Yemen must be the last straw
The difference between asking and having power
I almost wrote what I think of as a “rapid response” piece Friday morning about the U.S. and UK bombing Yemen. When these moments of violence come, moments that will affect millions of people, that will affect the trajectories of entire countries and countless lives I am gripped by a feeling of urgency that’s difficult to shake. I imagine that you are too. Part of this is very likely social media, and the culture of rapidly shooting off posts in response to the latest world event. But a more significant part is that so many of us feel called to do something, do anything, in response to the barrage of current events, which have been particularly significant and deadly recently. That’s why you see emergency protests at the White House, in New York, in cities across the country. That’s why you see social media posts inflected with urgency and with emergencies every day.
But I decided to pause, briefly, before sending you this. I, again like so many of us, have lived through an unsustainable number of emergencies, and more specifically urgent responses to catastrophic events. I have mobilized to more last-minute protests than I can count, and have shouted virtually and in the flesh that this cannot stand, that cannot stand, we cannot continue with business as usual. And the usual business has continued on its course regardless. We march and march in the streets and the juggernauts that we’re rallying against steamroll us regardless. The powerful ignore us, and the world marches on.
I stand with everyone who has taken to the streets against Israel’s genocide of Palestinians and the U.S. and UK bombardment of Yemen. But I also need to take the time to acknowledge that our efforts haven’t been enough, just as they weren’t enough when millions poured into the streets to protest America’s invasion of Iraq twenty years ago. And in light of that truth, we need to think more deeply about what is happening right now, and what we can do about it. As Fatimah Mohammed recently said, “I’m struggling to find all the right words but plug in to your local organizations, commit to the work, this fight is a long one and it needs us all.”
A key part of acknowledging that we’re in a long-term struggle to build real peace and create real justice is seeing how deep this hole we’re in really is. The bombing of Yemen is not new, just as the Palestinian struggle is not new. The Yemeni government fought six rounds of war against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010, with Saudi Arabia intervening directly against the Houthis in 2010. Four consecutive U.S. presidents from both parties have sponsored the bombing of Yemen. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all attacked and participated in Saudi attacks on Yemen. As a result Yemen has been forced into poverty and hunger. Since 2015 over 150,000 Yemenis have died due to violence, while at least another 200,000 have died due to hunger and disease in the resulting humanitarian crisis. At least 15,000 of the dead have been civilians killed by direct military action, most of them in air strikes by the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition. American backing for Saudi operations in Yemen, including the bombing of civilian targets, included logistical and intelligence aid. In 2019 Trump vetoed a bill to halt U.S. involvement, and in 2021 Joe Biden vowed to halt U.S. support for the war. But U.S. weapons sales to the coalition bombing Yemen have continued regardless.
Now, the U.S. and the UK are bombing Yemen even more directly, cutting out the Saudi middleman. The stated reason for this latest bombardment is the partial blockade that Yemen has imposed on the genocidal Israeli regime. The U.S. says it threatens the lives of sailors, although the real reason is the threat to the profits of international companies. We know that the real reason is corporate profits because Yemen has been careful not to kill anyone in this blockade. There are no reports of even a single casualty. The Houthis have seized and threatened ships, but have not killed anyone. Now the U.S. and UK are bombing cities, including the capital Sana'a. The death toll is not known yet, but civilians are undoubtedly under fire, as they have been for many years.
Everything I’ve just laid out is just the tip of the iceberg as far as context is concerned. It’s important to know that, as Elizabeth Kendall recently wrote, “by 2023 the Houthis had transformed their standing vis-à-vis their regional foes from that of terrorist enemy into recognised political interlocutor in Saudi initiatives to resolve the Yemen war” and that, “Houthi influence now extends well beyond their traditional religious roots and geographical boundaries. While Zaydis [sect from which the Houthis originate] make up around one-third of Yemen’s population, the Houthis today control territory in which around two-thirds of the population, or 20 million Yemenis, live.” So the U.S. and the UK are not simply targeting a group that most media would have you believe are “Iran-backed militants,” they are attacking the defacto Yemeni government that has essentially won a civil war, shaken off Saudi, UAE, and U.S.-backed assault over multiple years, and emerged as the rulers of most of their country on the cusp of formal international recognition.
And the Houthis are largely acting as a formal governing body under international law. In response to the initial formation of the international, U.S.-led coalition to stop their interference with ships moving through the Red Sea, the political bureau of the Houthis said that the coalition is part of the aggression against the Palestinian people and that it contradicts international law. Specifically, the argument Yemen is making is that they are upholding the obligation that every country around the world has to take real action to stop genocide. The issue is not whether stopping ships is good in some abstract sense, it’s whether their commitment to stopping Israel-owned vessels, and vessels bound for Israel, is in accordance with international law, and specifically the responsibility to protect, which states that, “The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
Many in the West will of course argue that the Houthi blockade is not peaceful, an understandable argument. Yemen would likely respond that they are simply enforcing a very peaceful request that ships bound for Israel or owned by Israeli corporations not pass through their territorial waters — a request that was ignored. Or they might respond that they themselves have been blockaded by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the U.S. and others, causing a famine and the hundreds of thousands of deaths described earlier in this piece. And they might add that the UN estimates that some 1.3 million people will die by 2030, largely because of this blockade. But even more importantly, both for our understanding of this conflict and for our collective future we should not pretend that the U.S. and its collaborators in this attack care about international law.
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We shouldn’t believe that our government cares about the genocide convention or other international articles we have signed for multiple reasons. While the White House released a statement, as they began to bomb Yemen, which listed as its first reason for the bombardment, “These [Houthi] attacks have endangered U.S. personnel, civilian mariners, and our partners, jeopardized trade, and threatened freedom of navigation,” they also listed a few other reasons. Just two sentences later, the statement cites “weeks of delays in product shipping times” as an important reason to bomb a foreign country without Congressional authorization. This is not subtle, just as attacking Yemen on the same day the International Court of Justice hears South Africa’s genocide charge against Israel inadvertantly sends a not-so-subtle signal about the priorities of Western powers.
Some people in the U.S. are likely to disregard all of these arguments, such is their investment in the reasoning put forward by our government, regardless of its obvious inconsistencies. For one, the capitalist class is furious over a delay in shipping times, and this itself is important to many other people as well. An increase in the price of goods is not inconsequential, although we have ample evidence that corporations have been jacking up prices with no repercussions for some time. But no matter how you slice it, citing shipping times as a reason to bomb cities should floor us all. To see people agree that this shipping route is worth launching an attack 8,000 miles from our soil, because the U.S. must stop piracy around the world, has floored me. Not just because the argument is weak in itself, but because it deliberately leaves out that the Houthis have made perfectly clear that this partial blockade began in response to Israel’s genocide in Gaza and will end when the genocide ends.
Our government, on the other hand, has taken no real action to end the genocide. Despite a few statements expressing concern over the civilian death toll, there have been no consequences meted out; instead we have defended Israel on the world stage at every turn. Now this U.S.-led coalition is bombarding Yemen as South Africa brings its genocide case against Israel before the International Court of Justice. And despite all the evidence, much of it coming directly from the statements of Israeli politicians and military leaders themselves, which conveys genocidal intent and a desire for ethnic cleansing, the U.S. and Germany and Canada remain stalwart defenders of Israel.
Then there are the actions of the IDF, the death of over 20,000 Palestinians, the starvation ravaging half a million more, and the disease ripping through Gaza. But Western powers simply do not care. The Genocide convention is just a piece of paper to them. I do not say this lightly, but I do say it in light of these countries not only lining up to side with Israel before the supposed system of international justice and bombing Yemen rather than trying to end the genocide in Gaza. This goes far beyond hypocrisy, it is the absolute destruction of any sort of faith in the international order for millions and millions of people. Like so much described here, this is not new. I wrote last week about how “The world is seeing with frightening clarity that the international political order is unable to stop a genocide happening in plain sight.” I should have added unwilling. Because the U.S. in particular could be doing much, much more to stop Israel’s relentless assault on Gaza. But from Biden to Congress to other political figures the fact is that 95% are backing Israel to the hilt – to the tune of tens of thousands of civilian deaths.
These past few months are putting yet another stamp on something that has been ongoing for most of my life, and beyond. For millions of Americans, our political consciousness was shaped by the invasion of Afghanistan, a war conducted against the Taliban and in practice against an entire nation, despite our knowledge that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden had orchestrated the attacks. Just two years later we invaded Iraq based on an orchestrated series of lies. Hundreds of thousands of civilians in both of these countries and beyond are now dead, and not one U.S. war criminal has been held accountable.
If I were to go into every violation of international law that my country has perpetrated in the Middle East in my lifetime, let alone the decades before, we would be here all day. And there was a brief window, or at least so it felt to me, during the second half of the Bush years where there was a mainstream understanding of the magnitude of these crimes. Or at least a mainstream discussion of them. That understanding seemed to fade in the mist of hope that came with the Obama years, despite things like his sponsorship of the bombing of Yemen and the countless other drone strikes that killed numerous civilians in multiple countries. We here in the U.S. are quick to forgive ourselves for atrocities that are not ours to forgive. But the world has not forgotten, and it seems that most of the world has not forgiven.
In the last three months, as the death toll mounts in Gaza and 80% of the countries on Earth lined up opposite Israel and the United States in calling for a ceasefire, the divide on the world stage has become stark, and clear. The West against the rest. The proponents of the current neoliberal order, which is shaking and teetering, against everyone else. The Middle East and the vast majority of the world see, with even more clarity than ever, that the U.S., much of Europe, and Israel do not care about international law, peace, or justice. What they care about is power, profit, and the force to secure those interests. The behavior of my country in particular has cemented that everything other than “might makes right” is a façade.
We can hope for and work towards a world where force is not all that matters on the world stage. But at this moment we are seeing that pure violence maintains the world order. Those of us who grew up in America were told a whole lot about the freedom and democracy and morality of our country, but when a country dares to try stopping a genocide that the U.S. government supports we go bomb them. When they dare to threaten global trade, we attack their cities and ports. And so many of us are still so U.S.-centric that we completely fail to consider what billions around the world think of what is happening. Much like the decades of war and drone attacks we have inflicted on the Middle East, we fail to think how violence begets violence, and how every bomb dropped leads to another bitter family, bitter country, bitter people who rightly resent the United States for killing their neighbors and loved ones.
And this time the cause is maybe even less just than it has ever been before. As the BBC just wrote, in light of the second round of strikes on Yemen:
The official Western government line is that the ongoing air strikes on Houthi targets are quite separate from the war in Gaza. They are "a necessary and proportionate response" to the unprovoked and unacceptable Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, they say. In Yemen and the wider Arab world they are viewed rather differently. There, they are seen as the US and UK joining in the Gaza war on the side of Israel, since the Houthis have declared their actions to be in solidarity with Hamas and the people of Gaza. One theory even says that "the West is doing Netanyahu's bidding.”
So what does Netanyahu, who Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak remain staunchly allied to, have to say? As the U.S. and Britain bomb Yemen, and as Israel is taken before the International Court of Justice by South Africa, the Prime Minister released an official statement on Twitter yesterday. You can read the whole thing for yourself, if you can stomach it, but here is the part that jumped out to me, and to much of the world:
This is who the U.S. is defending. This is who we are collaborating with, providing key intelligence to, shielding with our power at the United Nations, and in many ways bombing Yemen for. We are defending someone who says the Hague will not stop him. The U.S. is defind Netanyahu instead of doing everything in our power to stop him and the IDF from murdering civilians, instead of conditioning aid or ending all aid, instead of stopping the flow of weapons to his regime.
The U.S. is defending the indefensible. Our government is participating in the indefensible. The belief that this country has the right to destabilize an entire region, kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, and invade wherever we want no matter the death toll has been horrifyingly evident for most of my life. But the blatantness, the transparency with which we’re now acting to protect shipping lanes instead of acting to end genocide is a new low, a trap door below rock-bottom that has opened up a new layer of disgust and anger towards the United States around the world. The flow of profit is being put before Palestinian and Yemeni lives on the world stage, and there is no turning back. There is no way to undo the lives lost and the bombs dropped, in Gaza or in Yemen.
Just as there is no turning back the clock on the violence that the U.S. and Israel are perpetrating, there is also no turning away from our current impotence to stop the carnage. The left, and everyone opposed to genocide and war across the West, must reckon with our inability to prevent this mass death. I wanted to be slower and more deliberate today because, even as I applaud everyone who has organized a protest, a rally, a walkout, and every action aimed at drawing attention to Gaza and demanding a ceasefire, I also know we must do more. Namely we must build the power to bring slaughter like the one we are witnessing today to an end. Asking is not enough, because our asks are ignored, and our demand that the U.S. apply pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza has instead been met with our military dropping bombs on Yemen.
This cannot stand. We must deliberately build the power to stop it. We must build the power to have a world where “Never Again” really does mean never again for anyone, anywhere. It will take time, and that is the truth, even though it’s painful to hear. I know it’s painful to say when the world urgently demands our action and demands peace. We can and should act now. We should block ports and make our unions and politicians call for a ceasefire and organize millions of people into this movement and into the left. And as we go about our work we should picture a horizon where when we demand justice it is not just an ask, it is using our power to shut down business as usual until we are listened to. Even that is just the beginning. We should picture and diligently work towards a world where there is no profit to be made in death, where the entire structure of government is radically different so that the people actually have the power to shape better communities and a better world, where power does not concentrate at the top, and where war is unimaginable. And we should know that the vast majority of the world is on our side, even if our governments and a slew of billionaires are against us. Take hope in our numbers and in knowing that we’re working to create a better society. As Malcolm X said, “We’re not out numbered, we’re out organized.” So, let’s go. Let’s get organized.
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