There are many questions in American foreign policy where reasonable, ethical, well-intentioned people can disagree. Whether it is right to continue U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen's civil war is not one of them.
Yet that is exactly what President Trump has decided to do, issuing the second veto of his presidency to reject S.J.Res.7, a "resolution to direct the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress." Trump's refusal to halt America's contribution to the world's most acute humanitarian crisis is utterly indefensible — a wretched recommitment to brutality — and his veto statement is a rat king of falsehoods, militarism, and unfettered executive overreach.
In a lengthy roster of Mideast misadventures of debatable morality, necessity, and execution, the conflict in Yemen stands out for its obscene effects on ordinary people. The United Nations estimates nearly 7,000 civilians had been killed and another 11,000 injured as of this past November. Since then, the pace of these deaths has increased.
Do you remember the school bus bombing? The one that killed 51 people, 40 of them children? That was a tiny fraction of those 7,000-plus deaths. Others were caused by coalition attacks on hospitals, funerals, weddings, schools, markets, refugee camps, and residential neighborhoods. These are strikes conducted with American guidance ("including intelligence sharing, logistics support, and, until recently, in-flight refueling of non-United States aircraft," to borrow Trump’s veto statement summary), often using American-made bombs whose sale was approved by our State Department. It is not histrionic to call them war crimes.
And those are just — "just"! — the direct casualties of war. But the horror in Yemen is hardly monopolized by bullets and bombs. Conservative estimates say 85,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 have died of starvation since 2015. More than a million children are suffering from severe malnutrition, and fully half of Yemen's 28 million people are at risk of "the worst famine in 100 years."
Do you recall the first time you saw a photo of a Holocaust victim, skeletal with abuse? I remember, as a child, a rush of disbelief — not that it happened, but that anyone could experience such cruelty and live. Looking at images of starving children in Yemen, my shock is the same.
Of course, hunger in Yemen is nothing new: It was among the poorest nations in the Middle East before this conflict began. But this mass starvation is new, caused significantly by the Saudi coalition's blockade and long-term assault on the single port through which 70 percent of Yemen's food arrives. The blockade is ostensibly an attempt to keep weapons away from rebel fighters, but functionally — and with American help — it has tortured a nation that must import 90 percent of its food.
Then there's the cholera. Do you know how cholera works? In seven pandemics between 1800 and 1975 it killed millions worldwide, but in America today we have the luxury of ignorance of its symptoms.
The chief effect is catastrophic dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhea, gallons a day. The skin turns blue from lack of fluids. Eyes are sunken, mouth dry, breathing labored. Cramps, seizures, coma, and secondary infections all may follow. Without proper medical treatment — and in Yemen, many medical professionals have operated for years without necessary equipment, medicine, facilities, or even pay — the death toll may be as high as 50 percent. Cholera is a miserable way to die, and it can take a child in mere hours.
Yemen's cholera outbreak is the worst on the planet. More than 600,000 cases have been confirmed, and at least another 400,000 are suspected. About 2,000 new cases are diagnosed daily, and more than half of the national population is at risk. Cholera spreads when people don't have access to clean water, and major water treatment facilities have featured among the targets U.S.-facilitated strikes have hit. Even water plants that remain intact sit idle, unable to operate because of fighting- and blockade-induced fuel shortages.
This document is a masterpiece of B.S. It begins by claiming the "resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken [Trump's] constitutional authorities ... as Commander in Chief." That is exactly backwards, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have recognized.
If any constitutional power has been dangerously weakened here, it is congressional authority over the initiation of war. Executive war-making in Yemen, as illegitimate in its conception by the Obama administration as it is in its perpetuation by Trump, remains perfectly intact.
Equally absurd is Trump's insistence that the United States is "not engaged in hostilities in or affecting Yemen" beyond its counterterrorism operations. This is an Orwellian lie, rendered particularly transparent by the statement's attention to Iran's more limited support of the Houthi rebels the Saudi-led coalition opposes. Suffice it to say if any foreign country offered intelligence sharing, logistics support, blockade assistance, and refueling for airstrikes on American soil, we would consider that nation "engaged in hostilities in or affecting" the United States, and rightly so.
Likewise troubling is the assertion that this intervention is justified "[f]irst and foremost" to protect "Americans who reside in certain coalition countries that have been subject to Houthi attacks." If taken seriously, this is an expansive excuse for U.S. war-making in literally any situation anywhere if an American happens to live or even travel nearby. So much for "not wanting to be the policemen of the world"?
These humanitarian, constitutional, and practical concerns are not the only reason Trump's veto was indefensible. We could also consider that the outcome of Yemen's civil war will have little to no effect on U.S. security; that the Saudi coalition has armed al Qaeda-linked fighters in Yemen with American weapons and fostered conditions in which Yemen's al Qaeda branch has flourished; that our involvement lends unjustified cover to an oppressive theocracy's proxy war for religious and regional supremacy; that polling shows most Americans across the political spectrum oppose this intervention; or that our exit could help achieve the "negotiated settlement" Trump says he wants.
Whatever reason you find most compelling, it is backed by an avalanche of others. There are many foreign policy issues where it may be reasonable to disagree, but this isn't one of them. Our contribution to Yemen's suffering must end.