could slowly starve the engines of the world. This conflict could “destabilize the region,” to use the easy phrases of international relations, but forget that too. We can rationalize away any malfeasance if we throw the net of justification wide enough.

Instead, we should focus on the important details: the deaths we have directly caused, and the damage to the infrastructure of Yemen, which is about to develop into a humanitarian crisis. We must stop playing in, and paying for, this game. This once, perhaps we ought to focus on the only side that really matters—the people’s.