The United States claims to be the good guys in the world. Fighting terrorism. Standing with the downtrodden. Promoting democracy. Representing law and “human rights.”
Just look at what the U.S. is doing to the people of Yemen right now: They’re backing a savage bombing campaign and naval blockade led by their close ally Saudi Arabia that’s murdering, displacing, and starving the people of Yemen—all in an effort to impose yet another bloodthirsty tyrant of their choosing on the Yemeni people.
It’s hard to imagine the hell that life is in Yemen in normal times, much less how it could become even more hellish. Even before this last month’s escalating warfare, this small country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula was one of the poorest in the world. Over half of its population of 26 million was unemployed or impoverished. A million children under five suffer life-threatening malnourishment. Another million are chronically malnourished. That’s two of every three children in Yemen whose growth has been stunted by hunger.
But make Yemen even more hellish is just what the U.S. imperialists and their key Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia, along with various reactionary forces in Yemen, are doing day after day.
Yemen’s Reactionary Civil War
Yemen is an impoverished, relatively small country which is largely rural and feudal. Yet its location—at the mouth of the Red Sea, which leads to the Suez Canal, through which enormous amounts of oil and global trade flow, along Saudi Arabia’s southern border, and close to northeast Africa—makes it strategically important to global powers like the U.S. and regional powers, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
For 33 years, Yemen was ruled by the pro-U.S. military despot Ali Abdullah Saleh. But despite its domination, imperialism proved unwilling and incapable of developing Yemen in an all-around way or relieving the crushing poverty and deprivation of Yemen’s people. Hatred of Saleh boiled beneath the surface of Yemeni society. One source: Yemen was also a key ally and staging area for “war on terror” drone strikes against Al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist forces who had taken root and grown in Yemen in the 1990s. Between 2002 and 2015, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S. staged between 182 and 275 drone strikes and other covert operations which killed between 911 and 1,471 people. People were murdered at wedding parties. For being in their homes. For driving. For being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This rage erupted in 2011 into massive nationwide protests against Saleh’s regime when the “Arab Spring” upheaval rocked the region. The U.S. decided it was time for Saleh to go, forcing him out as it had with Mubarak in Egypt. But there was no revolution. The Yemeni state, in particular its military, remained in place, now run by Saleh’s vice president. Major General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, with backing from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states, took over as the head of state in early 2012. (For important analysis of Egypt and the “Arab Spring,” see: Bob Avakian, “EGYPT 2011: MILLIONS HAVE HEROICALLY STOOD UP…THE FUTURE REMAINS TO BE WRITTEN“.)
Hadi was no different or better than Saleh, and U.S. imperialist claims—and no doubt desperate hopes—that the transition from Saleh to Hadi was a “a model for post-revolutionary Arab states,” as the New York Times put it, proved illusory. Fueled by the ongoing desperation and thwarted aspirations of Yemen’s people, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism of various stripes, traditional historic and regional rivalries within Yemen and the region more broadly, the upheaval in Yemen continued.
The situation took a leap in August 2014 when a combination of Houthi fighters and elements of Yemen’s military still loyal to Saleh seized control of Sana’a, the country’s capital city. Most “Houthis” (named after the leader of their 2004 uprising against the Saleh regime) live in the north and are members of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam. Zaidis make up about a third of Yemen’s population. (Zaidi religious authorities—“Imams”―ruled North Yemen for centuries until the early 1960s.) The Houthis are fighting under the reactionary Islamist banner of Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) and have been accused of massacres and indiscriminate killings themselves, and are not supported by millions of Yemenis. The situation escalated further this February when the Houthi-Saleh forces took over the central government, and President Hadi was driven into exile, first to the southern port city of Aden and then Saudi Arabia.
Bombing and Starving an Already Devastated, Starving Country
Saudi Arabia responded to the situation and other developments in the region, with U.S. backing, by forging a military alliance with other regional states and by launching a savage bombing campaign against the Houthis on March 26. The Saudis’ air campaign is aimed at halting the Houthi offensive. (Reportedly, the Saudis wanted Pakistan and Egypt to provide troops for a ground offensive, but neither agreed.) The Saudis claim they’ll settle for nothing less than restoring Hadi to power.
For over a month now, Saudi Arabia has been pummeling Yemen with an air assault. Yemenis report that millions are suffering enormously. Bombs are hitting residential areas, airports, and other civilian facilities. So many are being killed or wounded that hospitals can’t absorb them all.
But that’s not all. Yemen is a country that imports 90 percent of its food! Yet the Saudis and Egyptians, again, with direct U.S. support and intervention, have been strangling this already starving people with a blockade of medicine, water, fuel—and yes, food. When an Iranian convoy was reportedly sailing toward Yemen with what it claimed was humanitarian relief, the blockaders charged (without any demonstrated proof) that the Iranians, who have supported the Houthis politically (and perhaps in other ways), were bringing in weapons, and they deployed 12 war ships including the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt to head it off. The Iranian convoy turned around. Then the Saudis even bombed a major airfield to prevent Iran from airlifting any supplies to Yemen.
Recently the UN Commissioner for Human Rights called the situation in Yemen a humanitarian catastrophe, with over 1,000 dead in recent fighting, another 300,000 displaced, and the country on the brink of collapse. Yemeni journalists report that very little electricity, water, gasoline, or food is available, so people can’t even leave.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hypocritically and obscenely denounced Iranian intervention, declaring that “Yemen’s future should be decided by Yemenis, not by external parties and proxies.” This, as Obama and the U.S. rulers are giving the obscurantist tyranny in Saudi Arabia intelligence, speeded-up arms shipments, the deployment of U.S. warships, and more in support of Saudi Arabia’s murderous assault, while proclaiming all the while their commitment to humanitarianism! Meanwhile the imperialist media is staying largely silent about the carnage.
Ghoulish Imperialism, Not Humanitarianism
Why is Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen, and why is the U.S. backing them? Not for any humanitarian reasons, but for nakedly reactionary and imperialist interests.
The U.S. and Saudis are carrying out the ghoulish torture and massacre of innocent people, literally blockading food from a country that imports nearly all of its food, with millions of already starving people, because they would rather see a whole country laid to waste and thousands murdered or starved, than see the fundamentalist monarchy in Saudi Arabia or U.S. imperialist geopolitical interests and domination undermined.
The Saudis are desperately fighting to maintain their extremely oppressive, Islamic fundamentalist, absolute monarchy. They have been jolted by the “Arab Spring” upheavals and the growth of Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. They’re concerned that rapidly shifting sands of regional alliances will leave their regime in a more precarious situation. Everywhere they’ve sought to fund, arm, and restore tyrants they can deal with. Now they’ve organized an Arab League initiative—supported by Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States—to form a 40,000-man military response force to combat Iranian influence in the region. The Saudis are increasingly nervous about the erosion of U.S. power in the region and its drawdown of forces in the wake of its failure to restructure and strengthen the regional order with massive troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The potential for a U.S.-Iran deal that in effect legitimizes Tehran’s role in the region adds to Saudi concerns. So the Saudis are determined to crush the Houthi-Saleh uprising in Yemen because it’s not directly under their control and it could give Iran further influence in the region (even if it turns out that Iran is not directly arming the Houthis). These tensions and concerns are reflected in the recent “shake-up” within the Saudi monarchy and royal family, which reportedly has put proponents of more aggressive Saudi action in charge. (New York Times, April 30)
The U.S. imperialists for their part are desperately fighting to maintain their overall regional dominance. Saudi Arabia—the world’s leading oil exporter with the largest petroleum reserves on the planet and enormous cash reserves—has been a crucial pillar of the U.S. empire since the 1940s. So the U.S. is determined to maintain its stability, including by reassuring the Saudis that, Iran negotiations or not, they are standing by the Saudi kingdom. The U.S. is also demonstrating to Iran that even if a deal is reached with Tehran, the U.S. is going to remain the dominant power in the region and protect its interests—including by combating any moves by Iran that could erode that. One of those interests is global—maintaining the U.S. status of military guarantor of trade and navigation, in this case through the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Suez Canal, which are major arteries of world trade. For instance, some 30 percent of world maritime oil shipments flows through the Persian Gulf and over eight percent through the Suez Canal. And the U.S. recently deployed ships to the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf as a show of force after Iran seized a cargo ship there. (New York Times, May 1).
For Imperialism, Lunatic Fundamentalism Is a Matter of Taste
The fighting and the Saudi bombing campaign have been concentrated in the western part of Yemen, and apparently something of a political vacuum has been created in the east, where Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula has been based and is now gaining new ground. One reason: The U.S. “counter-terrorism” forces that have been directing drone strikes have been forced to leave Yemen because of the collapse of the Hadi regime.
A lot of people in the U.S.—both those in the ruling class, but also antiwar progressives and liberals—are commenting that the problem is that U.S. policy is “inconsistent”: the U.S. is fighting Sunni jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet seem to be supporting them in Syria, as well as backing Saudi Arabia, which is the fountainhead of fundamentalist Sunni jihadist ideology and has long backed or had ties with Sunni fundamentalist lunatics. And now in Yemen, U.S. actions seem to be contributing to a vacuum that is strengthening Al Qaeda, while targeting the Houthis, who have been the main force in Yemen battling Al Qaeda.
But U.S. policies are not “inconsistent.” And the essential issue isn’t one of hypocrisy. The core of U.S. imperialist policy is precisely that no force is too draconian, too obscurantist, too reactionary, too repressive, too isolated, too hated, or too overtly the opposite of the democracy the U.S. claims to be bringing to the world, to be embraced and supported when it serves the interests of the empire! Who to support—or not to support—for the monsters who run the U.S. empire is a matter of strategy, tactics, or simply taste. Then the mainstream media obediently plays down exposure of the U.S. imperialists’ grisly crimes, while ramping up the terror-mongering propaganda against whoever is perceived by the ruling class to pose the greatest threat to their interests at the moment.
For all their massive firepower, despotic allies, towering lies, and the life-crushing social orders they’ve violently enforced upon the peoples of the Middle East, the problems the U.S. imperialists face in the region are multiplying (and becoming increasingly complex) faster than they can keep up with. Yemen, a country the U.S. just a year or two ago touted as a bastion of its “anti-terrorism” campaign, and “a model for post-revolutionary Arab states,” is just the latest example.
This article originally appeared on revcom.us on April 29, 2015.