Made in the USA: How the U.S. Manufactures Death and Destruction in Yemen

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Since the Obama administration started ramping up U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia, the military-industrial complex has been supporting an imperialist war on Yemen and profiting from the creation of an unimaginable human crisis.

Image credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP

It happened on August 9, 2018, in Sa’ada Province, northern Yemen. A bomb was dropped on a bus at a market in the town of Dahyan, killing 40 little boys, ages 6 to 11. They were on a school trip. The bomb also killed 11 adults and wounded 79 people (including 56 children). The bomb, made in the United States, was Lockheed Martin’s 500-pound laser-guided MK 82. It was likely part of a shipment that had been approved by the State Department during Obama’s presidency. Obama had canceled a sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in December 2016 due to “human rights concerns,” but that did nothing to save those children in 2018, nor did the Saudi-led coalition’s subsequent apology for “mistakes made” alter their tragic fate. The fact is that the bomb that targeted and killed those kids was just one of thousands of bombs exported by the United States to Saudi Arabia, and this one ghastly episode was just one of the well over 17,000 airstrikes that have claimed the lives of countless Yemeni civilians since the war began in 2015.

The Awful Truth About the “Invisible War”

The pictures of Yemeni children with their sad eyes are gut wrenching to look at. Shocking are the images of babies that are but skin and bones, held in the arms of desperate parents. It’s hard to stomach the sight of the human face of what is referred to everywhere as the “the worst humanitarian crisis on earth.” Faced with a devastating famine, 22 million people in Yemen (out of a population of 29 million) urgently need food and other aid. Seventeen million people are suffering from hunger, and according to the UN, 14 million are on the brink of starvation (“seriously food deficient”). According to some estimates, 85,000 people may have already starved to death, most of them children. Only half of the population has access to clean water. Communicable diseases have resurged, including 1.2 million cases of confirmed or suspected cholera since April 2017. Diphtheria, which was all but eradicated in Yemen by the 1980s, has reappeared. One hundred and thirty Yemeni children die each day due to hunger or disease.

Human-made, this famine is the product of war—a war that has been dragging on for well over three years. The Saudi-led coalition has erected a sea, air and land blockade that is preventing import goods and humanitarian aid from getting into the country. Prices have soared, effectively making basic necessities unaffordable for most people. Inflation is, however, only one aspect of the country’s near total economic devastation. Factories, farms and companies have slowed production or shut down; millions of people have no work. This war has caused mass suffering in many ways, but the most direct, most immediate source of misery remains the world’s advanced military technology. No amount of “precision” targeting changes the fact that this imperialist war is a giant annihilation campaign; it kills and maims, obliterates homes, workplaces and cities. There have been 18,000 air raids since the spring of 2015, or roughly 14 air raids each day. The New York Times reported that over 4,600 civilians have been killed as a result of the air strikes (and 6,500 including other war-related violence). The Guardian wrote that more than 57,000 civilians and combatants have died since the beginning of 2016, and 2 to 3 million have been displaced. The country’s infrastructure is utterly demolished, including half the hospitals. Many people cannot pay for transportation to the nearest medical facility because of the rising fuel prices. Eight civilians die each day as a result of the fighting and the bombardment.

War For Profit

With no end in sight, the “forgotten war” is finally getting attention. The numbers cited above are all over the media. But while the situation in Yemen is becoming more visible, a deeper understanding of what is happening requires that we expose the role of the military-industrial complex in creating and perpetuating this crisis. After all, religious and political conflict becomes lethal when weapons are involved, and in a world where global capitalism reigns supreme, weapons are produced and sold by private companies whose sole purpose is to profit from death and destruction. Aided in their objectives by their alliance with the government, defense contractors are literally making a killing. War is big business.

Although it is Saudi Arabia and its coalition that is leading the war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the war wouldn’t be possible without the United States, which therefore carries a large part of the responsibility. The United States has been an ally of the Saudis for 75 years. This alliance is built on oil and weapons. Saudi Arabia is the United States’ second-largest supplier of oil, after Canada, and its No. 1 buyer of arms, making up about 18% of total U.S. arms sales. However, U.S. military support goes beyond the provision of arms. Since the start of the war, the United States has reinforced the blockade, refueled the Saudi military airplanes and supplied the coalition with targeting intelligence and technical assistance. The UK also sells munitions to Saudi Arabia and is quietly training Saudi forces. On a lesser scale, France and China have made deals with Saudi Arabia as well. Spain recently canceled an arms sale to Riyadh, as did a few other European nations, but it is highly doubtful that there is any real intention to completely stop or even significantly roll back what ultimately amounts to the capitalist countries’ military support of this war. Meanwhile, other countries, including Russia, are looking to get a slice of the pie and profit from this massive and ongoing criminal assault on a people who have nowhere to escape to.

According to a Congressional Research Service Report published in December 2016, the Obama administration made sales (in equipment, and training) to Saudi Arabia worth $115 billion, which is more than any prior administration had spent. President Trump then made an agreement with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, according to which Saudi Arabia would purchase $110 billion of arms now and $350 billion over the course of the next 10 years. So far, “only” $14.5 billion worth have been purchased, but Trump insists that the American people need more arms deals with Saudi Arabia because… jobs!

The appalling logic behind Trump’s claims is that the United States should be willing to accept a continuation of the war and mass suffering because American workers benefit from it, that is, manufacturing and selling death is good for the working class. Morality aside, these claims are based on a lie. Yes, weapons production is a significant part of the American economy, making up about 10% of the United States’ factory output. However, the assertion that this most recently negotiated deal would support 500,000 new jobs is a colossal exaggeration; a realistic figure would be closer to a few hundred. More importantly, this is capitalism, and the arms manufacturers are capitalist companies, which means the defense industry executives are the ones raking in the big money, not the assemblers at Lockheed Martin, who make a little over $16 an hour. Ultimately, the biggest lie is that the interests of American workers are served by politicians making sure that the capitalist class can keep exploiting labor, killing brown people in poor countries, and swimming in more and more wealth while doing so.

Geopolitics in the Middle East and Beyond

We have all heard the term “proxy war” in connection with Yemen, meaning that Yemen has been made into a battleground where Saudi Arabia and Iran are acting out their political aspirations and aggressions without directly attacking each other. This may well be an accurate description of what’s happening, though it is not clear to what extent Tehran is actually supporting the Houthis, while it is perfectly clear that Saudi Arabia is waging a war on them and the civilian population of Yemen. Leaving aside for the moment the truth that there is nothing proxy about Yemen serving as yet another, particularly deadly, battleground for the war of the global capitalist class on the rest of humanity, it is useful to take a look at the specific confluence of forces that led a tragedy of immense proportions to unfold in the poorest country in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are two major political powers in the Middle East, locked in a decades-old conflict. Today, this conflict has reached a point where the Saudi monarchy fears it is losing its status as the leader of the Muslim world to the Iranian theocracy, which is in fact expanding its influence in the region. While Saudi Arabia is supported by the United States, Iran is an ally of Russia. These alliances are also critically involved in Syria, where Iran and Russia are supporting Assad while Saudi Arabia is backing some of the rebel groups, making the conflict in Syria today look more and more like a real proxy war. Israel, of course, with the United States as its closest ally, is not altogether opposed to the Saudi military adventures because its foreign policy is mainly directly against Iran, which supports Hezbollah, the Shia militia in Lebanon. As these global strategic games are being played, with the lives of human beings used as tools in the struggle for power, religious and other divisions are taken advantage of.

For most of its recent history, Yemen has been politically divided. Northern Yemen gained independence in 1918 after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, whereas southern Yemen did not become independent from the British until 1967. At that point, there were two Yemeni states: the Yemen Arab Republic in the north (formerly the Zaydi Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen) and the People’s Republic of Yemen (later the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) in the south, which was oriented toward the Soviet Union. Unification in 1990 did not bring an end to the separation and the conflict. Today, the Saudi-led coalition is exploiting the strife between the Shia al-Houthi rebels in northern Yemen and the Sunni supporters of the former government in southern Yemen while waging war on the former and furthering any effort to bring former president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi back to power.

The events over the last two decades have made Yemen more vulnerable to foreign interference. One of the key sites of the “war on terror” early on, Yemen has been under drone attack by the United States since the beginning of President Obama’s term. There had been only one drone strike before that (in 2002), but after 2009, there was a massive escalation of the drone war, which has already claimed the lives of up to 1,700 people in Yemen, including hundreds of civilians with no connection to al-Qaida. In 2011, U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed near the town of Khashef in the province of Jawf by a CIA drone. That same year, the corrupt and autocratic then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of office as the Arab Spring reached Yemen. After Saleh escaped to Riyadh, he was replaced by his vice president Hadi, who was facing more unrest as economic and social problems were worsening, adding fuel to an already volatile political situation. The Houthis took over the capital city of Sana’a in 2014 and forced Hadi to flee, first to Aden in the south and then also to Riyadh, which launched its military campaign in 2015.

The other parties that are actively responsible for the attacks on Yemen are the members of the coalition assembled by Saudi Arabia, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Senegal, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar (which was suspended in 2017). For its part, Saudi Arabia is using its military spending to buy itself control over the region. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest arms importers, by many accounts the largest, and has significantly increased its import of arms over the last few years. The United States accounts for more than half of Saudi Arabia’s imports. Even though Saudi Arabia is procuring more weapons than it is using, the war in Yemen would clearly not be what it is without U.S. military equipment. Ending the arms sales would therefore have a major impact on the Saudis’ ability to continue bombing Yemen. At the same time, it is untrue that doing so would significantly affect the U.S. economy, though individual companies would be affected, including Lockheed Martin, which stands to gain $28 billion in sales in the $110 billion deal negotiated by Jared Kushner.

End the War: Demanding More than Symbols

Congressional Democrats have recently called for an end to U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia and an end to U.S. support for Saudi military operations in Yemen. These include Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Adam Schiff (the chair of the House Intelligence Committee) and others. Some of them took this position after President Trump responded tepidly to the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The brazen manner in which this heinous crime was committed shows that the royal house thinks itself free to commit grotesque acts of violence with impunity.

So far, any pressure coming from progressive Democrats has yielded few results, although the United States suspended mid-air refueling of Saudi warplanes, which was likely negotiated by the Trump administration and the Saudis to prevent Congress from taking more serious measures. Given that only a fifth of the coalition airplanes depend on U.S. refueling, this decision makes very little difference. In March 2018 the Senate voted on a resolution to end support for the war, but it lost. In November, Republicans blocked another resolution. Then, at the end of the year, Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 54, which had been sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), passed the Senate 56-41. Sanders acknowledged that this resolution would not affect foreign policy (because of the subsequent transition to the 116th Congress) but emphasized its symbolic significance. Unfortunately, symbolic gestures are not enough to save Yemeni lives and end this bloody war.

Regardless of what, if anything, is going to happen to the Sanders-Lee resolution, a resolution like it will probably pass in the now Democrat-controlled House. For example, a bipartisan bill has been introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), and cosponsored, among others, by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). This Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2018 would halt “certain weapons transfers” to Saudi Arabia, prohibit refueling of coalition aircraft and place sanctions on any parties that block humanitarian access in Yemen or aid to the Houthis, and on persons responsible for the murder of Khashoggi. It also mandates reports on human rights and accountability for harm to civilians. All this may sound comprehensive, but even if such a bill is passed, it will likely not alleviate the suffering in Yemen, and it certainly won’t bring the peace that Yemenis need so badly.

The truth is that we can’t rely on politicians, proposing and passing this or that resolution, this or that legislation, no matter how “progressive” these politicians are. In the capitalist system, political decisions are made based on whether they ultimately benefit the ruling class, or at least do not significantly interfere with their interests and ability to amass wealth. Even Sanders’ resolution does not call for an end to the drone strikes in Yemen or the end to the war on terror. Instead, it invokes the War Powers Act of 1973 to demand the “removal of U.S. Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress”. It is significant that this is the first time since 1973 that the authority of the War Powers Resolution has been used in the Senate to assert congressional responsibility for war over the president. And it is not a bad idea to attempt to rein in President Trump. However, the U.S. Congress has authorized drone strikes and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have killed 210,000 civilians. Congress clearly does not protect people around the world against U.S. imperialism.

The struggle for peace in Yemen must rely on the international workers’ movement. Workers in countries that trade with Saudi Arabia must engage in workplace actions demanding their governments cut off ties and send humanitarian aid to Yemen. They must call for an end to the embargo and the immediate and direct delivery of food and medical supplies to the people of Yemen. In the United States, workers must organize against Trump’s anti-refugee policies and for an end to all arms sales and the drone war. The socialist left must defend the Yemeni people’s right to self-determination, condemn Saudi Arabia’s attacks on civilians and denounce all Republican and Democratic representatives who feed the war industry. The working class cannot wait for the political elites to put an end to their own complicity with the capitalist profiteering from the devastation of human lives. The working class must build international solidarity to fight against the corporate-driven projects of destruction and imperialist domination.

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Sonja Krieger

Sonja has been an editor and writer for Left Voice since 2016. She teaches college students and is an active AFT member.