Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Obama’s War of Choice: Supporting the Saudi-led Air War in Yemen

by Micah Zenko
September 25, 2015

A man who lost his relatives in a Saudi-led air strike cries at the site of the strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa on September 21, 2015. (Abdullah/Reuters) A man who lost his relatives in a Saudi-led air strike cries at the site of the strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa on September 21, 2015. (Abdullah/Reuters)

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Six months ago today, the White House announced U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen via press release: “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations.” As is true for all interventions, U.S. officials offered a buffet of justifications and objectives for backing the GCC side in Yemen’s chaotic civil war. In an earlier piece, I counted seven. Unsurprisingly, these are no longer mentioned by officials. Rather, they call upon all parties in the conflict to halt their fighting, failing to mention that the United States military is one of the parties by providing material support, without which the GCC would not be able sustain airstrikes over Yemen for any period of time. When pushed by reporters about U.S. responsibilities, they reply “we continue to discuss with Saudi authorities….We’re in constant and close communication with them,” or simply deflect, “I would refer you to the Saudis.”

First and foremost, understand that the United States undertook this obligation without any comprehension of what the Saudi-led coalition was attempting to accomplish. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said in March, “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” He added that he was simply contacted by the Saudi chief of defense a few hours before operations began. So much for taking the time to think through the consequences of the U.S. political and military commitment.

Nevertheless, since March 25, the United States has been providing in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support (including the rescue of two Saudi pilots whose helicopter crashed in the Gulf of Aden), detailing forty-five intelligence analysts to help advise on target selection, and redoubling weapons exports and contractor support to the GCC countries.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States is primarily as a source of cash for weapons. Since October 2010 alone, the Obama administration has agreed to sell $90.4 billion in weapons to the Gulf kingdom, according to the Congressional Research Service. That President Obama would so enthusiastically endorse arming such a brutal authoritarian government is unsurprising, since the United States is by far the leading arms dealer (with 47 percent of the world total) to what an annual State Department report classifies as the world’s “least democratically governed states”—those in the lowest quintile based upon Freedom House’s “political rights” ranking and the World Bank’s “voice and accountability” score.

Thus, the flow of weapons and contractor support sustaining the GCC intervention has not merely continued, but the Pentagon has actually sped-up preexisting orders to assure there are sufficient bombs to drop on Yemen. Two weeks into the U.S. involvement, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken proclaimed while in Riyadh that, “Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies….As part of that effort, we have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing.” In total, the State Department has authorized $8.4 billion in foreign military sales to GCC countries since the start of the air war, $7.8 billion to the Saudis alone.

Here is a list of major arms and logistical support sales to GCC countries since March 25:

• On May 27, Lockheed Martin Missile and Fire Control was awarded a $12,037,639 contract for post-production support services for the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation Command Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor program.
• On June 11, Boeing Co. was awarded a $41,146,387 contract for Apache helicopter post-production services and maintenance in Saudi Arabia.
• On June 24, L-3 National Security Solutions was awarded a $95,000,000 contract for air operations center training to Royal Saudi Air Force personnel.
• On July 24, Raytheon Co. was awarded a contract for 355 AGM-154 Block III C Unitary Joint Stand-Off Weapon missiles for Saudi Arabia, including associated supplies and services.
• On July 13, Booz Allen & Hamilton was awarded a $12,386,000 contract for support services in the areas of training and education, engineering, technical, and management support services to the Saudi navy.
• On July 29, the State Department approved the sale of $500M “for ammunition for the Royal Saudi Land Forces and associated equipment, parts and logistical support.”
• On July 31, DynCorp International was awarded a $17,313,518 contract for maintenance support to the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation Command aviation program.
• On September 24, Boeing Co. was awarded a $22,311,055 contract for 13 Harpoon lll-up round tactical missiles and seven Harpoon air launch missile containers to Saudi Arabia.

Most disturbing has been the GCC’s use of CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons, or cluster munitions, which are manufactured by the Textron Systems Corporation. Those were sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in recent years, and have been used in numerous attacks that killed civilians. Cluster munitions were banned in 2008 by the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, though Saudi Arabia and the United States have not ratified the agreement. On August 20, State Department spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby stated that the administration had “discussed reports of the alleged use of cluster munitions with the Saudis” and considered them “permissible” if they are “used appropriately and according with those end-use rules.”

Unfortunately, civilians have disproportionately suffered in the air war. Of the 5,239 people killed or injured by explosive weapons between January and July, 86 percent were civilians. According to the UN, between the start of Saudi operations and June 30, a total of 971 civilians were killed by GCC coalition air strikes, accounting for more than 60 percent of all conflict-related civilian deaths—clearly, U.S. weapons are not being “used appropriately.” Moreover, 1.5 million people have been displaced and over 90 percent of the remaining population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

Earlier this month, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, conveyed what was an astonishing observation about U.S. support for, and detachment from, what was happening:

With respect to Yemen, we have very deep concerns. We are able, because it’s the nature of our relationship, to again provide certain types of support to the efforts in Yemen, but also, I think, to be frank, when we believe that more care needs to be taken to avoid civilian casualties. And that will be an ongoing position that we take.

And look, we have to hold all of ourselves to the highest possible standard when it relates to preventing civilian deaths, and that will continue to be a part of our dialogue as it relates to Yemen.

What is disturbing about such comments is that the Obama administration is establishing a troubling precedent, whereby it has no obligations for military operations conducted by other countries for which the United States is playing an essential, enabling role. U.S. officials keep “calling on all sides” to end hostilities without recognizing that the United States itself is one of these sides. Though Congress and the media appropriately monitor and evaluate uses of force when conducted by U.S. armed forces, citizens should be equally concerned and vigilant about operations for which U.S. logistical, intelligence, and weapons support are instrumental, such as intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, and air refueling to the French forces in Mali, GPS-guidance kits to the Colombian government to help fight insurgents, and drone surveillance for Turkish fighter jets bombing northern Iraq. These types of military operations, with the United States providing a crucial supporting role to partner militaries, will become far more common into the future.

One research side note: The Pentagon will not reveal how much this support for Saudi operations is costing American taxpayers. On June 30, I first sent a request to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, which directed me to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to CENTCOM. A public affairs officer at CENTCOM then suggested redirecting the FOIA to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, which has not yet responded to the request. This is not classified information, and given that CENTCOM and the Department of Defense (DOD) consistently update the total cost operations for Operation Inherent Resolve, they should do the same for DOD support to GCC forces.

Finally, the United States is not bound by a mutual defense treaty to defend Saudi Arabia. President Obama’s decision six months ago to provide apparently unlimited military support for the air war in Yemen was therefore a war of choice. The air war, which the Saudis bizarrely dubbed “Operation Renewal of Hope” on April 21—a disastrous word choice—is one for which Obama is personally responsible and could stop immediately by turning off America’s overwhelming, expedited, and vital direct support.

Weapons sales are supposed to build a relationship between supplier and recipient, which is supposed to provide some leverage for the supplier over how the recipient uses those weapons. Either President Obama is fine with how U.S.-supplied weapons are being used in Yemen, he is refraining from using leverage to stop their use, or there is no leverage to speak of. In which case, all the United States has gained over the past six months is participating in and extending a civil war, which has been an enormous humanitarian disaster.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by geoff gray

    Isn’t this what the Pope condemned? Obama abets Saudi aggression in order to enable big corporations to make money. The price: thousands of lives of people. Also,starvation, illness, misery. And then the USA feigns innocence. The stink of American empire is boundless.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed fleeing refugees in Poland in order to block roads. Then it bombed London. The Japanese bombed Nanking and Shanghai, killing hundred of thousands of civilians. That was the point. Likewise, the firebombing of Dresden. Likewise, Hiroshima, although in the case of Nagasaki, there were military targets. And the more things change, the more things stay the same. The Assad regime bombs its own people, to be rid of them. And now, as part of an undeclared war of aggression against a neighboring country, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the their allies bomb hotels, apartment buildings, UN warehouses, bottled water plants, fishing villages and dairies, with more selective intent, thanks to accurate targeting information provided by USAF and CIA intelligence operatives, with bombs supplied by the US, delivered by planes built in the US and refueled by US air tankers.

    Surely the willful and intentional targeting of civilians is a war crime. The Saudis are war criminals. How long will it be before some enterprising lawyer in the Netherlands, or a judge in Spain, connects the dots, and tracing them back, figures out a way to bring war crime charges against an American accomplice ?

    The Obama administration’s only shield against such charges is the apathy of the American public. It is a good thing you have reminded us of this nasty little war, so inconsequential to the United States.

    r/s TPH

  • Posted by Kumar

    Where is the need for the US to support a Saudi-led coalition against Yemen? This is one of those internecine conflicts which will have neither a clear winner nor a vanquished. US will leave the region in a mess and with more enemies to tackle. The US policy should have been limited to to counter Iranian influence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

  • Posted by Kumar

    Where is the need for the US to support a Saudi-led coalition against Yemen? This is one of those internecine conflicts which will have neither a clear winner nor a vanquished. US will leave the region in a mess and with more enemies to tackle. The US policy should have been limited to counter Iranian influence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

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