Washington is hiding its leadership of the war on Yemen behind the Saudis

November 6, 2017

By Stephen Gowans

In October, 2016, two Reuters’ reporters published an exclusive, under the headline: “As Saudis bombed Yemen, U.S. worried about legal blowback.” [1]

The reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, revealed that legal experts at the US State Department had warned the White House that the United States could be charged with war crimes in connection with the Saudi Air Force bombing campaign in Yemen.

So far, the bombing campaign has left tens of thousands dead and many more wounded, as well as over 10 percent of Yemen’s population homeless. Accompanied by naval and aerial blockades, the aggression has created near famine conditions for somewhere between 25 to 40 percent of the population and has contributed to a cholera outbreak affecting hundreds of thousands.

According to Strobel and Landay, “State Department officials … were privately skeptical of the Saudi military’s ability to target Houthi militants without killing civilians and destroying ‘critical infrastructure’”. [2]

The officials acknowledged that the airstrikes were indiscriminate (a war crime), but said that the indiscriminate nature of the bombing was due to the inexperience of Saudi pilots and the difficulty of distinguishing enemy militants not wearing uniforms from the civilian population.

All the same, inasmuch as the bombing is indiscriminate, irrespective of why, it constitutes a war crime.

The second point the State Department lawyers made is that the United States is a co-belligerent in the war.

The Reuters article didn’t reveal the true extent to which the United States is involved, but it did acknowledge that Washington supplies the bombs which Saudi pilots drop on Yemen and that the United States Air Force refuels Saudi bombers in flight.

In other words, the United States plays a role in facilitating the campaign of indiscriminate bombing.

This was of great concern to the State Department legal staff.

The lawyers pointed out that while the indiscriminate bombing is the work of Saudi pilots, blame for the war crime could also be pinned on the United States through a legal instrument Washington had helped to create; hence, the fear of legal blowback.

The legal instrument was created by the UN-established Special Court on Sierra Leone, which the United States backed, if not instigated.

The court had ruled that Liberia’s president Charles Taylor was guilty of war crimes committed in the civil war in Sierra Leone, even though Taylor wasn’t in Sierra Leone when the crimes were committed. What’s more, Taylor, himself, had no direct connection to the crimes. This, everyone acknowledged.

But that, said the court, didn’t matter.

What mattered was that Taylor had provided “practical assistance, moral support and encouragement” to people in Sierra Leone who had committed war crimes.

Therefore, the court ruled, Taylor was guilty of war crimes, as well. [3]

The United States used the same legal instrument to indict Al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay for the crime of 9/11, even though the detainees in question had no direct involvement in the 9/11 attacks. It was sufficient that they had provided moral support and encouragement to those who had. [4]

This instrument, which had served Washington well in locking up people it didn’t like, now proved problematic, and the reason why is that the United States provides practical assistance, moral support and encouragement to the Saudis in a campaign of indiscriminate (hence, war criminal) bombing. US military personnel and state officials can therefore be charged with war crimes under a legal principle Washington helped to establish.

Worse, Washington offers the Saudis far more than just encouragement and moral support. It also furnishes its Arabian ally with diplomatic support, as well as the bombs that are dropped on Yemenis, and the war planes that drop the bombs. Additionally, it trains the pilots who fly the warplanes who drop the bombs.

And that’s not all. The United States also flies its own drones and reconnaissance aircraft over Yemen to gather intelligence to select targets for the Saudi pilots to drop bombs on. [5] It also provides warships to enforce a naval blockade. And significantly, it runs an operations center to coordinate the bombing campaign among the US satellites who are participating in it, including Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Jordan—the kingdoms, emirates, sultanates and military dictatorships which make up the United States’ Arab allies, all anti-democratic.

In other words, not only is the United States providing encouragement and moral support to the Saudis—it’s actually running the war on Yemen. In the language of the military, the United States has command and control. The only thing it doesn’t do is provide the pilots to drop the bombs.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal reported: A Pentagon spokesman said the United States has special operations forces on the ground and provides airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, operational planning [my emphasis], maritime interdiction, security, medical support and aerial refueling. [6]

According to the newspaper, Pentagon war planners run a joint operations center where bombing targets are selected. [7]

When you run the operations center, you run the war.

So, two important aspects of the war: First, the bombing is indiscriminate and therefore a war crime—and Washington knows this. Second, the United States is involved in the war to a degree that is infrequently, if ever, recognized and acknowledged.

In fact, the war on Yemen is almost universally described as a Saudi-led war. This is a mischaracterization. It is a US-led war.

The war is consistent with the immediate aim of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds—to eliminate any organized, militant opposition to US domination of the Middle East. It is an aim that accounts for Washington’s opposition to entities as diverse as the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and Al Qaeda. While these states and organizations have differing agendas, their agendas overlap in one respect: all of them oppose US domination of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

There are two organizations in Yemen that militantly oppose US domination of Yemen specifically and the Muslim world broadly: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Houthis. Both are Islamist organizations. Both are implacably opposed to US and Israeli interference in the Muslim world. And both are committed to freeing Yemen from US domination. But they have different approaches.

Al Qaeda directs its attacks at what it calls its distant and near enemies.

The distant enemy is the United States, the center of an empire which Zbigniew Brzezinski, a principal figure in the US foreign policy establishment, had called a hegemony of a new type with unprecedented global reach and scale—in other words, the largest empire in human history.

The near enemy, by contrast, according to Al Qaeda ideology, comprises the component parts of the US Empire—the local governments which are subordinate to the United States and do Washington’s bidding (Yemen under the previous government, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and so on.)

Al Qaeda carries out campaigns against both its distant and near enemies—which is to say, against Western targets on Western soil, and against local governments which collaborate with, and act as agents of, the United States.

The Houthis, in contrast, model themselves on Hezbollah and Hamas. They focus on what Al Qaeda calls the near enemy, that is, local governments which are extensions of US global power. Hezbollah focuses on Western interference in Lebanon, Hamas on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the Houthis on Western lieutenants in Yemen, but do not seek to strike Western targets on Western soil as Al Qaeda does.


Before the Houthis took control of the government, Washington was waging a war in Yemen against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Washington had deployed Special Operations Forces and the CIA to deal with an Al Qaeda branch in Yemen that had organized the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and an attempted 2009 Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner.

But these Al Qaeda attacks were only a symptom of what the United States is waging a war on. The United States says it’s waging a war on terrorism but what it’s actually waging a war on are the forces that oppose US domination of the Muslim world.

That some of those forces happen to use terrorist methods at times, and that they engage in violent politics, is less important to Washington than the fact that they’re against US domination and influence.


The United States was prepared to wage a war against Al Qaeda in Yemen unilaterally, without the cooperation of the former Yemeni government.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said “Certainly a willing partner in Yemen…makes missions much more effective. But we have also proven the ability to go after terrorists in various places unilaterally. We … retain that right.” [8]

This was really quite an extraordinary statement, for Kirby was acknowledging in words what was already evident in actions: that the United States does not recognize the sovereignty of any country. It retains the right to intervene anywhere, militarily or otherwise, whether that country’s government assents to the intervention, or not.

The most conspicuous current example of Washington arrogating onto itself the right to intervene unilaterally in any country in pursuit of its foreign policy goals is the US invasion of Syria, carried out over the objection of the Syrian government, and without the slightest regard for the rule of law, which prohibits such affronts against the principle of national sovereignty.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA persuaded Yemen’s president at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to allow the U.S. military to conduct operations in Yemen against Al Qaeda targets.

Saleh was reluctant to cede Yemen’s sovereignty, but believed that if he refused the US request, Washington would invade (as it reserved the right to do.)

Hence, under duress, Saleh agreed to allow the CIA to fly Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles over his country and agreed to the entry of US Army Special Forces into Yemen. [9] He agreed, in other words, to the US occupation of his country.

In early 2011, as the US war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was in progress, a massive revolt against the Saleh government broke out, part of the so-called Arab Spring. It involved tens of thousands of Yemenis participating in weeks-long sit-ins.

Washington supported Saleh throughout this distemper, while at the same time demanding that Syrian president Bashar al Assad step down, charging (falsely) that he, Assad, had lost the support of his people.

In contrast, Saleh, despite having no popular support (or very little) enjoyed US backing—and he did so because, unlike Assad, he was willing to cede his country’s sovereignty to the United States.

After months of unrest in Yemen, Washington came to the conclusion that Saleh’s continued rule was no longer viable. He had become far too unpopular and chances were that he would be toppled by the popular revolt. Whoever took his place might not be as compliant.

So, meetings were arranged with leaders of the opposition, to make the case for continuing US operations. Eventually, a plan was agreed to in which Saleh would step down in favor of his vice-president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. [10]

Hadi proved to be no more popular than Saleh, although he proved to be just as popular with Washington as his predecessor was. Top US officials supported Hadi because he allowed the Pentagon a free hand in Yemen. [11]

Yemenis, in contrast, didn’t like Hadi—and they didn’t like him for a number of reasons, not least of which was that he was perceived correctly as a puppet of the United States.

In September, 2014, the Houthis, who had launched an insurgency 10 years earlier, seized the capital, demanding a greater share of power.

By February 2015, they had taken control of the government. Soon after, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia.

What did the Houthis want?

The Houthis self-stated aim – their political project – is to cleanse the country of corrupt leaders beholden to foreign powers. They’re against the interference of the United States and Israel in Yemen’s affairs. A Houthi spokesman said, we’re “simply against the interference of those governments.” [12]

In 2015, Newsweek reported that “In essence what the Houthis call for are things that all Yemenis crave: government accountability, the end to corruption, regular utilities, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary Yemenis and the end of Western influence.” [13]

Newsweek also reported that “Many Yemenis believe the Houthis are right in pushing out Western influence and decision making.” [14]

So, what was the situation, then, for the United States in February 2015, with the unpopular Hadi government ousted and the Houthis, committed to Yemen’s independence, taking control of the government?

The situation was now much worse than it had been when Washington began its war in Yemen on Al Qaeda. Rather than one group militantly opposing US domination of Yemen, there were now two and control of the government had slipped from the hands of Washington’s marionette. In an effort to reverse a deteriorating situation, Washington instigated a war on the Houthis, overlaying a new war upon its existing war on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But the US administration had no legal authorization to wage a war on a group whose remit was internal to Yemen and wasn’t implicated in the 9/11 attacks. The US Congress had provided the US president with an open-ended authorization to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” [15] That included Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But it didn’t include the Houthis.

If the United States was to lead a war against the Houthis legally, it would have to seek out and obtain Congress’s authorization. And the chances of the White House obtaining Congress’s consent for a war on the Houthis was next to zero. So Washington prepared a deception. It put the Saudis out front and said the war on the Houthis was Saudi-led.

To give the deception a semblance of credibility, the Saudis were said to view the Houthis as a threat. The Houthis were alleged to be a proxy of Iran, a country the Saudis regard as their principal rival in the Middle East.

But this was nonsense. In April, 2015, the US National Security Council declared that, “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen,” adding “It is wrong to think of the Houthis as a proxy force for Iran.” [16]

The United States instigated the war on the Houthis for two reasons: First, because the Houthis are an organized, militant force against US interference in Yemen. And second, because the Houthis had ousted a government whose subordination to the United States had been useful for Washington in pursuing a campaign to eliminate another organized, militant force against US interference in the Muslim world, namely Al Qaeda.

The aim of the war is to drive the resistant sovereigntist Houthis out and bring the malleable puppet Hadi back in.

So, the United States organized a war using Saudi pilots as the tip of its spear, in exactly the same way it is pursuing a war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria using Kurds as the tip of its spear. In both cases the United States provides command and control, while in Syria and Iraq the Kurds provide the boots on the ground and in Yemen the Saudis provide the pilots in the air. But the war on the Houthis is no more a Saudi-led war than the US war on ISIS is a Kurd-led war.

US leaders don’t put US boots on the ground or US pilots in the air if they can get someone else to do the fighting for them.

As long ago as 1949, the US journalist Marguerite Higgins remarked on how “an intelligent and intensive investment of combat-hardened American men and officers could be used to train local forces to do the shooting for you.” [17]

More recently, in 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that “America’s special-operations forces, have landed in 81 countries, most of them training local commandos to fight so American troops don’t have to.” [18]

There are a number of advantages for the United States of using local forces to do the fighting so that it doesn’t have to.

First, cost savings. It costs the US Treasury less to have Saudi pilots drop bombs on the Houthis than to have US pilots do the same.

Second, control of public opinion. Consent for yet another US war doesn’t have to be obtained.

Third, certain legal obligations are avoided, such as the need to obtain a legal authorization for war.

From the perspective of the US state, to run a war from behind the scenes, and let local forces assume the burden of being the tip of the spear, is simpler, more cost effective, less troublesome legally, and easier to manage issues of public consent.

Another reason we should believe the war on Yemen is a US- and not a Saudi-led war is that US national security strategy insists on US leadership. It is inconceivable that the United States would cede leadership of a military campaign in which it is involved to a satellite country.

Statements of US leadership abound in the utterances of US politicians, US military leaders, and US commentators.

“We lead the world,” declared former US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power. [19]

“The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead,” asserted Obama’s National Security Strategy. [20]

Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, describes the United States as having a “global leadership role.” [21]

In his second inaugural address, Bill Clinton described the United States as imbued with a special mission to lead the world. [22]

John McCain recently said that the United States has “an obligation” to lead. [23]

Would a country with such a fixation on leadership willingly assume a back-seat support role in a military campaign in a country in which it had already initiated a war and spent years fighting it? If the answer isn’t obvious, the reality that US war planners provide operational planning of the anti-Houthi war should lay to rest any doubts about who’s really in the driver’s seat.

This is a US-led war for empire, against an organized, militant force, which insists on Yemeni sovereignty; which insists on self-determination; and which therefore repudiates US leadership (a euphemism for US despotism and US dictatorship.)

If we’re committed to democracy, we ought to support those who fight against the despotism of empires; we ought to support those who insist on the equality of all peoples to self-determination; we ought to support those who find repugnant the notion that the United States claims a right to intervene in the affairs of any country, regardless of whether the people of that country agree to the intervention or not.

The fight of Yemenis to organize their own affairs, in their own way, in their own interests, by their own efforts, free from the interference of empires and their local proxies, is a fight in which all of us have a stake.

The struggle to end the war on Yemen, and the larger struggle to end the empire-building, the despotism, the dictatorship, of the United States, is not only a struggle for peace, but a struggle for democracy—and a struggle for the Enlightenment values of freedom (from despotism) and equality (of all peoples to determine their own affairs.)

1. Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, “Exclusive: As Saudis bombed Yemen, U.S. worried about legal blowback,” Reuters, October 10, 2016.
2. Strobel and Landay.
3. Strobel and Landay.
4. Strobel and Landay.
5. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “Quiet support for Saudis entangles U.S. in Yemen,” The New York Times, March 13, 2016.
6. Gordon Lubold and Paul Sonne, “U.S. troops return to Yemen in battle against Al Qaeda, Pentagon says,” The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2016.
7. Lubold and Sonne.
8. Damian Paletta and Julian E. Barnes, “Yemen unrest spells setback for U.S.”, The Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2015.
9. Dana Priest, “U.S. military teams, intelligence deeply involved in aiding Yemen on strikes,” The Washington Post, January 27, 2010.
10. Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. is intensifying a secret campaign of Yemen airstrikes”, The New York Times, June 8, 2011.
11. Paletta and Barnes.
12. Ben Hubbard, “Plight of Houthi rebels is clear in visit to Yemen’s capital,” The New York Times, November 26, 2016.
13. “Photo essay: Rise of the Houthis,” Newsweek, February 9, 2015.
14. Newsweek.
15. Authorization for Use of Military Force, S.J.Res.23, September 14, 2001.
16. Kenneth Katzman, “Iran’s Foreign Policy,” Congressional Research Service, August 24, 2016.
17. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005, p. 255.
18. Michael M. Phillips, “New ways the U.S. projects power around the globe: Commandoes,” The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2015.
19. “U.S. envoy urges no cut in U.N. funding,” The Associated Press, January 13, 2017.
20. US National Security Strategy, 2015.
21. Felicia Schwartz, “U.S. to reduce staffing at embassy in Cuba in response to mysterious attacks,” The Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2017.
22. William J. Clinton, Inaugural Address. January 20, 1997.
23. Solomon Hughes, “Trump warns McCain: ‘I fight back’,” The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2017.