his is not a column about Donald Trump. It’s also not about Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen or Robert Mueller, and it’s certainly not about Rudolph Giuliani and his way with words. On the contrary, this is a column about the things we are not paying attention to, and why we should.
On 9 August, the US-backed Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen against a Houthi-led rebellion dropped a bomb on a school bus packed with children. According to reports, the excited kids had been on a school trip marking the end of their summer classes, and as they passed a busy marketplace, the bomb directly hit their vehicle.
The results were horrific. Of the 54 people killed, 44 were children, with most between the ages of six ando 11. The pictures of the dead and injured children, some of whom can be seen wearing their blue Unicef backpacks, are beyond heartbreaking.
And the tragedy in Yemen is unrelenting. Just this past Thursday, a mere two weeks after the school bus attack, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes killed yet another 26 children and four women fleeing the fighting in the western province of Hudaydah.
If this sounds to you like I’m relating a story about how terrible the civil war in Yemen is, then you’d be correct, although – and let’s be honest here – the war in Yemen occupies almost none of our collective political attention today. Could it be that we don’t care all that much about this war because Yemenis are Muslim, brown, and poor, and we’ve already been droning them for years on end?
The reality is that the war has created the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe today. Three-quarters of the population, some 22 million Yemenis, require humanitarian assistance and protection. About 8.4 million people hang on the brink of starvation and another 7 million lie malnourished. Since 2015, more than 28,000 thousand people have been killed or injured, and many thousands more have died from causes exacerbated by war, such as a cholera epidemic that has afflicted more than a million people and claimed over 2,300 lives. At least one child dies every 10 minutes from causes linked to the war, according to the United Nations.
But this is also a story about the responsibility of the United States. A report by CNN indicates that the bomb used in the school bus airstrike was a 500-pound laser-guided MK 82 bomb, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, one of the largest US defense contractors. Having facilitated the sale to the Saudi-led coalition of the weapon used to kill these children, does the United States bear any responsibility for their deaths?
Undoubtedly. For one thing, these latest bombings are hardly the only times the Saudi-led coalition has killed civilians from the air. An independent monitoring group, the Yemen Data Project, found that there have been 55 airstrikes against civilian vehicles and buses in the first seven months of this year alone, and that of the 18,000 airstrikes between March 2015 to April 2018, almost a third (31%) of the targets were non-military (either civilians or civilian infrastructure) and another 33% of the strikes were classified as having unknown targets. That’s 64% of the strikes that could not be determined as having clear military targets.
And then there’s existing law. In a 2017 report, the American Bar Association concluded that “in the context of multiple credible reports of recurring and highly questionable strikes … further sales [of arms] under both the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act are prohibited until the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes effective measures to ensure compliance with international law and the President submits relevant certifications to the Congress”.
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The United States is certainly aware of how poorly the coalition is prosecuting the war. How can it not be? The US provides aerial targeting assistance to the coalition, for Pete’s sake, along with intelligence sharing and mid-flight aerial refueling for coalition aircraft. And of course, the US supplies (with the UK) the bulk of the coalition’s weapons. Lots of them. Hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth.
This failed strategy was begun under the Obama administration, not under Trump. But when coalition fighter jets bombed a funeral hall and killed over 140 people in October 2016, the Obama administration began mulling their options. In his last weeks in office, Obama finally restricted sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia amid concerns over civilian casualties, but by May 2017, sales resumed when the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, overturned the ban. Obama was no peace-monger president, however. His administration oversaw the sales of more weapons than any other president since 1945, and most of the arms sold during his time in office went to Saudi Arabia.
Opposition to the US’s blank-check policy regarding this war has been growing not only among lawyers but also among lawmakers. Earlier this year, Senators Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee and Chris Murphy introduced a joint resolution in the Senate to end US support for the coalition, though it was effectively defeated in March by a vote of 55-44. (John McCain did not vote.)
On 22 August, Murphy also introduced an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have cut off funds for the coalition until the secretary of defense could certify that rules for the protection of civilians were being properly followed. His efforts were blocked by the Republican senator Richard Shelby, whose donors, perhaps not coincidentally, are Boeing (also a major defense contractor) and Lockheed Martin.
With Trump, the situation is as you would expect. It is his administration after all that bans Yemenis from coming to the United States. The massive $717bn National Defense Authorization Act, recently signed into law by the president, does contain specific limited language designed to minimize civilian deaths in Yemen. The president, however, has issued a signing statement. He won’t abide by these provisions of the law. Unsurprisingly, his justification is that he has “exclusive constitutional authorities as commander in chief and as the sole representative of the nation in foreign affairs”.
Trump’s indifference to the suffering in Yemen is to be expected, But what about ours? Do the American people not realize that our bombs are killing innocent children in Yemen or do we just not care? The lack of public outrage – or even just attention – to what the US-backed Saudi-led coalition is doing with American support and American-made munitions indicates something disturbing. Despite the evidence that we have become more politically engaged since the 2016 election, we still have little to no interest in what is done in our name overseas.
There could be another, related explanation, as well. The circus show that is the Trump administration has, like a fireball in an air shaft, swallowed all the oxygen in the room. The administration’s endless scandals give us just the justification we need to focus almost exclusively on our domestic life and not on America’s meddling in rest of the world.
But if that’s the case, this is a dangerous state of affairs. A lot of bad things can happen when people aren’t looking. And our lack of attention to anything but our president or ourselves says a lot, not only about Donald Trump, but about us, too.