The remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday calling for a speedy ceasefire in Yemen appeared to mark a turning point in the Trump administration’s approach to the three-year-old war, in which thousands have died and millions have been harmed. It remains to be seen, however, how much force the administration will put behind these officials’ words; with past as prologue, there is little reason for optimism.
For one thing, the timing of these statements is transparently self-serving. It’s not as though the State Department and the Pentagon just discovered that this was a problem in urgent need of solving, or that we have the ability to help solve it. Since 2015, both the Trump administration and the Obama administration before it looked the other way as the conflict wore on, making, at most, perfunctory attempts to stop it. The administration is only paying attention to Yemen now because Congress and the American public are.
The killing of Saudi Arabian dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month has invited long-overdue public scrutiny of our problematic relationship with Saudi Arabia, including our support for its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Last week, the New York Times published a heartbreaking series of photos showing some of the Yemeni children who are starving to death in the famine caused by the ongoing blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition. The enormity of this disaster and our complicity in it have become impossible to ignore.
Goodness knows, the Trump administration has tried its best to have us look the other way. In this year’s defense spending bill, Congress demanded that Pompeo certify that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were taking meaningful steps to reduce civilian casualties, facilitate the influx of humanitarian aid, and work toward a diplomatic resolution to the conflict — otherwise, Congress would require the administration to cut off support to the Saudi campaign.
At the time, Trump indicated that he intended to ignore that demand if and when it came. Nonetheless, Pompeo and Mattis assured Congress in September that the Saudis were doing everything they could not to bomb any more school buses. On Wednesday, Mattis stressed that the U.S. was currently providing training to coalition forces “to achieve a level of capability … that they are not killing innocent people.”
These assurances are preposterous even if they are accurate. When all is said and done, the vast majority of the deaths attributable to this war will have been from starvation and disease, not bombs. The Saudi coalition has blockaded Yemen for more than three years, creating shortages of food, fuel, and potable water. Predictably, that’s left half of Yemen’s population — 14 million people — in what the U.N. calls “pre-famine conditions,” and 1.1 million people affected by a massive cholera epidemic. Birth defects and child cancers are also on the rise, the Times reported this week — as is child marriage.
Just as the millions of Iraqis who died “nonviolent” deaths as a result of the Iraq War are not included in its body count, the millions of Yemenis who die quietly or live stunted lives because of this blockade will not be counted in the death toll from this war. Thus Mattis and Pompeo can say with straight faces that the Saudis are no longer killing innocent people, while innocent people suffer and die by the thousands as a direct consequence of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military actions.
When Pompeo issued that certification in September, he did so for the sake of preserving arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which President Donald Trump sees as a pillar of the U.S. economy that he can take credit for expanding. Likewise, Tuesday’s calls for peace were at least as much about protecting Saudi Arabia and these arms deals as they were about protecting Yemenis.
That’s because Congress is beginning to take a closer look at U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which Vermont senator Bernie Sanders (among others) wants to end. Sanders and California representative Ro Khanna are preparing to submit resolutions to that effect in both chambers of Congress this month. Sanders’s resolution “is certainly something that’s weighed on the administration,” a senior congressional aide told CNN. In other words, Tuesday’s statements were likely intended to help convince other senators to vote it down.
Mattis says he wants to see a cease-fire within the next 30 days, but it’s not clear whether the administration will actually put tangible pressure on the Saudis to achieve that goal. Trump is clearly dead-set against any course of action involving the cancellation of arms sales, taking a major source of leverage off the table. Any leverage we might have had over Iran and its proxies went out the window when he unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in May. If the administration plans to enforce this call for peace, it hasn’t left itself many options for doing so.
Also, Mattis’s description of his vision for a cessation of hostilities (“a cease-fire, based on a pullback from the border and then based on ceasing dropping of bombs”) suggests that the U.S. may demand that Houthi ground forces abandon their frontline positions before the Saudis halt their bombing campaign. Absent some intensive confidence-building measures, it’s hard to envision such a chain of events. It will not be surprising if, in a few weeks, the administration claims that the Saudis are really trying to make peace, but the Houthis and their financiers in Tehran are proving intransigent.
But let’s imagine for a moment that all parties are acting in good faith here, that the U.S. is taking this seriously, that the Khashoggi scandal has got the Saudis scared enough to do what we tell them, that a cease-fire is in effect by December, the blockade lifted immediately, and a peace deal signed by next summer. What then? Yemen is in ruins, millions are already starving, and cease-fires don’t cure cholera. Alleviating this humanitarian catastrophe and rebuilding Yemen’s infrastructure while maintaining peace would require a massive international effort under the auspices of the U.N.
Will the Trump administration participate in this effort? Trump and his National Security Adviser John Bolton openly despise the U.N., while Trump has committed himself to the argument that the U.S. can’t afford to keep giving aid to foreign countries. Rehabilitating Yemen will cost many billions of dollars; if the U.S. declines to contribute, others will be reluctant to fill the gap. Without American dollars and diplomacy supporting an extensive reconstruction campaign, a U.N.-brokered cease-fire will inevitably fall apart eventually.
In fact, the situation is even scarier, because it is entirely possible that Yemen can’t be put back together again at all — both in the sense of being hopelessly fractured politically, and in the sense that it is fast becoming uninhabitable. Yemen is literally running out of water, due to a combination of rapid population growth, overuse, mismanagement, and climate change. Repairing the damage done to Yemen’s infrastructure over three-and-a-half years of bombardment won’t be enough to address the mounting water crisis, which threatens in turn to motivate future conflicts and amplify their human costs.
Yemen may not yet be too far gone to escape this vicious cycle, but it does not have much time left before it becomes an irreparably failed state. The water supply in its capital, Sanaa, is projected to dry up as early as 2025, creating over 4 million climate refugees from that city alone. That projection was from 2013, by the way, before the ravages of the current war took their toll. Unfortunately, the looming disaster in Yemen requires the kind of concerted international response that Trump and other world leaders today are disinclined to pursue.