IT HAS BEEN DUBBED the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world”. The UN called it potentially the worst in half a century, and an “apocalypse”, while putting the total war dead at 233,000. But today there is some hope today for war-torn, famine-plagued Yemen, after one of the guiltiest parties, the United States of America, withdrew support for the Saudi-led coalition. Joe Biden has a made a career out of terrible foreign policy decisions – this could be among his best.
Why America got involved is a murky story. Back in 2014, President Obama was keen to appease America’s allies in the Saudi Arabian kleptocracy: his Iran deal had ruffled Riyadh’s feathers. US strategists predicted a quick win, which never came. Both sides got bogged down. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 served to sour the American establishment on Riyadh, and offered Trump his chance to exit without offence, but he never took it. The brutal war proved a useful proxy for pestering Tehran, who backed the Houthi rebels, as well as keeping the Saudis sweet. Most of all, said Trump, arms sales “create hundreds of thousands of jobs”
Talking of which, there is no obscene military quagmire without the UK lurking around somewhere. I stress “lurking” because Britain’s participation was indirect, though real: as the Guardian observed, “Britain is intimately involved in the conflict.” Our role involved a seemingly paradoxical but actually commonplace practice of acting as assessors of humanitarian law while selling the arms fuelling an apocalyptic war. Sadly, that hypocrisy isn’t unique to Britain. “Humanitarianism”, as the political scientist Philip Cunliffe observes, has become the most common rationale for getting one’s hands dirty.
Nonetheless, in 2019 the Court of Appeal found that, given the disaster in Yemen, British arms sales to the Saudi regime were unlawful. Those sales had been worth a total of £4.7 billion since the conflict began: indeed, the Saudis accounted for an astonishing 40 percent of UK arms exports. Fortunately for our captains of industry, that decision only paused trade. Last year, trade minister Liz Truss announced she’d had a review, and weapons to warmongers was back on: “I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL (International Humanitarian Law)”.
Now, Biden has been forced to admit America’s culpability in a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”. I hesitate to praise him for that admission. Biden never tires of pointing out that he was Obama’s Vice President. But in that capacity, he bears partial responsibility for this mess. And rather than a change of heart, it’s more accurate to say that Khashoggi-gate soured liberal imperialists on Saudi military grandstanding.
Equally, both Obama and Trump had a habit of making pronouncements that sounded like withdrawal, only to reassert power by other means, such as clandestine drone bombing campaigns. And buried in the small print, there’s some ongoing “defensive” support for the Saudi side. So we should defer judgement on whether this signals a real change of policy, especially since Biden’s speech was otherwise full of imperial rhetoric. That said, anything that brings this horror closer to conclusion must be welcomed.
Now, attention turns to Britain. “The US Government is the biggest arms dealer in the world, so this could be an important step towards ending this terrible war,” notes Campaign Against the Arms Trade. “It also puts the spotlight firmly on to the UK government and companies that have armed, supported and enabled the brutal bombardment…No matter how dire the crisis has become, they have been able to count on the uncritical political and military support of the UK government. That support must end, and so must have the arms sales that have done so much damage.”