It is the hour of CYA in Washington. The apparent assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and ensuing notoriety of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have prompted some self-serving revisionist history from the Obama administration officials about the war in Yemen.
From the pundit class to Congress, official Washington is now connecting the liquidation of a critic in a foreign capital with the annihilation of people in a distant land. Both crimes, it is apparent, emanate from the person of MbS, the once-admired, now reviled, reformer and ruthless autocrat.
Which casts the Obama administration’s tolerance of MbS in an unflattering light. MbS launched the war on Yemen in March 2015 with no visible rebuke from Washington. Now Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, depicts the Saudi war on Houthi clans of Yemen as an indiscriminate affair in which civilian casualties “mounted,” while U.S. official applied “pressure.”
Here’s Rhodes on getting to know MbS, who, as Saudi defense minister, launched the war:
“Repeatedly, the Obama administration had to put restrictions on the weapons we provided in support of this effort or apply diplomatic pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis to show restraint, as the war escalated and civilian casualties continued to mount.”
The problem is there’s little evidence for Rhodes’ version of events. Exactly which weapons the Saudis had to do without goes unspecified. Munition fragments recovered at the scenes of slaughter (a wedding party here, a school bus there) confirm the instruments of death came from Raytheon and other U.S. arms manufacturers.
Did the Obama administration’s “pressure” result in any diminution of civilian suffering?
The number of attacks declined after 2015, but the percentage of attacks on civilians remained the same. And the attacks on agricultural land, production facilities, farm animals, and water facilities continued. What Rhodes called “restraint” could also be described “increased precision,” as the latest study of the Yemen war shows.
In her report on “aerial bombardment and food war,” Martha Mundy, an emeritus professor from the London School of Economics, says the Saudi-led war has been anything but indiscriminate. The report, released earlier this month, was funded by the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, one of the training grounds for U.S. diplomats.
Using data from Yemeni agricultural and fishing ministries, Mundy mapped hundreds of Saudi attacks from 2015 until last summer.
“The data does suggest clear patterns, not just random collateral damage,” Mundy said in a telephone interview from her home in Lebanon. “Yes, sometimes they do drop bombs to get rid of payload, but the attacks are not random at the district level.”
Mundy’s maps show Saudi targeting is precise. It is aimed at destroying food production and transportation facilities, including irrigation projects and government offices that support food production.
In the northern province of Sa’dah, the attacks are “very systematic,” Mundy said. In the Tihama, the coastal region of the Arabian peninsula, “it has been systematic: to reduce fishing.”
Of more than 200 known fishing facilities along the coast, Mundy said, every single one has been bombed by the Saudi-led coalition. At least 146 fishermen have been killed. The result: a 50 percent decline in the fish supply and sales. The goal is clear: to starve the Houthi into submission.
In the report, Mundy writes:
“Commentary on the Yemen war often notes the complicity of the top-three arms-sellers (the US, the UK and France) in war crimes arising from the bombing campaign. Moreover, it may mention their role in protecting the Coalition partners diplomatically. Yet their support for economic war — the major cause of starvation — is scarcely recognized.”
This blindness goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government. After Trump succeeded Obama, Rhodes claims that everything changed:
“In the absence of any U.S. pressure related to the conduct of the war in Yemen, the conflict escalated, and a humanitarian crisis spiraled out of control with no political endgame in sight.”
Not really. Rhodes is covering his ass. What he doesn’t know — or rather, prefers not to admit — is that MbS intended to inflict a humanitarian crisis all along, and disregarded the Washington verbiage that Rhodes imagined as “pressure.”
Yemen’s humanitarian crisis wasn’t “out of control” any more than “rogue killers” dispatched Jamal Khashoggi. The strikes were surgical. Just as Khashoggi was reportedly dismembered, so MbS seeks to dismember Yemen. And it started on Obama’s watch.