Yemen, Palestine and the End of US Legitimacy

In March of 2015, just two months after the Houthis entered the presidential palace in Sanaa, prompting the resignation of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saudi Arabia began a brutal military offensive designed to put a stop to the Houthi rebellion. This conflict would soon become one of the most destructive in the world. The United Nations’ 2021 Country Results Report for Yemen noted that the conflict had resulted in over 377,000 deaths; the same report observed that by the start of 2021, two-thirds of the country’s 30 million people “relied on humanitarian assistance for daily survival.” The war has also witnessed one of the worst cholera outbreaks in recorded history, with millions of recorded cases and thousands of deaths. The famine accompanying the war, one of the worst the world has seen in several decades, has led to mass starvation and malnutrition, with tens of millions in Yemen struggling with food insecurity.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the corporate press’s coverage of the conflict, Washington’s role in the war in Yemen has been broadly criticized by human rights groups around the world. For years, the United States helped to “turn Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Between 2015 and 2021, the Defense Department sent at least $55 billion in military support to American allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, since the Saudi coalition began its offensives in March 2015, more than 19,200 civilians have been killed or maimed. A 2021 report from Save the Children found that 25 percent of all civilian casualties between 2018 and 2020 were children. In the summer of 2018, Human Rights Watch published a reportshowing that the United States, a party to the conflict due to its aggressive support of the Saudi war effort, had not adequately addressed civilian casualties and had failed in its duty to investigate credible evidence of war crimes. A report from the U.N. Human Rights Office implored the U.N. Security Council “to refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court,” noting the United States’ previous resistance to any accountability and its disregard of past recommendations of the Human Rights Council.

Yemen is one of the most striking recent examples of the invisibility (in the West, at least) of some of the world’s worst injustices, even in the smartphone era. Amazingly, the United States succeeded in almost completely blotting the story out of the legacy news media. The world’s most tragic humanitarian crisis was kept from the American public. When 80,000 Hours interviewed Daniel Ellsberg in 2018, he noted the U.S. government’s remarkable ability to hide its greatest misdeeds, citing the catastrophe in Yemen as a current example:

And right now the public knows very little about the degree of our involvement for example in Yemen. Our air support in terms of refueling and loading and target information to the Saudis in carrying out massacres in Yemen. Major war crimes that are happening every day are not in the consciousness of the American people at all.

A 2022 report by the Government Accountability Office shed welcome light on just how little our government cared about the unimaginable civilian tragedy unfolding in Yemen. Covering the years from 2015 to 2021, the report “said the Pentagon and State Department provided no evidence that they had conducted any investigations of the potential unauthorized use of American-made equipment.” No one was watching while the U.S. government colluded with the arms industry to bomb and starve the children of Yemen. As Rachel Hage argued in American University Washington College of Law’s Human Rights Brief, “these illegal actions gravely threaten the integrity of the United States government, and they continue to harm and kill Yemeni civilians.” Hage notes that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have blocked efforts to hold our government accountable for the war crimes carried out in Yemen with American weapons and support to the Saudi regime.

Notwithstanding criticism from human rights organizations around the world and growing resistance from within the State Department, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed forward the disastrous decision to continue arming a corrupt Saudi regime that had demonstrated its indifference to civilian life. In doing so, Pompeo had dismissed the advice of subject matter experts in favor of the wisdom of his legislative affairs team, which happened to be led by a former arms industry lobbyist. After the legislative affairs team politely reminded Pompeo that pulling support for the Saudis would scuttle a multi-billion dollar sale of arms to the regime, the Secretary of State proceeded with the decision to push the weapons through on emergency grounds, citing Iran’s role in the conflict.

This cynical reference to a supposed national security emergency translated to billions to American arms dealers and helped the Saudi government carry out demonstrable war crimes. As The New York Times reported in August of 2020: “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed the $8.1 billion sale of those munitions, mostly made by Raytheon, despite a two-year bipartisan congressional hold on the proposed transfer of the arms, comprising 22 packages.” When the decision to certify this “emergency” was later reviewed in a Office of the Inspector General report, the state department itself acknowledged that more should have been done to ensure the protection of civilian lives. Of course, it is hard to explain what Washington thought the Saudi government would do in Yemen with billions in free weapons, strategic support, and endless political and diplomatic cover.

Former inspector general Steve A. Linick, canned by the Trump administration in the spring of 2020, later testified to Congress that he had been pressured to back off of the issue of emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Pompeo even admitted that the firing of Linick was his choice. Many others who worked in the State Department at the time have corroborated Linick’s story.

Fast forward to 2024 and recent weeks have seen several United States airstrikes in Yemen, as the Houthis vow to continue harrying Red Sea shipping lanes until the United States ceases its support of the genocide underway in the Gaza Strip. The United States has likewise attacked Syria and Iraq in recent weeks, prompting a reproach from the Iraqi government that the United States’ actions “jeopardize civil peace, violate Iraqi sovereignty, and disregard the safety and lives of our citizens.” We must wonder how many Middle Eastern countries the United States will bomb in vain attempts to stop their people from resisting an ongoing genocide. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States government shares the view of the Israeli state: brown, Muslim, Arab people are not people—or perhaps they are people we can safely ignore. To cultivate such a disgusting view in the public is no easy feat, which is the reason for the constant propaganda on “terrorists” and “terrorism.” To the powerful, every freedom fighter is a terrorist.

The Houthis, who had already been fighting the Yemeni government for over a decade by 2015, are a group of Zaidi Muslims from the north of the country who take their name from the Houthi Tribe; the group calls itself Ansar Allah, meaning Supporters of God. The group rose to prominence in part by criticizing the Yemeni government as “a puppet in the hands of influential forces,” a pointed reference to the United States. After removing the terrorist designation from the Houthis in the early days of his presidency in 2021, Biden has now reversed course and reimposed that designation, a decision that the administration knows well will disrupt peace talks that have been underway for years. The designation comes with a number of sanctions calculated to cut off funding and resources to the Houthis. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, the peace plan contemplated by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen includes “an element that is crucial for the Houthis and many Yemeni civilians—salary payments for public sector workers in Houthi-controlled territories who have gone without pay for years.” The U.S. official who spoke to the Times indicated that the terrorist designation could be lifted if the Houthis would halt their attacks on shipping lanes in the Red Sea, but the Houthis have vowed to continue standing in solidarity with the people of Palestine until Israel agrees to end its massacre of the Palestinian people.

When the United States’ designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group was first announced by the Trump administration, humanitarian aid organizations, the European Union, the United Nations, and even many American elected officials rightly damned the move as imperiling the safety of millions of Yemenis already lacking basic needs. Major EU countries remain split over both the U.S.’s renewed designation of the Houthis as terrorists and whether to participate in the U.S.’s bombings of Yemen in recent weeks.

Despite constant fear-mongering about Iran in the West, it is clear that the Houthis do not take their orders from Tehran and are an independent political movement with their own values and goals. Contrary to Western propaganda, the Houthis didn’t come out of the womb chanting “death to America” and “death to Israeli”—no, those attitudes were purchased with blood as the United States and its allies pursued a policy of regime change and naked empire over a course of decades.

It is important, at this juncture, to restate the fact, well-known to human rights advocates and civil libertarians, that the Saudi Arabian regime is one of the world’s worst human rights offenders. The Saudi monarchy is so depraved that it’s hard to know where to start: Amnesty International noted earlier this year that the Saudi government subjected almost 200 people to the death penalty in 2022 alone, with more than 80 executions in one day—“the single largest mass execution in recent decades. The country ranks as the 2nd highest for use of the death penalty.” Saudi Arabia also enforces a strict guardianship policy over women, stipulating that all women must have a male guardian who lords over her financial and professional affairs—and, importantly, Saudi women have no choice about who that male guardian is. Often it is someone who has physically and sexually abused the woman he has sworn to protect. Further, Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records in the world on the freedom of the press, even murdering journalists who step out of line.

In this way, the United States and Saudi Arabia are very much alike: both regimes are pathologically allergic to sunlight and fight with every means at their disposal, harassment and murder included, to defeat any kind of transparency or accountability. That’s the company our government chooses to keep. Merely for the United States to associate with this regime would constitute a major embarrassment on the world stage. But the U.S. government has made the Saudi monarchy one of its favorite allies in recent years, helping to pummel the Yemeni people and perpetuate one of the greatest human rights tragedies in recent memory.

In the global community of nations, our government is currently the most lawless and irresponsible, flouting international law and actively supporting the worst crimes against humanity in generations, now including the Israeli state’s ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people. President Biden is, in many ways, the perfect representative of the fathomless ignorance that infects the mainstream American narrative around Israel—we refuse to discuss its founding as a white, European, colonial enterprise in the Middle East; its attempts, across decades, at exterminating Arabs on their own ancestral lands; its oppressive dual legal system and illegal apartheid regime; or its violent expansion of illegally occupied territories in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. As Americans, we must ask ourselves why our government would support such a regime, why—when our friends and neighbors are hungry and unhoused—we would send billions of dollars in weapons to a country that has repeatedly, at the highest levels of leadership, compared the People of Palestine to animals who deserve to be wiped off the map.

To anyone paying attention, the masks had been off for decades before the United States government made it clear that it would support—without question, without limit—the clear genocidal intentions of the group of unhinged racists running Israel’s government. As Imam Omar Suleiman recently observed, “I think that it’s clear that the United States cares more about its shipping lanes than it does about Palestinian lives.” Americans have to meaningfully confront the fact that our government has skirted every international legal standard in order to continue funding and aiding the ongoing slaughter of the Palestinian people.

The United States political and intellectual classes are actively trying to get us into wars with China, Russia, and Iran, to name a few. If not now, will we ever be allowed to question the cycle of endless war and the idea of war as a means to peace and security? The foreign policy of the United States is to escalate every conflict as quickly as possible—escalation as a means to deescalation, war as a means to peace. We long ago passed a threshold point—today, Congress couldn’t rein in the policies of endless war and empire even if they wanted to. The American people and our representatives are impotent, and we have made it so by ignoring every major story in a combination of cowardice and apathy.

You can’t have a culture of oppressive conformity without a culture that hates and buries truth. In the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, no one can trust her neighbor, and so no one can share openly how she really feels about the “pyramidal structure” of domination and oppression under which everyone strains to live. All of society has been conditioned to watch, listen, and suspect, everyone treating neighbors as potentially dangerous traitors to the power of the state. Everyone, even the children, is trained to look for signs of individuality, eccentricity, and political unorthodoxy everywhere—everyone an obsequious bootlicker, everyone, in Orwell’s words, “an amateur spy actuated by officiousness.” American culture has been poisoned by this “see something, say something” mentality, particularly since 9/11.

The people of the future will assess this period with clear eyes, as a pivotal moment in the United States’ loss of legitimacy in the world, a moment when our government, still boasting cynically of freedom and democracy, actively enabled a genocide with the whole world watching. They will see a moment when the last of the illusions succumbed to an Information Age still in its nonage, when the gulf separating the rest of the world from the insanity of America’s imperial ruling class widened to a crisis point. If the United States government is at a crossroads, in the middle of a deep crisis of legitimacy, then the American people are too. We have to decide whether it’s okay with us for our government to send billions of dollars to civilian mass murder. We have to decide what our values are and what kind of country we hope to be.

David S. D’Amato is an attorney, businessman, and independent researcher. He is a Policy Advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation and a regular opinion contributor to The Hill. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, Investor’s Business Daily, RealClearPolitics, The Washington Examiner, and many other publications, both popular and scholarly. His work has been cited by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, among others.