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Ben Rhodes finally acknowledges ‘we were wrong’ on support for Saudi war in Yemen


Ben Rhodes, the foreign policy wunderkind under President Obama, recently published a book on foreign policy with the bracing-realist title, “The World As It Is”, and hardly mentioned U.S. support for the war on Yemen, leaving out mass starvation, war crimes, even Saudi Arabia. Rhodes’s three Yemen references were all to al Qaeda’s presence.

Then two weeks ago the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and is now presumed murdered, and like so many others in the foreign policy establishment, Rhodes has taken the opportunity to attack Donald Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia in a piece in the Atlantic titled, “The Abandonment of American Leadership,” (October 12).

Rhodes is now far more forthcoming than he was in his book about Obama’s policy in Yemen. Obama tried to restrain Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, Rhodes says, but all that restraint then disappeared under Trump; and “in hindsight,” the Obama administration was “wrong” to have trusted the Saudis.

Rhodes also finally acknowledges the high price Yemeni civilians have paid for U.S. policy. Some excerpts:

MbS’s [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s] first foray into foreign policy as defense minister was a war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen—a war that seemed to have no clear objective other than confronting an Iranian-supported faction. Repeatedly, the Obama administration had to put restrictions on the weapons we provided in support of this effort or apply diplomatic pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis to show restraint, as the war escalated and civilian casualties continued to mount….

What followed [under Trump, following his trip to Saudi Arabia] was the full expression of all of the policies that had been sources of tension under Obama. In the absence of any U.S. pressure related to the conduct of the war in Yemen, the conflict escalated, and a humanitarian crisis spiraled out of control with no political endgame in sight…

Looking at the increasing death toll in Yemen [in 2017, Khashoggi] argued that “the longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be.”…

[S]o we are seeing, once more, what happens when the world’s oldest democracy abandons its role of promoting democratic values around the globe…

Here’s Rhodes’s conclusion:

In hindsight, we were wrong to think that cautious and at times conditional support for the war in Yemen would influence Saudi and Emirati policy, or help shape the actions of MbS, particularly given the turn American politics took with the 2016 election.

Rhodes is being way too nice to himself and the Obama people. He didn’t touch on Yemen in his book because at that point it was still mostly ignored and he thought he could get away with it. Things changed after the school bus bombing in August, though Khashoggi has both made the Saudis the front page story and simultaneously shoved Yemen back.

In fact, the Obama administration pretended that the air strikes on civilians were due to inaccurate targeting. There was a now-well-known exchange at the State Department in September 2016, when John Kirby (an admiral speaking for the Obama State Department) explicitly said Saudi bombing of civilians was accidental, unlike the deliberate bombing of civilians by Russia in Syria. By lying the Obama administration was giving cover to the Saudis and also avoiding an admission of complicity in war crimes.

MR KIRBY: We have been honest with the Saudis about our concerns over the lack of precision in some strikes, and we’ve talked to them about the importance of conducting investigations into those strikes. And we know that – excuse me – that they continue to do that, to investigate. But —
QUESTION: Congress just approved a sale of $1.1 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia – the Senate.

MR KIRBY: That’s right, because we have a strong defense relationship with Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia is under attack from —

QUESTION: Even though they’re hitting hospitals, schools in Yemen.

MR KIRBY: Excuse me. Saudi Arabia is under attack from missiles that are finding their way into Yemen with the help of Iran that are raining down on Saudi… citizens, and they have a right to defend themselves. Now, we have – I have stood up here I don’t know how many times and talked about our concerns about the precision or lack thereof in some of these strikes and our concerns about that, and the Saudis have taken our concerns seriously. This is a different situation, and I think comparing what’s happening in Yemen to Syria is a ludicrous exercise.

QUESTION: But Saudi Arabia is doing there what Russia is accused of doing in Syria, so I’m —

MR KIRBY: No, no… Your government [addressing Gayane Chichakyan of the Russian news service RT] is flying aircraft over Aleppo and bombing hospitals. And it’s not imprecision; it’s specifically targeting civilian infrastructure and innocent people, innocent women and children and first responders that are trying to come to the rescue after these strikes occur. I mean, that’s deliberate, that’s measured, that is absolutely in violation of international law…

We’re not talking about the – we’re not talking about civilian casualties that are caused by an inefficiency in the targeting process.

The Khashoggi story is now giving cover for a bunch of posturing opportunists in the West to establish distance from Mohammad bin Salman, while hopefully (in their minds) preserving the Saudi relationship, maybe with someone less overtly stupid in charge.

But getting Americans to be honest about our crimes is like pulling teeth. At best they take the easy way out and blame a scapegoat like Trump.

Postscript 1.

Kristen Breitweiser, the author and 9/11 widow, slammed Rhodes’s piece in a blogpost. Her comments follow. We’ve added excerpts from the links she supplied.

“I’d just like to add a few points regarding Ben’s discussion of the ‘Fatal Abandonment of American Leadership’ currently underway: First, the Yemen war started under President Obama.

From “Yemen, the graveyard of the Obama doctrine”, September 2016: “[A] year and a half into the kingdom’s relentless war in Yemen, opponents of the new sale see it as an outright affirmation of Washington’s involvement in a deadly, strategically incoherent war that the White House has kept largely quiet about. What’s more, it is at odds with Obama’s apparent distaste for regional proxy wars.
“Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has targeted Yemen’s Shia Houthi militias and their alliesloyalists of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who two years ago seized the Yemeni capital Sanaa by force. Several months later, they drove the Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. When Saudi King Salman announced the intervention in Yemen—an intervention the kingdom has painted as a proxy war with Iran, its regional foe—the White House immediately authorized a support package that included intelligence-sharing and logistical support for military operations. That package has seen the United States deliver more than 40 million pounds of fuel to Saudi jets over the past 18 months, according to U.S. Central Command. The Saudis would be crippled without direct U.S. military assistance, particularly aerial refueling, which continues unabated…According to the UN, more than 2,200 civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since the beginning of their war in Yemen. Bombs dropped by Saudi coalition planes have hit schools, markets, factories, and hospitals…Obama has said little about the war in Yemen. With mere months left in his presidency, there is scarce indication that he will.”

“Second, any humanitarian crisis created in Yemen was largely ignored under Obama.

Michael Brendan Dougherty in The Week, “the Starvation of Yemen,” in May 2016:

“Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia have bombed their position and blockaded the country, resulting in famine-like conditions, as Yemen must import nearly all its food. Hundreds of thousands of children were malnourished because of this blockade….

“The UN says that 7.6 million Yemeni are on the verge of starvation. Eighty percent of the country’s population are in need of some humanitarian aid.”

“Third, military sales to the Saudis under Obama always flourished.”

Reuters, September 2016:

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has offered Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in weapons, other military equipment and training, the most of any U.S. administration in the 71-year U.S.-Saudi alliance, a report seen by Reuters has found…

The conflict has killed at least 10,000 people.

Postscript 2.

As a Reuters source said, turning a blind eye to Saudi atrocities was part of “the effort to ‘reassure’ the Saudis that the U.S. will not tilt towards Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal.” If that was the case, Rhodes surely should have mentioned it in “The World As It Is.”

Phil Weiss and Donald Johnson

Phil Weiss and Donald Johnson are NY writers and regular contributors to this site

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17 Responses

  1. Kay24 on October 18, 2018, 12:04 pm

    It’s just like all the other lame reactions we hear from the politicians, and members of the Bush/Cheney administration, who pushed for, and voted for, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They (at least some) find their conscience, and say they “regret it”.

    That regret is too late for the millions of Muslims killed, millions maimed, and millions now refugees (which no one seems to want in their countries now after the damage is done). Time the Western nations and Israel stopped playing their filthy war games, risking the lives of millions of civilians who have done nothing to feel our wrath. Do you think for one minute these war mongers would do the same had these been Jewish or Christian nations?

    I am very disappointed in Obama, and the fact that not only did they meddle in Syria, but that he also sold weapons to that rogue nation, Saudi Arabia, who continues to kill with impunity, thousands of starving civilians, including many children.

    Why are the same war mongers interfering in Syria, and waging their proxy wars over there? They have taken a bad situation and made it much worse, as usual.
    Everything they accuse Iran of, they are guilty of the same or worse.

    I wonder why they are not bombing Saudi Arabia, after all the 9/11 terrorists came from over there, and their human rights record is one of the worst. Trump is not even banning Muslims coming over from his good buddy MBS’s country. While they are at it, they might as well attack and topple the leadership in Israel too? After all they don’t seem to be ending their brutal occupation, land grabs, and killing of unarmed children too (some sarcasm there).
    We will continue to wonder.

  2. Keith on October 18, 2018, 3:18 pm

    Rhodes is a Democrat apologist pure and simple. Without US logistical support, the Saudis would be unable to pursue their Yemen attack, period. The Saudi assault on Yemen had/has full imperial support, not some BS passive acquiescence.

  3. Donald on October 18, 2018, 4:03 pm

    Agreed. Rereading the piece, possibly we weren’t clear enough on that point. We were taking it for granted. It is clear in the Breitweiser excerpt.

  4. Tuyzentfloot on October 18, 2018, 4:52 pm

    MbS’s [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s] first foray into foreign policy as defense minister was a war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen—a war that seemed to have no clear objective other than confronting an Iranian-supported faction

    That’s codswallop, poppycock and also tosh. The Iranians are irrelevant in this story. They play no role of significance, if any at all.
    This is positioning for cutting Bin Salman loose while keeping us in the dark about everything else. If the KSA attacked Yemen for no reason at all, then why were Qatar and UAE so invested?

  5. DaBakr on October 18, 2018, 8:10 pm

    I’ll go back and read this but my first thought is any journalist that takes the political ruminations of Ben Rhodes (and all his years of international experience) seriously is either fatally pie-eyed or recklessly uninformed.
    DoesRhodes believe that Iran, in its expansionist quest to control Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the part of Yemen that controls the passage of oil is the US natural ally and that is the reason Obama never explained why he made the ‘best bad deal”?. Rhodes regrets what exactly? That the echo chamber he first lied about then admitted he created to fool the american people to think of Netanyahu as an idiot and giving the mullah regime billions would give them the opportunity to share the wealth with Iranians, not spend it on am expansionist war to control the swath of land from Iran to Lebanon and perch itself on Israel’s northern border. (When, Iran is over 800m away with no territorial disputes it finds it must supply Hezbollah with the means to destroy Israel. And of course, pw thinks Israel is the aggressor.)

    Typical PW joke journalism

    • Misterioso on October 19, 2018, 11:42 am


      True to form, once again, you have spewed forth a mountain of Hasbara bull****.

      “Does Rhodes believe that Iran, in its expansionist quest to control Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the part of Yemen that controls the passage of oil is the US natural ally and that is the reason Obama never explained why he made the ‘best bad deal’”?

      To be brief:
      Iran has no intention of “control[ling] Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the part of Yemen…..” and it never could even if it wanted to. Iran’s presence and much needed military assistance in Syria has been agreed to and welcomed by the Assad government and the vast majority of its citizens (as has Russia’s presence) in order to help end the horrible civil war that has been going on for years and to ward off ongoing attacks by Israel and eventually end its illegal occupation and illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights.

      Iran’s assistance to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, including weaponry and missiles, is due to Israel’s repeated massive and bloody invasions/occupations as well as its ongoing illegal occupation of Lebanon’s Shebba Farms/Kfarshuba Hills.

      Even if it wanted to, Iran could not “control” Iraq because its Shia population is comprised primarily of Arabs who would be utterly opposed to it.

      Given recent events, you should have come to realize that the country responsible for the mass slaughter of Yemenis in order to control the oil tanker route is Saudi Arabia, especially its murderous madman, Prince, MbS, not Iran.

      Shia Iran has no intention of “control[ling] the Sunni Gaza Strip and could never do so.

      Nor has Iran threatened to initiate a war against “Israel.” “Israel,” however, has frequently threatened to do so against Iran.

      I also remind you that in April 2002, the 22 countries comprising the Arab League presented “Israel” with a unanimously agreed to peace plan known as the Beirut Arab Summit Initiative (28 March 2002.) It calls for a full peace agreement between all members of the Arab League (which includes the Palestinian leadership) and “Israel,” i.e., full diplomatic recognition, normalization of relations, exchange of ambassadors and open borders, in exchange for “Israel’s” complete withdrawal to the borders of 4 June 1967 with possible minor, equal and mutually agreed land swaps. Fully aware of “Israel’s” demographic concerns, the Beirut initiative does not demand the return of all Palestinian refugees. The Arab League’s Initiative “calls upon Israel to affirm” that it agrees to help pursue the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem…” “Israel” ignored the Arab League’s peace proposal.

      The Beirut Arab Summit Initiative was also “formally accepted by the [then] ‘supreme leader’ of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. [Furthermore, Sheikh] Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has made it clear that Hezbollah would not disrupt such an agreement if it is accepted by Palestinians [and] Hamas has repeatedly indicated its willingness to negotiate in these terms.” (“On the US-Israeli Invasion of Lebanon” by Professor Noam Chomsky, Znet, August 23, 2006)

      Notably, the Beirut Arab Summit Initiative has also been adopted by the Organization of Islamic States, which includes Iran. (Akiva Eldar, “What will happen if Israel ‘defeats’ Obama?” – Ha’aretz, 1 June 2009)

      Of course, if “Israel” really wanted to end its conflict with Hamas, it would have long since responded positively to repeated Hamas peace overtures such as the following:

      On 16 June 2009, after meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Ismail Haniya, prime minister of Hamas’s Gaza Strip government, announced that “If there is a real plan to resolve the Palestinian question on the basis of the creation of a Palestinian state within the borders of June 4, 1967 [i.e. 22% of historic Palestine] and with full sovereignty, we are in favour of it.”…
      “‘We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees,’ [**] Haniyeh said, referring to the year of Middle East war in which Israel captured East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. ” (Haaretz, December 1, 2010) No response from the entity known as “Israel.”

      ** By calling for a “resolution of the issue of refugees,” Haniyeh was in accordance with UNGA Res. 194, which calls for financial compensation as a possible option for the Palestinian refugees rather than their inalienable “Right of Return.”

      In its revised Charter, April, 2017, Hamas again agreed to a Palestinian state based on the 4 June 1967 borders. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, “Israel” promptly rejected the Hamas overture instead of using it to open a dialogue.…
      “Senior Hamas Official: ‘I Think We Can All Live Here in This Land – Muslims, Christians and Jews.’” By Nir Gontarz. March 28, 2018, Haaretz. No response from “Israel.”

      Nor should it be forgotten that along with Lebanon’s Shebba Farms/Kfarshuba hills, “Israel” is still illegally occupying Syria’s Golan Heights, which it invaded and seized during the war it started on 5 June, 1967 and subsequently illegally annexed. Furthermore, along with the Palestinian West Bank, “Israel” is still illegally occupying and has illegally annexed East Jerusalem, and of course, illegally occupying the Gaza Strip, also seized during the 1967 war.

      • Citizen on October 21, 2018, 9:22 pm


    • DaBakr on October 20, 2018, 12:23 am


      I asked a lot of questions. It’s hard for questions to be bullshit without answers. But I’m not surprised you take this as hasbara and not in the interests of America. You area probably in favour of Iran humiliating the US along with Assad, Russia, and Venezuela. That’s your choice but in my day you’d be just a rotten traitor to US interests. But I know your rule of thumb: if it’s against Israel it absolutely must be the right path. Your mirror must have cracked over a million times in disgust, unless you are an Iranian fanatical Islamist, ally of Assad, MuslimBrotherhood kiss ass or former brown nose to Hugo Chavez, (the genius)

    • DaBakr on October 20, 2018, 12:34 am


      Are you really that much of an idiot? When the US moved half (probably less then half the amount) of the advanced military equipment Iran has in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen there was blood on the streets of us cities with the old hippie coots here now screaming at the time about American imperialism yet your totally at ease with the crazed mullah in Iran who has ensconced(yes, ensconced to the point Putin can only get the mullah to back off, not down) his IRG across the swath of the middle east a thousand times the size of Southeast Asia. Your a joke. Are you too stupid to see that Iran had planned this for years. Played the amateur Obama and sidekick Rhodes like two old fiddles?

      If it wasn’t for the ability of israel, and its ability and cooperation to train with Ukrainian, Greek, Jordanian, Hungarian and other pilots to fly across Iran at such low altitudes it would shave your scalp off Iran would be pumping even more arms into its swath of me and Hezbollah control from Iraq to Lebanon and Yemen. Even if I hated Israel I could still see what Iran was up to. What a donkey.

      Btw: if Israel collapsed tomorrow and trump just took a shit…. Who is poised to control the me from Iraq to Gaza and Yemen. Is KSA going to fight alone?
      You always accuse Zionist of being ‘typical’ in thinking and supposed ‘hasbara’ dupes. You make these fantasy concoctions look like the laws of gravity. What’s up is down because you mate Israel. What a sensible way to set world policy.

      • Mooser on October 20, 2018, 1:05 pm

        Ah, I have discovered a method of quantifying the ‘Dabakr-mutter’! For instance, the one above is an ‘eight-click mutter’, that is, eight clicks on the scroll-wheel of my mouse to scroll past it. Above that is a four-click post.

  6. Elizabeth Block on October 19, 2018, 10:07 am

    Why should the United States, which under every president has supported Israel when it bombs civilians, and which has bombed civilians itself, object when its allies do the same?

    • DaBakr on October 20, 2018, 12:48 am


      Right. Why should the US have objected to nuclear missiles in Cuba? Why did so many far left ex hippies cry about US imperialism in the tiny Vietnam when they don’t give a shit about Iranian religious tyrants moving 10x the arms and military across a thousand miles of the middle east?

      Why should America care when it’s most loyal ally(the only ally that didn’t switch back and forth from Soviet influence to gain favour and which tested America’s most advanced weapons thereby assuring that any two bit murderers (like Assad’s daddy who murdered more palestinian people then Israel ever killed in war by far) would think more then twice before attempting anything more foolish.

      Why should Americans care that Israeli improvements to us jets keep Iran in check (for now)?

      You keep asking your brilliant questions and you’ll surely be stuck with the bozo trump for another six years.

      Netanyahu will also remain safe with numbskulls like you trying to convince the world that going with Iran, Putin, Assad, Hezbollah, and Iraq and Yemen too but dumping Israel America will be in so much better shape. It’s astounding the way the far left reasons away it’s love of the most violent, bloody, singularly murderous leaders as long as they hate Israel. And you wonder why your called jew haters?

      • Donald on October 20, 2018, 4:51 pm

        What does this word salad have to do with the US helping the Saudis commit war crimes in Yemen?

  7. rensanceman on October 21, 2018, 12:02 pm

    Why does Mondoweiss give crazed zealots like Debakr a platform to offer their non-sensical, poorly reasoned diatribes? If it is to reveal the vacuity of their arguments—then there is some contribution to the view that Zionist-defenders are devoid of cogent arguments to justify Israel’s truly evil nature and actions, then their is some justification. Otherwise, his/her comments are nothing more than extreme trolling designed to bait those who are genuinely committed in revealing the abuses of this racist, apartheid, and oppressive government that is truly disgusting.

  8. Mooser on October 21, 2018, 2:23 pm

    ” Otherwise, his/her comments are nothing more than extreme trolling designed to bait”

    Yes they are. But Mondo commenters don’t swallow the bait. Or even give it a nibble.

    • DaBakr on October 25, 2018, 3:18 pm


      . Bait? What would that even look like, swallowing bait? And if that’s your position then I might be inclined to say your satisfied for the time being with the status quo. Because if your scrolling past what you think are professional hasbara rants and sticking your fingers in your ears to ignore “mutters” you must understand that my voice is right of center but not by very much. How is the conflict going to resolve of the other party will only listen to the small percentage of those on the far left wing at the sane time that the aggrieved party(in this case, the arabs) are generally as right wing as Israelis? Talk about trolling….. Trolling would be writing seriously about the Arab peace initiative in the current situation odd the me.

  9. Mooser on October 25, 2018, 4:18 pm

    “must understand that my voice is right of center but not by very much” “Dabakr”

    I have always considered your voice to be coming from the direct center, if directed somewhat rearward.

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