One of the overlooked horrors of contemporary politics remains America’s support for Saudi Arabia’s genocide in Yemen. Since 2015, the numbers around this war are stark:
233,000 dead Yemeni civilians & counting from strikes, disease & hunger
140,000 dead Yemeni children
20 million Yemenis experiencing food insecurity
$460 billion in weapons sent or promised by the United States to Saudi Arabia
The war is an abject travesty and some American politicians including Senators Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul & Chris Murphy have engaged in legislative efforts to end it. They’ve proven unsuccessful. So have attempts to explain the truth of this conflict to the American people.
The common narrative around America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia goes as follows: Donald Trump and his administration are dealing weapons because they’re corrupt snakes and don’t care about human life. But when the Obama Administration started these weapons sales in 2015, it was a hasty decision and now everyone involved feels real bad about it. Uh-huh.
A recent New York Times article on the conflict parrots the above sentiments because they veer close enough to the truth to avoid sounding ludicrous without dipping too deeply into the grim realities about the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
First, the hard facts before I move more into my own interpretation: In 2015, Barack Obama began sending large volumes of weaponry, surveillance equipment and tactical support to Saudi Arabia once the Kingdom claimed that Iran was backing Houthi rebels representing a threat to their national security. That’s the story we’re told, at any rate. These arms deals were pushed by U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Advisor Susan Rice and lobbied specifically by Raytheon, a weapons manufacturer with ties to the Saudis going back to the 1960s.
In her recent memoir, The Education of an Idealist, Power ignores her role in the arms deals or the Yemeni war as a whole, a notable choice considering she centered much of her career on the need to stop genocide around the world. I suppose aiding one messes with her brand…
Another National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, came out against America’s role in the genocide…once Trump took office. Under Obama, he defended our support as bombs rained down on children and UNICEF called it “probably the worst humanitarian situation in the world.” Just as a recent New York Times article tries to valorize Colin Powell for feeling kinda bad about the Iraq War as he was legitimizing it to the American public, Rhodes’ role in opposing the war only emerged once it was politically convenient to do so. His current position as an MSNBC contributor and influential podcast host should unnerve anyone who wishes our media featured people capable of opposing evil from its very inception. Then again, Rhodes is only pontificating across various news platforms. Samantha Power and Susan Rice might end up in a President Biden’s cabinet.
Plenty of Democrats now opposed to U.S. support sang a different tune in the beginning. Adam Schiff defended our efforts in March of 2015, calling Saudi military action “necessitated.” Tim Kaine, a little over a year away from being named Hillary Clinton’s running mate, released a statement reading “I strongly urge the continued provision of US logistical and intelligence support to Gulf Cooperation Council-led military operations.” Once Trump took office, the civilian casualties mounted and chaos took hold, they changed their stance.
In 2018, 30 former Obama officials put out a statement calling for an end to the war in Yemen and explaining their role. While the letter acknowledges broad failures, it still defends initial support, as if selling military-grade weapons to the Saudi regime wouldn’t necessarily lead to grim consequences. The letter signers included Rhodes, Rice & Power as well as former CIA director and torture apologist John Brennan, Biden advisor and Libya hawk Tony Blinken and now-Uber consultant and union-buster Jake Sullivan. Brennan currently consults for Kissinger Associates, a secretive firm started by Henry that helps companies manage business with foreign governments while Blinken joined up with WestExec, a group designed to give weapons contractors and other major corporations better access to government officials. Considering the ethics on display from those involved, I can’t help but feel a touch reluctant to embrace their measured contrition.
The Obama arms deals went right through the end of his second term in early 2017, throwing a wrench into the fairy tale people like Rhodes push about how our involvement “happened so quickly.” Maybe the first round of support for Saudi Arabia came without much due diligence, not exactly a noble excuse when we’re talking about arms deals and global conflicts. At any rate, subsequent sales followed, eventually totaling $115 billion and including white phosphorous deployed to burn human beings to the bone plus cluster munitions used in violation of international law.
Our arms deals to the Saudis didn’t begin in 2015; as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton pushed for more arms support, including $29 billion worth of Boeing-made fighter jets in 2011. A Clinton aide called the deal “a Christmas present.” Both the Saudi Kingdom and Boeing were major donors to the Clinton Foundation. Those sales weren’t as controversial or widely-reported at the time since they didn’t aid an ongoing war starving an impoverished population; they merely strengthened ties with the regime about to facilitate a genocide. Merry Christmas indeed.
So we have to ask ourselves why the Obama Administration engaged with the Saudis in the first place. Why would Obama need to express “the strong friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and [emphasize] the United States’ support for the action taken by Saudi Arabia”?
There are three answers: The easy answer, the harder answer and the ugly answer. The first two have been expressed by mainstream sources in media and government. The ugly answer is my own interpretation which I’ll outline in a moment.
First, the easy answer: Obama was blindsided by a late-night call, the Saudis assured him that Houthi rebels were terrorists, he made a quick decision and then had to double-down in subsequent months so as not to lose face. Obama, who didn’t sign the aforementioned letter and has yet to express regret for these arms deals, wants us to believe this fiction. He’s long favored excuses over accountability, hardly the sign of a strong and convicted leader. And his trust of the Saudis, if taken at face value, reveals him as a naif with no business holding the office of Commander in Chief. But since most Americans are quite forgiving and foreign policy gets whitewashed until U.S. troops start to die en masse, it’s a sufficient enough explanation to preserve his gilded-but-hollow legacy.
The harder answer is one offered by Adam Schiff at the time as well as an anonymous Pentagon official: The United States wanted Saudi’s support for the Iran Nuclear Deal and since Houthis were rumored to be backed by Iran, fighting them would put America in the Kingdom’s good graces. Via this angle, our support becomes a tactical necessity in certain minds. Kill some Yemenis over here, starve some Yemenis over there but keep Iran from enjoying regional hegemony. This story is favorable to foreign policy “realists” who simultaneously portray the United States as this beleaguered weakling under constant threat (from Commies, Iraq, Iran, migrant caravans, etc) yet also capable of launching massive ground wars, drone activities and weapons transfers at a moment’s notice. Iran’s backing of Houthis remains little more than gossip as does their intention to develop nuclear weaponry. And their efforts at regional hegemony only became possible once the United States invaded their neighbor, toppled the leader, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and then created various power vacuums across the Middle East into which terror groups like ISIS stepped in to undermine other states.
This narrative makes Obama less overtly inept but also willing to help slaughter large numbers of people based on flimsy assumptions and a partnership with a vicious Kingdom. The smiling smoothie gracing Zoom graduations last June wouldn’t want impressionable high school seniors seeing him as some genocide facilitator. Easier to claim ignorance and blame others. That’s proven a go-to move for Democrats in recent years and few voters seem to mind.
But now we come to the ugly answer. I should reiterate that we’re now trafficking in speculation although I hope the information and connections I weave prove feasible. At some point in every curious American’s life, we wonder why things are the way they are and often decide the powers that be aren’t entirely on the level. Previous generations fell neck-deep into Kennedy conspiracy theories and valued the Church Committee more than their own wedding night. The modern right-wing skeptic might lean into Alex Jones, Pizzagate & QAnon to see broad, deep state betrayals through which only Trump can save us. My own interpretations are a little duller, grounded not in conspiracies and web-like complexities but rather a basic look at the economy, diplomacy and how they tie together. Individual pieces of information I provide comprise accepted matters of public record. The speculation involved thus shouldn’t seem too-far-fetched but the conclusion and what it says about our leadership isn’t pretty. Apologies in advance.
The newly unified Kingdom of Saudi Arabia struck oil in 1938, turning it into a crucial global player almost overnight. U.S. corporations like Shell and Exxon moved into the region and developed extraction concerns, solidifying crucial economic ties between the two countries before and during World War II. Even as Saudi Arabia nationalized its oil reserves over time, American corporations retained infrastructure in the Kingdom while the country’s exports made it a valued trade partner with the States. U.S. support for Israel fractured the relationship in 1973 but only briefly. And now we come to the real important part of the story.
Richard Nixon inherited two big packages from Lyndon Johnson when he took office in January of 1969: A very expensive suite of domestic programs known as the Great Society and a very expensive war known as That Colossal and Heinous Fuckup We Never Should Have Started. Nixon committed to both, ensuring he retained the Keynesian economic status quo and expansive foreign policy that gave him enough of a coalition to revive his once-dormant political career. But the expenses from domestic spending and the war expanded budget deficits and increased inflation, leading Nixon to take U.S. currency off the gold standard in 1971. With the dollar no longer tied to gold, the Federal Reserve could print as little or as much money as they saw fit. Printing too little can limit government flexibility. Printing too much can cause value uncertainty with investors. The solution? Go to the Saudis.
Nixon sent Treasury Secretary and future Godfather of supply-side economics William Simon to Saudi Arabia in 1974 as oil shocks undermined the U.S. dollar and caused gasoline prices to skyrocket stateside. An alliance was struck: The United States would use their military supremacy to support and protect Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia would trade oil exclusively in U.S. dollars. This summit created the birth of the Petrodollar and from then on, U.S. currency flowed rapidly through the global commodities market. The need for the dollar grew as did confidence in its value. The constant recycling of U.S. currency meant more demand for our domestic consumer goods. With the subsequent acceleration of outsourcing, free trade, union-busting measures and a financialized, deregulated economy, this demand benefited American corporations. It didn’t benefit workers. America strengthened its position as a hegemonic global power controlling the global economy. The working class within it was decimated.
The Soviet Union naturally wasn’t a part of this alliance and thus suffered from Saudi oil price manipulation in ways the United States didn’t. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, America remained the sole superpower on the world stage. But this reality only strengthened our resolve to preserve our rarified position.
-In 2000, Saddam Hussein converted Iraq’s oil transactions from dollars to Euros.
-In 2006, Iran tried to diversify the currency in its oil trade, bringing Euros, Yen & gold into the fold. Venezuela has allied with Iran, which continues to send resources to the South American nation.
-in 2011, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi tried to use his country’s massive gold reserves to create a new, Pan-African currency.
You probably noticed something here: All of these countries found themselves at serious odds with the United States. We invaded Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011 and engaged in prolonged regime change efforts including sanctions against Iran and Venezuela that continue to this day. All of these countries attempted to extricate themselves from the Petrodollar and thus America’s global hold on capital. They paid a steep price for their endeavors. Our leaders told fictions about our interventions…Saddam had WMDs, Gaddafi’s about to slaughter entire villages, Iran wants to nuke Israel, Maduro’s starving his own people…by the time reality checks in to counter the party line, the damage has been done. You can’t throw a snowball on Capitol Hill without hitting a Very Important Person who has a long explanation for why they got Iraq wrong. Most of the Obama Administration wholeheartedly championed the illegal Libya invasion, including our old friends Power, Rice, Blinken & Clinton. Sanctions against Iran, particularly deadly in light of COVID, were endorsed by all but two U.S. senators (Sanders & Paul) when voted on in 2017. And our regime change efforts in Venezuela saw such overwhelming support that the presence of Juan Guaido at Trump’s last State of the Union address drew a standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats alike.
A popular anti-war refrain from the Iraq days went “No Blood for Oil,” as the assumed purpose of our invasion was to control Iraq’s reserves. Similar sentiments persist, with Iran, Libya & Venezuela holding considerable resources of their own. But our aggressive foreign policy goes beyond just oil. Weapons contractors also play a role, with their lobbyists and think-tank funding pushing more hawkish policies. But more than anything, it’s the broader concept of power that dictates our efforts across the globe. While defense contractors and energy corporations are crucial enough on their own, the strength of the U.S. dollar affects all industries. Losing our supremacy in global commerce would force America to compete with other nations (China? India?) for control over international affairs. For the first time since the end of WWII, we would no longer set the terms.
I mentioned the decimation of the working class earlier. Whether the United States reigns above all other nations in economic power means little to out-of-work welders and citizens in a town that lost its mines, its plant or its mill years ago. What’s the point of preserving the U.S. Petrodollar when American capitalism enriches a shrinking pool while destroying communities? So now we get to the ugly truth: When Barack Obama made those arms sales to Saudi Arabia and helped spur the Yemen genocide, he knew exactly what he was doing: tightening a bond with a violent regime in order to benefit U.S. corporate interests.
All the lobbyists, consultants and CEOs who descend upon Washington do so to strengthen their industries and ensure future policies aid shareholder value. To break ties with Saudi Arabia would run counter to the wishes of board rooms across America. Obama could have done so anyways. He would have weakened the U.S. dollar and risked the Saudis finding new alliances. He also would have kept our hands clean of mass murder & despair, transformed the U.S. foreign policy agenda and helped cultivate a new economic model built more on domestic production and returning the supply chain back to the States. The American Rust Belt could have seen a reversal of fortune after five decades of decline. We’re a country with the resources, diversity & talent to re-develop a more self-sufficient economy in which we lead through example instead of force. Yes, it sounds naive considering our history. But that’s thanks to the continued failures of our leadership.
Instead of courage, Obama chose corporatism. Instead of human lives, Obama prioritized profits. Instead of workers, Obama perpetuated imperialism. He was rewarded for his moral weakness, with the private equity barons at the Carlyle Group giving him $400,000 to deliver a single speech in 2017. He remains revered in elite circles and earned enough money following his exit from office to own 3 luxury properties including a $12 million estate on Martha’s Vineyard. 70% of Yemeni children can’t access clean water and proper sanitation. Michelle Obama hasn’t said a word about any of them least of all her husband’s role in their suffering. But I’m sure her new Spotify podcast will make up for it.
As reported by The American Prospect, former Obama Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy gave a presentation and Q&A in 2019 to Foreign Policy for America, a well-connected Neoliberal advocacy organization. Despite pressure from FPA members, Flournoy refused to endorse a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. What was left unsaid is that Flournoy’s work with Blinken for WestExec includes deep relationships with the same weapons contractors who benefit from those continued sales. Their client list remains confidential but rumors tie them to companies including Raytheon & Google. These clients expect favors from their government, both in terms of specific contracts but also a general confidence in American capital. Breaking ties to the Saudi’s wouldn’t just end Raytheon’s meal ticket; it could cut into the long-term profits of major firms across industries. Progressives will push the Biden Administration to end our role in these atrocities. Flournoy, assumed to be on Biden’s short-list for Defense Secretary, likely understands that our ties to the Saudis run deeper than just targeting Houthi rebels. This knowledge and a willingness to perpetuate violence make Flournoy a valued figure in foreign policy circles.
I bring this all up because it’s crucial for us to understand exactly why these wars and arms deals emerge and why they persist. If we see our support for the Saudis as a simple moral choice, we can take an easy stand against it but are far less likely to enact change. Because a Joe Biden Administration could end direct arms deals to Saudi Arabia, make a speech about American values and then use proxies and backchannels to aid the Kingdom in other ways astray from our prying eyes. America’s inability to grasp exactly what was behind Obama’s support for the Saudis and invading Libya led to his continued valorization in liberal corners as well as the likely ascendance of his Vice President and inner circle back into the White House. We learned nothing the last go around and are bound to once again bear witness to travesties. Tony Blinken remains a close advisor to Joe Biden; in a recent interview, he insisted that American troops would hold Syrian oil hostage (in violation of International Law) in order to pressure the country’s government. Some soldiers will probably die. Syrian civilians will suffer from continued sanctions. A few hippies will chant “No Blood for Oil!” at sparse rallies. And Petrodollars will keep flowing into the hands of Biden’s biggest donors. We can only claim ignorance for so long.
If you feel so inclined, please consider a donation to Save the Children’s efforts in Yemen. It’s tax deductible and lord knows Biden’s going to spend plenty of your money on the Imperial endeavors that hurt them:
A Los Angeles native, Jesse Crall graduated from UCLA’s English Department before working as a copywriter, script reader and project manager for an engineering firm.