Yemen Needs Us Now

by Michael Shank

This piece was originally posted on US News and World Report.

Al-Mazraq, Yemen Oct. 9, 2009. A boy waits in line for food at the Mazraq refugee camp in Hajjah province. The displaced persons at Mazraq camp have fled the ongoing fighting in the Sa’ada province of northern Yemen.

Yemen is now a White House talking point. It was in President Donald Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress last week and there’s speculation of increased American military involvement. While most Americans aren’t tracking the complexities of the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen they should be. Recently, news reached American shores of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children nearing starvation. In January, Yemen’s rising death toll exceeded 10,000, with another 40,000 injured, many of whom are civilians.

The United States is responsible for many of these deaths and could do more to alleviate the suffering. And unlike in Syria’s now chaotic civil war, a conflict the West also helped militarize, Yemen doesn’t have to share the same fate. But it requires some strategic action by America and as soon as possible.

America, so far, has largely and uncritically aided and abetted Saudi Arabia as it bombards this humanitarian crisis-stricken country, killing innocents and destroying hospitals, schools and civilian infrastructure. The Saudi coalition airstrikes, drone strikes and cluster munitions pummeling this poor country are being financed or manufactured by the United States or the United Kingdom.

We are responsible for this bloodshed in Yemen. The repeated assault on civilians looks a lot like war crimes, and it is as reprehensible as it is illegal. It must stop. That means putting an immediate end to the $115 billion worth of weapons offered to Saudi Arabia by the Obama administration, which is more than any previous U.S. administration has ever boosted the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Imagine that money being better spent. Yemen has some of the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy in the Arab world. Widespread starvation, exacerbated by the war, has now led to desperate scavenging in trash dumps. Millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine and the country has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world. And all of these numbers have been worsened by the war. Unless America does something now, these numbers will only increase.

The White House and the Defense and State Departments could stop or slow some of the killing of innocent Yemenis by putting pressure on the Saudis and withdrawing our military, financial and tacit diplomatic support. But heretofore it hasn’t – at least not visibly or vociferously enough. The only upside of Trump’s bombastic and caustic first month in the Oval Office is that he seems to have no qualms in pushing back on the Saudis, citing on numerous occasions that he plans to block oil imports from the country.

UNICEF says roughly half a million Yemeni children are in danger of starving to death, in a country where child malnutrition was widespread, even in peacetime. Photo by Almigdad Mojalli (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Harnessing this undiplomatic Trump, and his equally bullish State Department pick Rex Tillerson (who has experience negotiating in Yemen), to be equally vocal about withdrawing American support for the senseless killing of innocents in Yemen will now be essential.Trump and Tillerson can start by picking up on Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Al Faisal recent comments at the World Economic Forum regarding the importance of peace and prosperity as key areas of agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Tillerson, who in his Senate confirmation hearing intimated otherwise when it comes to Yemen, would do well to take Faisal’s lead. Yemen is quickly running out of water and we can’t afford to continue to drain its human and financial resources destroying it.

We must act now, if not for humanitarian reasons, which should be obvious, then

at least for security reasons. The recent appeal by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen for $2 billion in aid should be an easy lift for the Trump administration. To put that figure in foreign policy terms and priorities, that’s what America spent on its military in less than a week at war with Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t an issue of available funds. Even Saudi Arabia, ironically, just pledged $10 billion for reconstruction of what they destroyed. We should match it.

By stabilizing Yemen now, before it completely unravels, we can help prevent more chaos from erupting. Yemenis are watching as we support Saudi’s indiscriminate destruction of their country. Post-traumatic stress disorder, thanks to constantly hovering drones, is ubiquitous. A quick way to make a better impression on this country would be to stop doing what’s hurting innocent Yemenis and start doing what would help most Yemenis. That means less indiscriminate drone strikes, which have been killing countless innocent people, and more massive humanitarian support to address Yemen’s widespread starvation and malnutrition.

Want a safer Yemen? This is how you start. Then we can get to addressing some of the civil and regional issues and government and tribal conflicts with the help of the international community. But we have to address the real crisis first – the horrors and terror that come with starvation and malnutrition. And unless we’re willing to lead with a stronger hand among our Saudi allies, and bring the necessary and heavily invested stakeholders to the table, including Iran, Yemen will not improve. It will get much worse. More innocent people will die. Insecurity will increase. And acts of terror will abound. All on our watch.

It’s time for us to foot that $2 billion dollars that Yemen needs now. That’s how you build allies. That’s how you undermine insecurity. That’s how you defeat terror.


Michael Shank is an Adjunct Professor for the NYU SPS Center for Global Affairs

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