Back in 2010, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman descended briefly upon Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, where he “took part in a ‘qat chew’” with Yemeni officials, businessmen, and other elites.
Qat, Friedman explained to his uninitiated readership, was “the mildly hallucinogenic leaf drug that Yemeni men stuff in their cheek after work.” Though Friedman himself “quit after fifteen minutes,” he still managed to devise the following “new rule of thumb” for US involvement in the country: “For every Predator missile we fire at an Al Qaeda target here, we should help Yemen build fifty new modern schools that teach science and math and critical thinking — to boys and girls.” This magical “ratio of targeted killings to targeted kindergartens” was, Friedman felt, America’s best bet “to prevent Yemen from becoming an Al Qaeda breeding ground.”
Fast forward to August 2018, and the concept of targeted kindergartens has acquired rather more sinister connotations following the recent slaughter of at least forty Yemeni children on a school bus. The perpetrators: the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition that, since 2015, has been terrorizing Yemen in the name of fighting terror. Among the coalition partners is the United Arab Emirates, glitzy land of ski slope–equipped malls, modern-day slavery, and love affairs with Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Additional coalition backing is provided by the UK and other friendly Europeans.
On August 17, CNN reported that the munition responsible for the school bus massacre was a five-hundred-pound “laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin,” pillar of the US military-industrial complex. The bomb’s provenance is not enormously surprising given the $110 billion US-Saudi defense deal to which Donald Trump gave birth last year in Riyadh.
Shortly after the airstrike on the bus, a journalist asked US defense secretary James Mattis for his thoughts on the US role in the conflict in Yemen given that such operations are conducted “with US training, US targeting information, US weapons.”
The transcript of Mattis’s response, which appears on the Defense Department website, includes such insights as: “There, I would tell you that we do help them plan what we call — what kind of targeting? I’m trying to trying of the right word.”
Whatever the word was, Mattis remained of the opinion that “we are not engaged in the civil war” and that “we will help to prevent, you know, the killing of innocent people.”
Of course, anyone familiar with the United States’ track record will be aware that protecting innocents is never really the name of the game. In addition to out-and-out killing sprees, more subtle modes of human elimination also come to mind — as when reports in 1996 that half a million Iraqi children had died because of US sanctions elicited the assessment from then-US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright: “We think the price is worth it.”
In the case of Yemen, the United States has presided over plenty of DIY forms of carnage beyond its support for the Saudi-led coalition. As of 2015, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism calculated that the United States had killed up to 1,580 people in Yemen since the inauguration of its covert action program there in 2002.
Prominent on the greatest hits list was the deadly US drone strike on a Yemeni wedding in 2013, which further underscored the US knack for wiping out matrimonial festivities in Arab/Muslim territories while also highlighting some potential questions for the strategist behind the targeted killings-targeted kindergartens scheme — like, why doesn’t al-Qaeda just build classrooms after blowing shit up?
In November 2017, the New Yorker noted that “Saudi armed forces, backed by more than $40 billion in American arms shipments authorized by the Trump and Obama administrations, have killed thousands of civilians in air strikes” in Yemen. The war has also spawned what Mattis referred to as “I believe … the largest cholera outbreak we’ve ever seen,” as well as a famine threatening millions of people.
In a recent essay, University of Richmond professor and Yemen scholar Sheila Carapico slams as “poppycock” the notion that the Houthis — the coalition’s adversaries in Yemen — are a “proxy” of Iran, and that “forty months of relentless bombing and blockade” somehow qualifies as “self-defense.” Noting that mass protests in Yemen in 2011 — “led, incidentally, by women” — had propelled the panties of the “Gulf patriarchies” into a royal bunch, Carapico goes on to affirm that the victims of the onslaught on Yemen, far from being Iranian Revolutionary Guard surrogates, are “starving children under attack by filthy-rich monarchies wielding the most advanced weapons Britain and the United States have to sell.”
So much for innocence.
Which brings us back to the issue of US complicity in the whole gruesome business. Chatham House’s Micah Zenko has taken to the pages of Foreign Policy to argue that, in Yemen, “America Is Committing War Crimes and Doesn’t Even Know Why,” serving as a “willing co-combatant in a war without any direction or clear end state.”
But while Zenko insists that America must “never again go to war, or support other’s wars, without purpose or objectives,” this sort of overlooks the fact that a central purpose of American bellicosity is to generate big bucks for the arms industry — whether or not nobler objectives like freedom- and democracy-proliferation are trotted out. The longer Yemen is made to suffer, the better it is for an industry that flourishes in accordance with influxes of Saudi oil money and general regional conflict.
We’d best get to work on those kindergartens.