Opinion

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

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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.”

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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… Read more »

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.

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.

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… Read more »

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,… Read more »