While President Donald Trump has been busy distracting attention from the Russia inquiry at home and shoring up his humanitarian credentials in Syria, his administration has also participated in a quiet effort to starve millions of Yemeni civilians into submission. The Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen, with the United States' full support, has been carrying out a bombing campaign that has made it virtually impossible for most of the country to feed itself. The result is that a Yemeni child is starving to death once every 10 minutes, with about 4,000 dying each month. If the death toll continues to rise, Trump could soon have the blood of tens of thousands of children on his hands. How this came about and what it means for the moral integrity of American culture may be the most neglected story of our time.
The U.S. initially entered Yemen through a quiet drone program in 2009 to combat the rise of a peculiarly powerful branch of al-Qaida. When Yemen was destabilized by Arab Spring protests in 2011 that sought to oust the nation's dictator of more than 30 years, America was instrumental in orchestrating a U.N.-supported democratic transition. But the change of administrations did not go so well, calling to mind a Congolese expression more apt for what Yemen was about to experience. Yemen was in the throes of a “demonic transition.”
A long-simmering rebellion by the Houthi ethnic minority managed to oust the unpopular new administration, and the Houthi then allied themselves with the previous dictator, whom they had just been fighting. Then, in the poorest state in the Arab world, suffering from chronic food shortages and a dwindling water supply, with a youthful population afraid for the future of their already collapsing state, things really went south.
The Houthis are Shia Muslims, which made Arab Sunnis uncomfortable. The climate of instability was perceived as a danger to Western states like the U.S. and U.K. Thus, they all joined together under Saudi leadership to put down the rebels and bring back the second internationally recognized dictator, who had been installed following the Arab Spring protests. The idea was that a less tainted regime might better stabilize the country and work with the West to put down al-Qaida militants.
Most Americans ignored what was happening under the quiet leadership of the Obama administration. For it seemed at the time to be a decent and sensible, if somewhat questionable, game. The only problem was that the Sunni Saudi regime was already engaged in a proxy war with Shiite Iran in Syria. The Iranians were working hand in glove with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, massacring mostly Sunni civilians in genocidal proportions. The Saudis were about to do the same.
Most American antiwar activists had bigger fish to fry in Syria at the time. And those who focused on Yemen had become obsessed with the drone war, which was new and controversial, though it had a relatively low impact. But beneath the radar, the Saudis had begun blockading and bombing the ports of an already malnourished country that must import 90 percent of its food.
Saudi warplanes bombed the bridges and roads. They bombed food processing plants and aid warehouses. They bombed wedding parties and apartment buildings. And while the Obama administration curtailed arms exports to the Saudis, negotiated ceasefire agreements and chastised Saudi forces in public, humanitarian organizations began to warn of a famine that could kill millions.
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That was this last fall, when a Yemeni child was dying of hunger-related illness every 10 minutes or so. But as fall turned to winter and perhaps the most ignorant and callous president in American history entered office, the forced famine that had begun under a Saudi leadership, partially restrained by the Obama administration, descended into a hellish nightmare in which children are dying in the tens of thousands.
Now millions of lives were at risk in Yemen, as famines appeared in Somalia, South Sudan and northern Nigeria as well. Meanwhile, what a U.N. representative would dub “the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945” was just making its way to the back pages of the newspapers, as the drama of the Trump presidency took center stage. When Yemen finally did make the news, it was Trump’s botched Navy SEAL operation that most interested the public -- not the millions of civilians his administration was helping to starve.
While it has become quite common to refer to Stalin’s forced famine of Ukraine in the early 1930s, and Mao’s Great Famine of rural Chinese farmers in the late 1950s, as genocides, few if any have begun to speak of Yemen in such terms. Genocide is an expression that is not to be used in polite company -- until the killings begin to taper off. Few people spoke of the Armenian genocide until late in the 20th century, after all. Israelis were even relatively quiet about the Holocaust until they found themselves lording it over others in 1967. More recently in Syria, it was quite uncommon, among even activists supportive of the Syrian revolution, to hear Assad’s war crimes referred to as genocide.
So whatever the nature of the crimes now being committed in Yemen, we should not expect to hear much talk of genocide for years to come. Nevertheless, the pattern of the bombings and their resultant starvation beg the question of whether America is now contributing to a genocide. And the pattern of bombings suggests that the Saudis are deliberately starving Yemenis into submission. One might excuse them for bombing the ports and bridges, but targeting aid warehouses is unusually extreme and blocking food imports is both cruel and completely unnecessary.
In fairness, there is little reason to believe the Saudis are deliberately attempting to kill off some portion of the Yemeni population. If that is the case, then the forced famine in Yemen -- like the Ukrainian Holodomor and Mao’s Great Famine -- should not technically be classified as a genocide. But with no expression to describe the deliberate murder of millions stronger than “crimes against humanity,” which is ambiguous in both nature and scale, we should prepare for people to describe what is now happening in Yemen as a genocide. If that is the case, we should begin asking whether “the genocide in Yemen” will in the end turn out to be the great crime for which Trump is later remembered.
Given everything we know about President Trump, we cannot expect him to recognize that he may be a party to what is fast shaping up to be perhaps the most brutal genocide of this century. But as the haunting stick figures work their way into our moral imaginations and the death tolls climb higher, the story will break sooner or later.
It is not possible to take part in a forced famine without restraint and not be responsible for it. And with supposedly expert advisers around you, there is no excuse for failing to grasp your own role as a mass murderer. Righteous men have been going off in search of killers only to discover it was they themselves who committed the murder since at least as far back as Oedipus. Leadership is a lesson in self-discovery for even moral exemplars, but it is all the more so for the ignorant and righteous, who blame others while failing to look inside.
Whether or not Trump is possessed of the moral development needed for such an inquiry, Americans themselves should begin to ask questions. In so doing, we may find that the phantom shadow of famine in Yemen points its ugly finger at our own callous ignorance. Somehow we are able to focus on everything else under the sun, but not the most horrific crimes to which our nation has contributed in several decades. It is time to open our eyes and see.