The brazen murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has shined new light on our decades long alliance with Saudi Arabia, and in particular, the war in Yemen. Since 2015, the US-backed Saudi proxy war with Iran has turned Yemen into “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed. The country is in the midst of a devastating famine and the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. A Saudi blockade at a number of vital ports has prevented access to humanitarian aid. In total, about 75 percent of the population requires some form of humanitarian assistance. While Houthi rebels, who oppose the Saudi-backed government, have committed their fair share of evil acts, it has been primarily Saudi forces bombing innocents, restricting aid and escalating this conflict.
Congress, who possesses the power to end U.S. support for the war, has largely ignored our ally’s transgressions. The closest they have come to holding the Saudis accountable was a Senate resolution to end support for the coalition, which was defeated due to ten Democrat defectors earlier this year. In recent months, after a few especially egregious bombings, all they could muster was a strongly worded letter to the Trump administration, signed by nine Senators. What explains the continued support for such an obviously immoral war?
First, at some level, we’ve become numb to the deaths of poor Middle Easterners. The U.S. has been bombing the region for decades, and during the Obama administration drone strikes and civilian casualties became the norm. Public opinion has consistently supported these strikes, even as the war on terror treads water and civilian casualties mount. Representatives respond to their constituency; if the constituency doesn’t care, they won’t either.
Second, the defense industry’s power poses an obstacle to congressional action. America’s resident war profiteers use their political sway to keep the conflicts raging and the money flowing. It can be political suicide to stand up to major arms dealers like Boeing or Lockheed Martin, especially in communities which are dependent on the jobs these companies provide. Representatives risk losing elections if contractors threaten to move their operations elsewhere.
In the 2016 election cycle, the defense industry spent 160 million dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions, buying influence over large swathes of Congress. As Saudi Arabia is the U.S. defense industry’s largest customer, the industry, and by extension the candidates they support, have a vested interest in prolonging the war in Yemen. In August, after a school bus carrying almost fifty children was leveled with a bomb made by Lockheed Martin, Senator Shelby (R-AL) blocked an amendment that would have ended support for the war until the safety of civilians was guaranteed. His top two donors in the last election cycle? Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both of whom have lucrative contracts with Saudi Arabia.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, admitting the truth, that war crimes have been committed in Yemen, will tarnish the American image. The fact of the matter is, we don’t simply tolerate Saudi human rights abuses in order to promote a broader anti-Iran, anti-terrorism strategy, as supporters of the war often claim. Rather, we actively aid and participate in said abuses. We train the Saudi military; refuel their jets that flatten hospitals and funeral homes; sell them bombs that are used to murder children on school buses; lend our air reconnaissance to pinpoint which wedding they’d like to blow up and support their blockade which threatens hundreds of thousands of lives.
Unfortunately, it’s not politically tenable to admit we have been committing war crimes, an assessment which numerous independent arbiters, such as the Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, agree with. In a country that already struggles to fully acknowledge past atrocities, it seems unlikely that we will own up to any present day sins.
This shouldn’t be an excuse for lawmakers. As a member of Congress, voter attentiveness, a donor’s deep pockets or an inability to admit complicity in the deaths of innocent civilians shouldn’t get in the way of justice. To the congresswomen and congressmen who have advocated against this war, good on you. It’s long past time for the rest of Congress to grow a spine and oppose this evil war
Harry Zehner is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.