Letter from Washington — From the September 2016 issue

Acceptable Losses

Aiding and abetting the Saudi slaughter in Yemen

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This comfortable arrangement became unstuck in early 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring reached Yemen. The populace united in massive demonstrations against the president’s dictatorial and corrupt rule. Wounded in an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Saleh eventually resigned in favor of his vice president, the former army general Mansour Hadi. Endorsed by both the United States and Saudi Arabia, Hadi ran for election in 2012 and won with 99 percent of the vote — hardly a surprise, given that he was the only candidate. He quickly launched a “national dialogue” with the aim of reconciling Yemen’s many tribal and regional factions. This failed to mollify the Houthis, who felt (somewhat reasonably, according to Ambassador Seche) that they were being dealt out of the new arrangements. In September 2014 they marched into Sanaa and, not long afterward, placed Hadi under house arrest.

Meanwhile, there had been ructions north of the border. King Abdullah died in January 2015, at the age of ninety, and was succeeded by his seventy-nine-year-old half brother, Prince Salman. Suffering from dementia, Salman reportedly could function at meetings only by reading prepared talking points off a monitor masked by a vase of flowers. It soon became apparent that real power had devolved to his twenty-nine-year-old son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in short order took control of the defense ministry as well as the royal household.

A man stands in a shelter dug into the ground in Rahban, on the outskirts of Saada city. Much of Rahban was destroyed by a series of air strikes in March 2015. Photograph by Maria Turchenkova

A man stands in a shelter dug into the ground in Rahban, on the outskirts of Saada city. Much of Rahban was destroyed by a series of air strikes in March 2015. Photograph by Maria Turchenkova

The Saudi regime has traditionally ruled by consensus. A previous king, Fahd, once told an American envoy that he had made only one decision in fifty years: inviting the Americans to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990. But Mohammed cut through the venerable system of checks and balances, imposing decisions that were, according to one former American diplomat with long experience of the Saudis, “bold, not to say rash.”

Given his nation’s long-standing readiness to see “a Persian under every khat bush,” as the diplomat put it, Mohammed was eager to try out his expensive new weapons. He could crush the Houthis with a quick campaign and thereby shore up his own position at the expense of potential rivals in the ruling family.

On March 26, 2015, having secured a request for intervention from Hadi, the Royal Saudi Air Force went into action. The United States announced it was supplying “logistical and intelligence support.” Five days later, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a comprehensive air and sea blockade of Houthi-held areas, including Hodeidah, the principal port serving northern Yemen. For a population that relied on imports for at least 90 percent of its food, not to mention almost all other essentials such as fuel, cooking gas, and medicine, the effect would be devastating.

Following standard practice in modern air campaigns, initial strikes targeted the Yemeni air force and air defenses, using high-tech bombs and missiles that allegedly guarantee precise accuracy. The Saudis may even have believed the arms merchants’ sales pitches: a few days after the bombing began, a senior Saudi diplomat assured U.N. officials that the use of “very precise weapons” would prevent any collateral damage among the civilian population. In any event, the Saudis had little need to fear diplomatic censure at the United Nations. A Security Council resolution effectively demanding unconditional surrender from the Houthis passed with American support.

U.S. diplomatic cover would be unstintingly maintained as the war raged on. In September, six months into the bombing, the Dutch government sponsored a resolution in the U.N. Human Rights Council calling for an independent and unfettered investigation into war crimes committed by all sides in Yemen. The Saudis strenuously objected, demanding that any such investigation be left in the hands of the deposed President Hadi, who was living in exile in Riyadh. The United States declined to support the Dutch, effectively killing the idea. In an officially cleared background interview, I asked a senior State Department official why the United States had acted as it did.

“The Yemenis didn’t want it,” he replied, by which he meant Hadi.

“Does the United States usually do what Mr. Hadi wants or doesn’t want?” I asked.

“Well, when we agree with him, yes,” he answered with a smirk.

In fact, the Obama Administration’s support for the Yemeni adventure was never in doubt, if only because it had much bigger diplomatic fish to fry — most notably, the nuclear deal with Iran, the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign-policy agenda, which was impending at the time the war began. “The negotiations were not complete,” I was told by William Luers, a former senior diplomat deeply involved in back-channel talks with the Iranians. “The opposition from Israel and the Gulf to the Iran deal was very strong.” Under the circumstances, he suggested, Obama could ill afford to alienate his Arab partners — and surely the Yemeni conflict wouldn’t last long. “Once they were involved in support of the Saudis,” Luers said, “they couldn’t back out.”

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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