Saturday, January 20, 2018
By Julian Borger , Ben Jacobs, Sabrina Siddiqui and Lauren Gambino
A year to the day after Trump took office, government goes into shutdown as nationwide protests take aim at his divisive presidency.
Donald Trump’s first anniversary in office was marked by the turbulence and division that have defined his presidency, with a government shutdown and protests in cities across the country. Up to 800,000 federal workers were told to stay home after the White House and Congress failed to strike a compromise on a government spending bill. Workers deemed essential and armed forces personnel were asked to stay at work. If the shutdown continues, they will likely go unpaid.
Armed services personnel abroad got their first taste of the looming cuts on Saturday when they were told they would not be able to watch Sunday’s NFL playoff games because the armed forces broadcasting network had shut down.
With crisis talks under way, Trump cancelled a trip to his Florida retreat at Mar-a-Lago, where he had hoped to celebrate his year in office at a gala dinner.
Instead, as protesters marked their own anniversary of major anti-Trump demonstrations outside the White House and in other major cities, the president stayed in Washington, firing off angry tweets.
Trump sought to blame Democrats for the shutdown, claiming they were putting immigrants before other Americans.
Democrats blamed Trump, for walking away from a compromise over the future of young undocumented migrants known as Dreamers. They pointed out that the shutdown, the first since October 2013, was the first when one party controlled all three branches of government.
At a press conference, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi alluded to a tweet Trump wrote in May 2017, saying a shutdown would be good for the country.
“Happy anniversary Mr President, your wish came true,” Pelosi said. “You won the shutdown. The shutdown is all yours.”
Addressing the House, Republican speaker Paul Ryan
said: “Senate Democrats refuse to fund the government unless we agree to their demands on something entirely unrelated. They want a deal on immigration. And then they’ll think about reopening the government.” Saturday’s talks were focused on passing a stopgap spending measure. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was being updated and had been in touch with Republican leaders. “The president will not negotiate on immigration reform until Democrats stop playing games and reopen the government,” Sanders said.
At a White House briefing, director of legislative affairs Marc Short did signal a concession when he said Trump would sign a resolution that would keep the government funded for three weeks. The spending bill rejected by the Senate late Friday night would have kept the government open for four. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca), Obama-era legislation that allowed approximately 700,000 Dreamers to stay in the country, is set to expire on 5 March after being rescinded by Trump. Democrats have refused to support any spending bill that does not restore such protection.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, said in a statement he believed a continuing resolution “through 8 February” and a commitment to “seek resolution on immigration, disaster relief, military and government funding, Chip [children’s health insurance], and other healthcare related issues” would pass the upper chamber.
But Short said Senate Democrats were “basically conducting a two-year-old temper tantrum in front of the American people” and said: “We will not negotiate the status of 690,000 unlawful immigrants while hundreds of millions of tax-paying Americans, including hundreds of thousands of our troops in uniform and border agents protecting our country, are held hostage by Senate Democrats.”
White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney accused Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of lying about his Friday meeting with Trump.
Trump and Schumer shared a cheeseburger lunch at the White House. The president reportedly agreed to more time for a deal on Dreamers in return for more defence spending, funding for a border wall and tougher enforcement of immigration law.
But the deal began to fray over the duration of the stopgap and the toughness of immigration provisions and John Kelly, the White House chief of staff and an immigration hardliner, called Schumer to kill the talks.
On Saturday, Schumer said dealing with President Trump was “like negotiating with Jello”, later adding that this was “because he can’t stick to the terms.” Schumer’s No 2 in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said a bipartisan group of senators had been on the cusp of an agreement late on Friday, only for Ryan to inform his counterparts in the Senate that House Republicans would not agree to it.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, insisted in an email the speaker and McConnell had been “in communication and full agreement throughout”.
The Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey said Republicans had ceded their negotiating position to a bloc of hardline House conservatives.
“I was not elected to genuflect to the Freedom Caucus,” Casey said, before walking to the floor to vote down the funding measure that passed the House on Thursday.
By Saturday morning, it appeared the White House had calculated that by making Daca non-negotiable, the Democrats had made themselves vulnerable to blame.
“Democrats are far more concerned with illegal immigrants than they are with our great military or safety at our dangerous southern border,” one presidential tweet said. “They could have easily made a deal but decided to play Shutdown politics instead.”
In a CNN poll, 31% blamed Democrats for the shutdown, 26% blamed Republicans and 21% held Trump responsible. Although a plurality blamed Republicans and there is broad support for protecting Dreamers, a majority thought it was more important to avoid a shutdown.
On Capitol Hill, there was some optimism. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said there was “certainly a real possibility [of a deal] if there’s good faith on both sides”.
In the White House’s view, Friday night saw “the first real serious negotiations about this [spending bill] which only happened because of the vote result”.
Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, said Democrats “may have wanted to bring out their Trump posters for a couple of days, show their extreme elements of the party that they were with them”.
By Matt Fuller
Hours into a government shutdown, Republicans and Democrats appeared to be digging in for a long legislative standoff, with little sign that lawmakers and President Donald Trump are even talking at this point.
Republicans say they won’t negotiate on immigration until Democrats vote to reopen government. Democrats say they won’t vote to reopen government until Republicans negotiate on immigration. And as members returned to the Capitol on Saturday for emergency legislative sessions during the shutdown, the tension was on full display in both chambers.
In the House, after Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered a blistering speech blaming Democrats for the shutdown, which he called a “shakedown,” the presiding officer in the House at the time, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), refused to recognize Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for a response.
That breach of decorum ― it’s customary for whoever is in the chair to recognize the minority leader if he or she wants to speak ― led to a shouting match on the House floor, which in turn led to lawmakers having to come to the chamber to, in effect, take attendance.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blamed Democrats and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for a “manufactured crisis.” Schumer slammed McConnell and Republicans for governing via stopgap spending measures, for chronically delaying a compromise on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program, and for crafting partisan bills without consulting Democrats and then blaming them for not going along. “In our democracy, you have to compromise if you wish to govern” Schumer said.
Even though Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, Democratic votes are needed in the Senate to close debate. Late Friday night, an effort to do just that went down, as the motion requiring 60 votes was rejected 50-49, with four Republicans voting no and five Democrats voting yes. Democrats want some deal ― or at least some indication that there could be a deal ― to address the undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. And there were signs of a possible compromise Friday when Schumer and Trump met at the White House for lunch. According to a source familiar with the discussions, Schumer and Trump discussed a DACA bill in exchange for Republicans’ full defense spending request and the possibility of Trump’s full border request, which would include money for a wall. Both men said they felt like they were close to a big deal, but probably needed a bill to continue government funding for a few days as they hammered out the details.
But a few hours after Schumer left the White House, Trump called him saying he had heard Democrats were ready to support a three-week continuing resolution. According to this source, Schumer said that was the first he had heard of such a deal, and Trump told the New York Democrat to work it out with McConnell.
After some more back-and-forths between Schumer and Trump ― and Schumer and McConnell ― Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, called Schumer Friday night and said the framework of the DACA deal was too liberal. The deal was off. Even though an agreement to extend government operations for three weeks was eventually offered, Schumer and other Senate Democrats now didn’t see a path forward for the immigration deal they were discussing only hours before. According to lawmakers, McConnell was open to voting on a deal for so-called Dreamers, but Ryan wouldn’t commit. That left Democratic senators feeling like their best route of negotiation was to vote against the continuing resolution. As both sides regrouped Saturday, Democrats felt Republicans ― particularly the president ― needed to come to them. And Republicans (or at least the ones in the House) decided they would not talk until Democrats voted to reopen government. According to White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, Trump had no plans to meet with Democrats on Saturday, though he was talking with Republican leaders. Even if Trump did come to Democrats, leaders don’t even seem all that supportive of negotiating with Trump at the moment, after his chief of staff snatched away the deal they seemed so close to reaching.
Schumer said Saturday that negotiating with Trump was like “negotiating with Jello.”
“It’s impossible to negotiate with a constantly moving target,” Schumer said. “Leader McConnell has found that out. Speaker Ryan has found that out. And I have found that out.”
But there are some signs that an immigration deal could be reached. Perhaps the staunchest pro-immigrant lawmaker in Congress, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) signaled he could support funding for a wall if it meant a solution for Dreamers.
“It’s an awfully wasteful burden on the taxpayers to build a wall, but I’ve come to a conclusion that lives are more important than bricks,” Gutiérrez said Saturday. “I hope that now that they’ve heard that, they will do what they originally said was the exchange.”
Gutiérrez continued that Republicans had taken DACA recipients as “hostages” and the ransom was a wall. “And I’m saying to you, even though I feel it’s an incredibly stupid burden you’re placing on the taxpayer for something that I don’t think useful, I’m going to put that ahead,” he said.
The Democratic softening on the wall issue is a strong indication that there is an immigration deal to be had with Trump, as the president has made clear that a wall is his No. 1 immigration priority. The problem, however, may be Republican lawmakers. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) was emphatic Saturday morning that the deal Schumer and Trump were discussing was not palatable to conservatives. “Talking to my Senate colleagues,” Meadows said as he exited a House GOP conference meeting, “there were a lot of promises made last night, but none that will become law.” Republican and Democratic aides all tell HuffPost the way out of this shutdown is for leaders from both sides to sit down and hash something out. They don’t seem all that close to that moment, though. With the government in a softer shutdown because of the weekend, the new deadline on Capitol Hill seems to be a deal by late Sunday night, before government agencies open for business on Monday morning. And a deal always could come together quickly, especially if it’s just to delay the worst effects of the shutdown by extending government funding for a bit longer.
As a senior GOP aide said Saturday afternoon, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
But until lawmakers start talking ― or just stop attacking each other ― this shutdown doesn’t seem to be ending soon.
By Afrasiab Khattak
The rapid expansion of electronic media followed by the equally impressive growth of social media during the last two decades in Pakistan has opened up immense possibilities for the people to connect and we have witnessed massive rise in connectivity among individuals, social and political groups and communities across the country ( and beyond). The irony, however, is that democratic movement in Pakistan today stands far more fragmented than it used to be in the era of state controlled and comparatively limited radio, TV and print media.
For example, total state control over media was established after imposition of martial law by General Ayub Khan in 1958, but those draconian restrictions could not forestall the emergence of the biggest anti-dictatorship mass uprising in the country’s history in 1968, throwing up mainstream democratic platform with elaborate demands for people’s rights and provincial autonomy. Similarly Movement for Restoration of Democracy ( MRD) represented popular aspirations during democratic resistance against the military dictatorship of General Zia in 1980s with a very clear consensus on common minimum program amongst democratic forces. The Lawyer’s Movement against General Musharraf’s despotic rule has so far been the last mass movement enjoying broad popular support and it had emerged in the context of Charter of Democracy signed in 2006. But today, when the derailment of the democratic project is almost in its final stage and the democratic future of the country is more uncertain than ever, we don’t see convergence among political parties and civil society elements to put up some meaningful resistance to the creeping coup and to come out with a united democratic platform. There are deep and dangerous divisions along social, ethnic, communal and sectarian lines forestalling the emergence of a united people’s movement.
There are multiple reasons for this state of affairs. The most important factor seems to be the decline of organized political parties, both on the left and on the right of political spectrum, during the last few decades. Landed gentry that dominated the sociopolitical scene throughout the 20th century has substantially declined for historical reasons and has by now lost the capacity of properly responding to the fresh sociopolitical challenges, but it is still prominent on the political scene due to the many ruptures in democratic development. Political elite originating from landed gentry has some fatal addictions like dependence on bureaucracy, dynastic politics and patronage culture that have lowered its credibility to dangerous level.
Interestingly, the aforementioned disease isn’t confined to typical feudal families. Some of the business and bureaucratic class elements are also prone to this disease. The much delayed response of most of political parties to the challenges produced by the constantly intensifying urbanization is a case in point. Most of the political parties failed to realize the need for providing space to the new urban middle classes coming from different professions and this failure has led to a major disconnect. Decline of traditional left that used to connect the democratic question and national question with the class question is also a setback. The rise of the new jihadist outfits enjoying blanket state patronage and access to vast resources are pushing back the traditional religious parties.
Political engineering of the deep state for weakening the democratic movements and democratic system has also substantially contributed in creating the current distortions of our political culture. The practice of rigging elections for achieving positive results that had started by General Zia’s martial law has now been developed into a fine art. Intelligence agencies controlled by the security establishment have developed the capacity for rigging elections on industrial basis. General Musharraf has on record given details of his contacts with political parties on the number of seats that he was to deliver to them in 2002 general elections. The intelligence agencies have also perfected the art of producing test tube politicians and political parties, along with creating a support base for such artificial entities by manipulating the controlled media and by instructing the so called winning horses to join them. The deep state also doesn’t hesitate from unleashing “demolition squads” against individual political leaders and parties that dare challenge its intervention in politics and its control over the state system. These manipulative practices of the deep state are effective in the short term for bringing its collaborators into power but are extremely harmful for the state building and nation building project in the long term.
The most glaring example of this tragic fact was the oppressive decade of the despotic rule of General Ayub that led to the dismemberment of the country in 1971. But no lesson was learnt from that debacle. In 1970s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as popular leader posed a challenge to the re ascendency and domination of the military rule. The security establishment overthrew him by galvanizing opposition against him and ultimately executed him in a controversial judicial process that was clearly manipulated. For weakening the future prospects of Bhutto’s party, the security establishment resorted to political engineering of divide and rule which helped it in short term but created serious problems for the country in the long term. For weakening Bhutto’s influence in urban Sindh, the deep state encouraged the creation of MQM on the basis of Muhajir identity. There were social contradictions in urban Sindh at that time but they were resolvable within a larger Sindhi identity, had it not been for the manipulations of the deep state. Similarly, Punjabi nationalism was used to eliminate PPP from Punjab. It has been quite effective but what will be the consequences of this process in the long term is the real question. Similarly, the use of religious extremism and sectarian divisions for weakening political parties might work in the short term but the emergence of sectarianism and terrorism is a challenge to the very existence of the country in the long term.
A new generation of political leaders will have to not only take over their parties but they will also have to challenge the dead wood within their own parties for redefining theory and practice of political parties and also challenge the disastrous political engineering of the deep state.
Five-year-old Mohammad Ashar Aziz will never be able to walk without orthopedic leg braces.
The youngest of three brothers from a village near Islamabad, he is one of just 17 children in the world -- all of them in Pakistan or Afghanistan -- who developed paralysis during 2017 from a wild polio-virus infection.
His father, 41-year-old day laborer Hamid Aziz, is disconsolate because he repeatedly had the chance to immunize Mohammad Ashar for free during the past five years.
Instead, Hamid Aziz says he listened to the advice of a cleric in his village, who announced over loudspeakers of the madrasah, a local Islamic religious school, that the vaccine was “not good” for children’s health, and prevented it from being administered to any of his sons.
Whenever teams of government and international aid workers came to his village as part of a massive polio-eradication campaign, Aziz and his illiterate wife, Huma, hid Mohammad Ashar and his siblings and told the vaccination teams there were no children in their home. “Why didn’t I give the vaccine to my son?” says Aziz, who quit school at the age of 14 and knew nothing about the polio vaccine.
“We believed what our cleric told us, but now I realize that we’ve not done the right thing for our son,” Aziz tells RFE/RL. “We realize how important it was and that we should have let him get the vaccine.”
Perceptions And Misinformation
Public health studies in Pakistan have shown that maternal illiteracy and low parental knowledge about vaccines -- together with poverty and rural residency -- are factors that most commonly influence whether children are vaccinated against the polio virus. Nooran Afridi, a pediatrician at a private clinic in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region, says one of the biggest obstacles to eradicating polio in Pakistan has been “refusals” stemming from “antipolio propaganda” spread by conservative Islamic clerics in “backward areas.” One common fallacy in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan with low literacy rates is that the vaccine sterilizes young boys. Antipolio propaganda also has been fueled by distrust in Western governments who fund vaccine programs -- particularly after the CIA staged a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in 2011 to confirm the location of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Since then, some clerics have even issued fatwas saying that children who become paralyzed or die from polio are “martyrs” because they refused to be tricked by a Western conspiracy.
Taliban militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan also have propagandized that Western-made vaccines contain pig fat or alcohol, which are both forbidden in Islam. Pakistan’s Tehrik-i Taliban has used that false claim to justify its killing of more than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan since a massive polio-eradication effort was launched in 2012.
Massive Eradication Effort
|A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Karachi, Pakistan, in April.|
More than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan have been killed by Taliban militants since a massive polio eradication effort was launched in 2012. More than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan have been killed by Taliban militants since a massive polio eradication effort was launched in 2012. The effort has brought Pakistan’s paralytic polio rate to its lowest level since the early 1990s.
Six of the world’s 17 paralytic cases in 2017 were reported in Pakistan, compared to 20 in 2016 and a peak of 198 cases in 2011.
In Afghanistan, there were 11 paralytic polio cases in 2017, down slightly from 13 the year before.
The WHO, which treats Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single epidemiological block, has warned that the risk of the spread of polio remains high along the countries' 1,500-kilometer shared border -- particularly among nomadic tribes that travel within both countries and across the frontier.
But the WHO also has been encouraged by Pakistan’s eradication efforts in its tribal regions along the border, where no new paralytic cases were reported during 2017. Completely eradicating polio from Pakistan “will depend on reaching all children who have not been vaccinated,” it said in a late November report. Both countries demonstrated “strong progress, with independent technical advisory groups underscoring the feasibility of rapidly interrupting transmission of the remaining polio virus strains,” according to the WHO, which also praised closely coordinated Afghan-Pakistani initiatives to identify children missed by vaccination programs and to understand why they were missed.
Pakistan had hoped to be removed from the list of polio-endemic countries by the end of 2017 by achieving its goal of no new paralytic cases for a year -- a result achieved by Nigeria in October.
Rana Safdar, coordinator for Pakistan’s national Emergency Operations Center for Polio Eradication, announced in April that Pakistan was “about to defeat polio” because of a continued political commitment from Islamabad and support from international and Pakistani partners in the eradication programs.
The next round of mass vaccinations in Pakistan is scheduled for the end of December. Mezhar Nisar, a member of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s polio eradication task force, says he is confident the disease “is on the way to being rooted out from Pakistan.''
“We have addressed all the refusal issues in our overall social-mobilization strategy,” Nisar told RFE/RL. “We have involved religious scholars from the Ulema councils and community-based women health workers. This has brought the number of vaccination refusals to the minimal level. The program is fully on track.”
The Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) on December 8 praised the prime minister’s “hands-on approach” with Pakistani provincial leaders. Meanwhile, in Cairo, the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication has issued a new training manual for madrasah students that supports polio eradication efforts with practical guidance about engaging with local communities in support of vaccination. Endpolio Pakistan, which brings nongovernmental and government experts in Pakistan together with international health organizations, says declarations by Muslim scholars in Ulema councils were critical to eliminating new paralytic polio cases during 2017 from Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. In the town of Akora Khattak in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party chief Maulana Samiul Haq declared a fatwa in late 2013 at the Darul Uloom Haqqania religious seminary, stating that “there is nothing forbidden” in the polio vaccine.
Haq, who had close ties with the late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, said it is “the responsibility” of the religious scholars in the Ulema councils "to remove misconceptions about the use of vaccines to protect children from the crippling disease.”
He also publicly declared that Islamic Shari'a law “has made it clear that there is no harm in it. Rather, the treatment is an obligation.”
Other clerics have issued appeals for ordinary citizens, religious scholars, and tribal elders to fully support the polio vaccination initiative across Pakistan so that every child is vaccinated -- insisting that the vaccine's ingredients are, beyond any doubt, permissible under traditional Islamic law.
Hamid Aziz says he wishes he would have had that kind of Islamic instruction when his son was born in 2012.
Instead, Aziz is now struggling on his intermittent wages of about $7 per day to come up with the funds needed to buy the leg braces that his youngest son will need to use for the rest of his life in order to walk.
“Now I am asking other parents to allow the medical workers to administer the polio vaccine to their children,” Aziz told RFE/RL. “It is good for your children.”
Bilawal Bhutto telephoned Kashif, son of renowned literary and journalism figure Munnu Bhai (late) and offered condolence on the sad demise of his father
Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari telephoned Kashif, son of renowned literary and journalism figure Munnu Bhai (late) and offered condolence on the sad demise of his father on Friday evening. Chairman PPP also paid tributes to Munnu Bhai for his great contribution in the fields of progressive literature and journalism during the conversation.
Friday, January 19, 2018
President Donald Trump once was skeptical of the totalitarian dictatorship commonly known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He complained, correctly, that Saudis had funded terrorism against America and wondered why the U.S. subsidized protection of a wealthy petro-state.
However, after taking office the president, perhaps affected by abundant flattery judiciously employed by people highly skilled in the art, acted like just another Westerner hired by the Saudi royals to do their bidding. After his visit Riyadh’s wish seemingly became Washington’s command. The result has been a steady assault on American interests and values.
The West’s relationship with the Kingdom always has been transactional. Abdul Aziz ibn Saud forged the new Saudi nation after the fortuitous collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The Kingdom mattered little until the discovery of oil in 1938. Abundant petroleum won America’s “friendship.”
Successive presidents have celebrated the bilateral relationship, sometimes with unseemly faux intimacy, even though the two countries shared little other than a desire to keep the oil flowing one way and dollars the other. The KSA belongs in another age. The country is an absolute, not constitutional, monarchy. Nor is rule based on primogeniture. Rather, until a couple years ago the crown was passed among an ever-aging set of brothers who were sons of ibn Saud. That tended to result in short and decrepit reigns, as well as collegial rule. The benefits of a royal pedigree were substantial; by one count around 7000 princes shared the nation’s bounty.
The royals long ago made a deal with fundamentalist Wahhabist clergy: the former would enforce social totalitarianism at home in return for the latter teaching obedience to the royals. One result was to create a state perhaps more hostile to Christianity and other non-Muslim faiths than even North Korea. At least the latter hosts a few official churches, presenting a thin veneer of religious diversity.
However, low oil prices and youthful population created increasing strain in the KSA. But hope for reform never was satisfied. Elderly and infirm kings came and died, only to be replaced by even more elderly and infirm rulers. Now the U.S. is dealing with a very different personality, the 32-year-old crown prince (and de facto sovereign) Mohammed bin Salman. In 2015 King Salman assumed the thrown and anointed his favorite son as deputy crown prince, then appointed MbS as heir apparent last year, as the current crown prince is known. The Saudi regime once was cautious and measured, unwilling to let anything disturb the good life enjoyed by royals with few skills other than maneuvering amidst the complex al-Saud family. However, King Salman almost immediately put MbS in charge of the Kingdom’s affairs. The latter immediately took his nation in conflicting directions. His government promoted economic opportunity and social modernity, while deepening political repression and seeking military hegemony.
It is a toxic mix that threatens America’s interests in the Middle East.
MbS won a reputation as a reformer by relaxing some of the KSA’s most archaic restrictions, especially on women. These were welcome, long-overdue steps. However, liberty, such as it is, remains limited to personal life. Islam may become looser, but it remains the only acceptable faith. Although the young are invited to choose a more liberal lifestyle, they may not intrude in politics, and certainly not criticize the Saudi “Decider,” as President George W. Bush once anointed himself. Indeed, MbS turned a rather ramshackle, collegial authoritarian aristocracy into a more traditional personal dictatorship. It is to speed the process of reform, insist the crown prince’s overseas admirers. Yet the ruthless seizure of power, calculated centralization of authority, and brutal shakedown of wealthy princes bode ill for the future. Repackaging what would be viewed as shocking abuses elsewhere cannot sanitize MbS’s rule. Particularly striking is the ongoing use of the security agencies to arrest and torture high profile members of the hyper-moneyed class to force them to disgorge their assets. This supposed crackdown on “corruption” looks more like the better-armed gang members changing how the loot gets divvied up once the criminal heist is completed. After all, the al-Sauds have no moral claim to their people’s wealth. Which of the elite gets to spend most of it—MBS recently acquired a luxury yacht, French estate, and DaVinci painting—is a practical issue of little consequence for average Saudis.
Riyadh’s new foreign policy has been even more problematic. Before MbS claimed kingly authority, Saudi Arabia intervened in Syria on behalf of radical jihadists who pose a far greater threat to the West than ever did the repressive but secular Assad regime. Riyadh also intervened militarily to back Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy against the majority Shia population. However, the crown prince is responsible for Saudi Arabia’s worst blunder, launching a brutal, bloody war in neighboring Yemen to reinstall a puppet regime. The long-running domestic Yemeni conflict has turned into an international sectarian war in which at little cost to itself Iran has been able to bleed Saudi Arabia.
MbS also launched last year’s de facto blockade of Qatar, which divided the Gulf—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain joined Riyadh, while Oman and Kuwait remained neutral—and pushed Doha toward both Iran and Turkey. Although the KSA claimed to be targeting terrorism, historically it has been one of the most important sources of money and people for terrorists, especially those targeting America. President Trump tweeted his support for Riyadh, but the Departments of State and Defense tilted toward Qatar. More recently MbS invited the Lebanese prime minister to Saudi Arabia, then effectively kidnapped him and forced him to proclaim his resignation. International pressure forced the Kingdom to release Saad Hariri, after which he recanted his resignation. The KSA threatened to destroy that nation’s fragile peace in an attempt to weaken the Shia Hezbollah movement, backed by Iran, but ended up strengthening Riyadh’s opponents.
MbS’ pursuit of Mideast hegemony would be antithetical to U.S. interests at most any time. Adding to his recklessness is the fact his primary target is Iran. Admittedly, the latter poses an existential threat to a royal form of government which makes no sense in the modern age. Although Tehran’s Islamic dictatorship begs for a popular revolution, at least the existing Iranian government is based on principle, though highly flawed. People are willing to die for Islam. But for a pampered royal elite which believes itself to be entitled to power, position, wealth, and more? Not so much.
So the crown prince hopes to convince—or, more likely, manipulate—the Trump administration to do Riyadh’s dirty work and attack Iran. Indeed, MbS’s government charged Tehran with alleged committing an act of war by allegedly arming Yemen with missiles which were being fired at Riyadh. The claim was unproved. Moreover, Saudi Arabia was routinely bombing Yemen, including the capital of Sanaa, and had killed thousands of civilians. Contending that Yemenis had no right to fight back was, well, obscene. Such is the Saudi code of war. The U.S. needs to put distance between it and a regime that undermines both U.S. values and interests. Best for America would be rough parity between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Despite fear-mongering promoted by both the Saudi and Israeli governments, Tehran so far poses little threat to anyone, especially the U.S. Iran’s military forces and outlays dramatically trail those of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Although Republican politicians routinely tar Tehran as a terrorist regime, Riyadh has done far more to underwrite terrorist movements, which almost always are Sunni rather than Shiite. Before President Trump foolishly treated Iranians as the enemy by impeding contacts with the West, President Barack Obama’s outreach and nuclear agreement had created the possibility of a better future, encouraging a long-term political battle between younger, professional, and urban Iranians and discredited if still powerful Islamic fundamentalists. As for Iran’s alleged geopolitical gains, none impress: greater influence in the political wreckage known as the Assad government; temporary increase in clout with one Yemeni faction in a nation riven by civil war which has never known peace and stability; and maintenance of an indirect role in Lebanon’s badly fractured society through Hezbollah, but with little practical international effect. Most significant may be Iran’s increased clout in Iraq, which, of course, was a gift from George W. Bush, who removed Saddam Hussein from power. That predictably enhanced the role of Iraq’s majority Shia neighbor, in which many of today’s Iraqi elite sheltered during Hussein’s dictatorship. Still, most Iraqis have no interest in being governed from Tehran.
The Trump administration would well start by ending U.S. support for the KSA’s murderous and purposeless war in Yemen. The president should indicate that Saudi Arabia’s efforts would better be directed against any remaining pockets of Islamic State fighters in the region. He also should back Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson by criticizing Riyadh’s foolish attempt to turn Qatar into a puppet state. Assuming MbS is serious about battling Islamic extremism, Washington should suggest that the crown prince end his nation’s support for intolerant Wahhabism abroad while doing more to clean up textbooks and sermons at home.
Rather than inadvertently aid Iran’s radicals by legitimizing their meme of eternal American hostility, the U.S. should expand prospective opportunities for a reformed Iran, encouraging political struggle within. And Washington should push the Kingdom and UAE to do the same, essentially following the softer line offered by Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman. If MbS wants to start a war with Iran, he should know he will be on his own.
During the Cold War Washington’s close embrace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made a certain strategic sense, though the enthusiasm exhibited by American policymakers never did. Today a far more limited, arms-length relationship is needed. Despite acclaim for MbS as a far-sighted reformer, his chief talents appear to be accumulating and abusing power. Perhaps he will mature over time, but American policy should not be dependent on such a transformation.
By Nicolas Niarchos
The conflict has killed at least ten thousand civilians, and the country faces famine. Why are we still involved?
Funerals in Yemen are traditionally large affairs. When prominent figures die, hundreds or even thousands of people come to pay their respects and to pray for them. Abdulqader Hilal Al-Dabab, the mayor of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, could expect such treatment. But Hilal used to ask for a simple burial. “If I get killed when I’m in office, I don’t want a state funeral,” he told his sons. He wanted to be buried in a grave he’d reserved next to his father’s.
Hilal had seen enough devastation to know to make plans for his demise. In the past three decades, Yemen has had nine wars, two insurgencies, and a revolution; Hilal governed a region with strong ties to Al Qaeda, and had survived an assassination attempt. A father of eleven, he was a former marathon runner who won North Yemen’s inter-university challenge three times. In Sana’a, Hilal kept a garden with a gazebo, where he received guests. Stephen Seche, the former United States Ambassador to Yemen, recalled sitting there while Hilal explained Yemeni politics. Other diplomats saw him as a moderating force, someone who could negotiate the intricate mesh of tribal, business, and political affiliations that make up Yemeni society.
Yemen’s most recent conflict began in early 2015, when Houthi rebels, from the country’s northern highlands, overran Sana’a and a Saudi-led coalition began bombing them. The Houthis allied with a former President and co-opted tribal networks in an effort to solidify and expand their power. Now they control much of the northwest of the country, while the internationally recognized government holds the south and the east. The Saudi coalition is made up of nine Middle Eastern and African countries, and is supported by the United States. Sana’a has been in Houthi hands since the start of the war, but Hilal was neutral. “He had a lot of the right characteristics of somebody who you easily could have seen as being the person that would have been a consensus figure to emerge as a new transition President or Vice-President or Prime Minister,” Matthew Tueller, the current U.S. Ambassador, told me.
In early October, 2016, the father of Hilal’s close friend Jalal al-Ruwayshan died. Ruwayshan, the Minister of the Interior, was working with Hilal in negotiating between Yemen’s various factions to end the war. The Ruwayshan family announced that it would receive condolences at the Al-Sala Al-Kubra Community Hall, in Sana’a. On the night before the funeral, Hilal’s son Hussein called his father and asked him to urge the Ruwayshan family to consider postponing the event. Since the beginning of the war, the Saudi coalition’s air strikes have hit large civilian gatherings. Hilal replied that the Saudi Air Force would not bomb the funeral. “Even war has morals,” he said. As Hilal left for the funeral, Ammar Yahiya al-Hebari was preparing his d.j. mixing board at the community hall. Hebari is a solid-looking forty-year-old, with a white stripe in his hair. He is famous across northern Yemen as a funeral chanter. Like Hilal, Hebari thought there would not be a strike. The rebels and the Saudi government had just agreed to a U.N.-brokered truce, and the funeral “was not a political or political-party gathering,” he told me.
In the early afternoon, the hall began to fill with men wearing white head scarves and the traditional curved daggers, called janbiyas, in their belts. Many were chewing high-quality khat, a mild stimulant leaf, which had been brought from Khawlan, the seat of the Ruwayshan family. At around one-thirty, Hebari started to chant. He estimated that some three thousand people had crowded into the hall. A rumor spread that the former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Houthi ally, would soon arrive. Documents given to Nawal Al-Maghafi, a journalist who made a documentary about the day’s events for the BBC, show that informants were providing the Saudi coalition with updates on who was there. When Hilal arrived, Hebari noticed how relaxed he appeared. At one point, a beggar approached Hilal. His guards tried to shoo the man away, but Hilal reached into his shirt pocket and gave the beggar all his cash. “This was his last act,” Hebari told me. A little after three o’clock, one of Hilal’s guards heard a noise. It was a coalition jet, crashing eastward through the hot afternoon sky. “Boss, I heard a jet,” he said. Hilal looked at him and shook his head. The hall rumbled with the noise of an aircraft a second time, louder, lower. The guard turned nervously to Hilal. The Mayor grinned and said, “Son, I’m not going to leave.” The third time that the hall shook, Hilal’s guard heard the sound of air whistling against the tail fins of a bomb as it zigzagged toward them, its guidance system making corrections to its trajectory. “Sir, it’s a missile!” he shouted. Hilal was smiling. The floor erupted in flames. As the guard lost consciousness, he saw a wall collapse and crush Hilal.
More than a hundred and forty mourners were killed and five hundred were wounded in the strike. Afterward, Yemeni investigators unearthed a tail fin of one of the bombs. The serial number indicates that the bomb, a Mark-82—a sleek steel case eighty-seven inches long, twelve inches in diameter, and filled with five hundred pounds of explosive—was produced by Raytheon, the third-largest defense company in the United States. The bomb had been modified with a laser guidance system, made in factories in Arizona and Texas, called a Paveway-II. The weapons are sometimes referred to as “dumb bombs with graduate degrees.” “They had been sold to the Saudis on the understanding that they would make their targeting more accurate,” Mark Hiznay, the associate arms director at Human Rights Watch, told me. “It turned out that the Saudis were failing to take all the feasible precautions in attacks that were killing civilians accurately.” Many who died had been negotiating between the warring factions. “It was such a foolish strike, because even the Saudis recognized that more people who were sympathetic to the Saudi position than the Houthi position were killed,” a senior State Department official told me. I asked a senior Arab diplomat from the Saudi coalition whom he could envisage in a transition government. “Who would you hand Yemen to? Who would be part of that?” he asked. “There is nobody.” Since the war began, at least ten thousand Yemeni civilians have been killed, though the number is potentially much higher, because few organizations on the ground have the resources to count the dead. Some three million people have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands have left the country. Before the war, Yemen was the Middle East’s poorest state, relying on imports to feed the population. Now, after effectively being blockaded by the coalition for more than two and a half years, it faces famine. More than a million people have cholera, and thousands have died from the disease. unicef, the World Food Program, and the World Health Organization have called the situation in Yemen the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Yet the U.S. and Great Britain have continued to support the coalition, mainly with weapons sales and logistical help. (A small contingent of U.S. Special Forces fights Al Qaeda militants in the south of the country.) Without foreign assistance, it would be very difficult for the Saudis to wage war. As casualties mount, legislators in the U.S. have begun to question support for the Saudis. Nonetheless, the Administration of Donald Trump has refused to criticize the kingdom.
“Maybe he’s not leading us back to his parking space.”
Yemen’s history is marked by foreign interventions that have failed to reckon with the complexity of the country’s politics. In the nineteen-seventies, the country was divided into South Yemen and North Yemen. In 1978, Saleh, a young colonel, took power in the North, after his predecessor was killed by a Communist agent with a suitcase bomb. Saleh was little known, and not from the Yemeni élite, but he was skilled at manipulating the country’s mixture of tribes, religious groups, and interested foreign parties—a feat he called “dancing on the heads of snakes.” When the two Yemens unified, in 1990, it was under Saleh’s leadership. The Saudis saw Saleh as an effective but unreliable ally, and they began to influence Yemen by going around him. Flush with money donated by sheikhs from the Gulf states, Yemenis who had been living in Saudi Arabia came home and founded schools that promoted Salafi Islam, an austere Sunni doctrine that is closely linked to the Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia. The Salafis soon became a powerful religious and political constituency, and they preached against Zaydism, the branch of Islam that the Houthis practice.
The Houthi movement takes its name from the Houthi family, whose home province, Saada, in the north of Yemen, has always enjoyed a degree of autonomy. (A long-serving State Department employee remembers visiting an open-air arms market there soon after Saleh came to power. He was told that he could order a Polish tank.) In a photograph of the family taken in the nineteen-nineties, Badreddin al-Houthi, a small man with dark eyes and the traditional white turban of an imam, is dwarfed by his sons, who surround him. At the beginning of the nineties, Badreddin began to organize the Houthi clan to counter the Salafi movement around Saada.
Badreddin had four wives and at least thirteen sons, who set up popular summer camps, which, by the mid-nineties, had attracted some twenty thousand people. The camps, using rhetoric borrowed from Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and its Iranian backers, promoted Zaydi Islam. They also embraced the causes of Shiites, whom they saw as being oppressed by Sunnis around the Middle East and North Africa. Badreddin’s sons screened videos of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. In the mid-nineties, Badreddin’s eldest son, Hussein, travelled to Qom, a Shiite center of learning in Iran, where he reportedly began developing ties to the Iranian regime. When he returned to Yemen, he started denouncing the U.S. and Israel. He founded Ansar Allah, the political movement that came to be known as the Houthis. In January, 2002, he delivered “A Scream in the Face of the Arrogant,” a speech that ended with a slogan that is now chanted by Houthis, and which, in red and green Arabic letters, adorns fighters’ assault rifles:
God is great!
Death to America!
Death to Israel!
A curse on the Jews!
Victory for Islam!
Saleh, who had begun receiving weapons and equipment from the U.S., in exchange for promising to oppose terrorism, found this anti-Americanism untenable, and sent troops to the north. In June, 2004, Hussein took refuge in the mountains and began a guerrilla war. Saleh’s troops found the cave in which he was hiding, poured gasoline inside, and set it on fire. Hussein was soon captured and, in September, Saleh’s government announced that he had been killed, and hung posters of his corpse around Saada. In the following decade, the Houthis fought six wars with Saleh’s government. “Those wars really were brutal,” Bernard Haykel, a scholar of the Middle East who visited Saada at the time, told me. They “pushed the Houthis to the edge of despair: huge numbers of casualties, lots of generally displaced people.” During this period, the Saudis largely ignored Yemen. “I think that a vacuum was created that was filled by Iran and Hezbollah,” Haykel said. “Lots of Houthis and Zaydis were going back and forth to Beirut and also to Iran.” Still, Iranian investment was limited. As Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi Arabia who teaches at Texas A. & M., said, “The Houthis wanted to be affiliated with the Iranians much more than the Iranians wanted to be affiliated with them.” In 2009, at Saleh’s request, the Saudis began attacking the Houthis. Abdulqader Hilal had led efforts at mediation with the Houthis, but he had resigned after he was accused of sending a sweet cake to a rebel leader. The Houthis were more useful to Saleh as enemies: a leaked State Department cable shows that he tried to kill one of his generals, who he thought posed a threat to his power, by telling the Royal Saudi Air Force that his headquarters was a Houthi target; multiple reports from soldiers indicate that Saleh allowed the Houthis to rearm, and even left them weaponry.
At the same time, Saleh told the U.S. that he was being undermined by the Iranians, and he requested more funding. “The Houthis are your enemies, too,” Saleh told John Brennan, President Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, when he visited that year. “Iran is trying to settle old scores against the U.S.” Seche noted that, since 2002, the U.S. had spent more than a hundred and fifteen million dollars equipping Saleh’s forces. These days, Hezbollah’s and Iran’s relationship with the Houthis is no secret. Hassan Nasrallah and Abdelmalik al-Houthi, the current head of the movement, praise each other in videos posted online. Iran has not admitted to arming the Houthis, but I recently asked a senior Iranian diplomat whether his country was supporting the Houthis. “Iran has its own self-interest in the region,” he told me. When I pressed him, he smiled and replied, “Iran is no saint.” In early 2011, April Alley, a researcher for the International Crisis Group, was sitting with Abdulqader Hilal at a friend’s house, where he was hosting a khat-chewing gathering. On TV, protesters in Tunisia were demanding that their President step down. It was the beginning of the Arab Spring. “We were all debating what it would mean for Yemen, exactly,” Alley said. “And I remember him saying it wouldn’t be the same.” Yemen’s situation differed from that of countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where authority was centralized, and most of the weapons were held by the military. Yemen had the second-highest level of civilian gun ownership in the world, and the armed forces had divided loyalties. “Yemen is different going into all these things,” Hilal said.
Protesters gathered in Sana’a, and a violent year followed, in which government troops shot demonstrators and Saleh was wounded in a bomb attack. In February, 2012, he stepped down. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, a diminutive bureaucrat who had served as Vice-President, began a two-year term. But the Houthis, who had participated in the uprising against Saleh, argued that power-sharing reforms endorsed by Hadi unfairly removed the northern regions’ access to the sea. They started pushing southward, out of their traditional homeland. After Saleh left office, Abdulqader Hilal was appointed mayor of Sana’a. In 2014, when the Houthis began fighting Sunni Islamists on the outskirts of the capital, he led a negotiating team to enforce a truce that both sides had signed. “We just climbed the mountain to talk to them, and reminded them of what the agreement had been,” his son Hussein told me. “We were successful to stop this round of the war.” A couple of months later, Saleh resurfaced, having performed a remarkable feat of political acrobatics: after leaving office, he had begun secretly collaborating with the Houthis. With his help, the Houthis invaded Sana’a, where, under the guise of fighting corruption, they began to install their leaders in key positions. After the Houthis took Sana’a, Hilal complained that their forces were stealing municipal equipment. When his car was stolen at a checkpoint, he briefly resigned. Hadi, who, though under house arrest, was still technically the head of state, refused his resignation. Hilal used his position to negotiate the release of high-profile officials who were being held by the Houthis. “We were expecting at any time that the Houthis might also keep my father from going outside his home,” Hussein said. “But that didn’t happen.”
In March, 2015, Hadi managed to escape, fleeing south. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain, and seven other Arab and African countries, began bombing Yemen, with the stated aim of restoring Hadi to the Presidency. In Washington and Riyadh, Saudi diplomats and soldiers assured their U.S. counterparts that the war would be over within six weeks. A U.N. Security Council resolution legitimatized their intervention. Some officials in Washington were skeptical of the Saudis’ plans, however. “I think they had a slightly rosier interpretation of how quickly the military effort would be successful,” Nitin Chadda, who was an adviser on national security to the White House, told me. The Saudis had been “choreographing” their desire to take steps against the Houthis, because they were uncomfortable with the idea of an Iranian proxy on their border, he said. But the specific plans to attack Yemen were not communicated to the U.S. Within D.C. circles, Chadda said, “there was certainly frustration” that the Saudis had acted so quickly, without clearly defining their long-term objectives. In May, Andrew Exum was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy. “When I arrived, I sensed a lot of frustration,” he told me. The Administration was unsure about whether it wanted to be involved in the war. “Are we supposed to help the Saudis win or not? I don’t think we ever made our mind up there.”
Hilal decided to remain mayor of Sana’a, because he was concerned for the inhabitants, Hussein told me. “We’re talking about four million lives, we’re talking about people from everywhere in Yemen,” he said. “If he left office, things would be under the control of Houthis,” who had no experience running large metropolitan areas. In speeches to citizens, Hilal urged a kind of Blitz spirit: “Keep going for the glory of Yemen, for the ascendance of Yemen, for the stability of Yemen, for the revival of Yemen.” The Saudis pounded Saada day and night, using bombs and cluster munitions, but they didn’t manage to dislodge the Houthis. Exum told me, “It was always going to be exceptionally difficult for the Saudis and the Emiratis to achieve a desired political outcome through the use of primarily air forces.” Apart from a couple of skirmishes, the Saudis used no ground troops. On May 8th, a spokesperson for the Saudi Army declared the entire city of Saada and a nearby area to be “military targets.” Within two months, air strikes had destroyed two hundred and twenty-six buildings in the city. In November, 2015, despite American skepticism toward the Saudi war plan and evidence of heavy civilian casualties, the Obama Administration agreed to a giant weapons sale totalling $1.29 billion. The Saudis were authorized to buy seven thousand and twenty Paveway-II bombs. By the end of Obama’s Presidency, the U.S. had offered more than a hundred and fifteen billion dollars’ worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, the largest amount under any President, including warships, air-defense systems, and tanks.
The history of large-scale arms sales to Saudi Arabia dates to the late sixties, when U.S. weapons manufacturers realized that the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the era were being fought with Soviet and French arms. “For our defense companies, it was very frustrating,” Rachel Bronson, the author of “Thicker Than Oil,” a 2006 book on U.S.-Saudi relations, told me. The arms manufacturers lobbied the U.S. government, contending that arms sales were good policy. After all, U.S. experts would have to assemble and maintain the weapons, which could theoretically be dismantled if the Saudis were pursuing anti-U.S. policies. It was also good business: in 2016, the maintenance contract for the Royal Saudi Air Force’s two hundred and thirty F-15 fighter jets alone was worth $2.5 billion.
The Obama Administration saw Saudi Arabia both as a bulwark against terrorism and as a counterbalance to Iran. In “Kings and Presidents,” a book on the history of U.S.-Saudi relations, the former C.I.A. officer Bruce Riedel writes that “no president since Franklin Roosevelt courted Saudi Arabia as zealously as did Obama.” Not only did Obama authorize more arms sales than any other U.S. President; he visited Saudi Arabia more frequently than any of his predecessors. On his first trip to the Middle East, Riyadh was his first stop. But, during the Arab Spring, the Saudis became angered by Obama’s failure to support their allies in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. The nuclear deal with Iran, signed in mid-2015, upset them further. “The Obama Administration was legitimately worried that a major fissure between the United States and Saudi Arabia could weaken the Iran deal,” Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, who has opposed the U.S. government’s policy in Yemen, told me. “I think these arms sales were a way to placate the Saudis.” The Obama Administration found itself entangled in the complexities of a war that involved so many regional players. The confusion extended to humanitarian concerns. Jeremy Konyndyk, at the time the director of usaid’s office of U.S. foreign-disaster assistance, told me that it often seemed as if the Saudis were thwarting efforts to get food to Yemen’s starving populace. Another former senior Administration official told me that the U.S. government spent four million dollars on cranes to unload relief ships at the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, but the coalition, which had blockaded Yemen, did not allow the cranes into the country.
U.S. officials tried to help the Saudis improve their targeting. They eventually expanded a “no strike” list to include thirty-three thousand targets. “We broadened and broadened and broadened that list over time as the Saudis kept striking things that we would have thought they wouldn’t strike,” Konyndyk told me. The State Department sent an expert, Larry Lewis, to Saudi Arabia. When a civilian target was hit, Lewis wanted to help the Saudis implement ways of investigating the incident, to “avoid the same kind of thing happening again,” he said. Lower-ranking Saudis seemed pained by the casualties. “There was definitely a feeling that, of course we want to protect civilians, you know, we’re good Muslims,” Lewis said. The Saudi leadership was less concerned; as Lewis put it, from the rank of lieutenant colonel upward “there was less pressure for change.”
In the last months of the Obama Administration, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to mediate between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the Saudi-backed government. Hilal and Ruwayshan were involved in efforts to negotiate peace. But the meetings collapsed, owing first to Houthi intransigence and then to Hadi’s resistance to a U.N. road map to the negotiations. As Peter Salisbury, a fellow of Chatham House, the British policy institute, told me, the Houthis have few incentives to negotiate, because, “from their perspective, they’re doing the best they’ve ever done.” U.S. officials also noted Iran’s open support for the Houthis. “They were basically waving at our surveillance aircraft,” one official told me. In retrospect, this seems to have been a calculated move. “Remember that the Iranians in Yemen will always get a phenomenally high return on investments,” Salisbury said. “Let’s say they’re spending ten, twenty, thirty million dollars a year on Yemen. The Saudis are spending billions of dollars a year.” The funeral-hall strike that killed Hilal appalled the U.S. officials who had been working with the coalition to reduce civilian casualties. The Saudi government initially denied responsibility for the bombing. On October 9th, a U.S. spokesman made an unusually harsh statement, saying, “U.S. security coöperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check.” A few days later, the coalition admitted that it had dropped the bombs, but blamed bad intelligence from its Yemeni partners. The informants had erroneously indicated that Saleh was in the hall: the leader’s security detail had entered, but Saleh had remained outside. The U.S. saw the Saudi explanation as insufficient. The strike “so clearly symbolized much of what was wrong” with U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia, Robert Malley, a special assistant to the President at the time, told me. At the end of 2016, the U.S. halted the sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia. “It got to the point where the Saudi intervention was going so off the rails it was destroying the country,” Max Bergmann, a former State Department official, said. Opposition to the Saudi-led coalition grew in Congress. Ted Lieu, a Democratic representative from California, had served as a judge advocate general in the Air Force. “These look like war crimes to me,” Lieu told me. “I decided to try to help those who don’t have a voice. There were really no lobbyists out there championing civilians in Yemen.” In July, the House had passed the Lieu Amendment, which increased the obligation for the State Department and the Department of Defense to report whether the Saudi-led coalition was prosecuting the war in a way that abided by their humanitarian commitments.
A month after the funeral-hall strike, Donald Trump was elected President. In January, when he was inaugurated, he promised a review of Obama’s foreign policy. “Their objective is a strong relationship with the Saudis, a strong relationship with the Emiratis,” Bruce Riedel told me. “Yemen is just not a priority.” The Saudis lobbied Trump’s National Security Council for the cranes purchased by usaid for Hodeidah to be returned. The National Security Council acceded, and the cranes have been sent to storage, at the U.S.’s expense. The former senior Administration official told me, “Since January, you’ve seen the humanitarian situation in Yemen fall off a cliff, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” According to Rajat Madhok, of unicef, the cholera crisis and the malnutrition are unprecedented. “ ‘Bad’ would be an understatement,” Madhok told me. “You’re looking at a health collapse, a systemic collapse.” Trump’s connections to Saudi Arabia are hardly hidden. During the 2016 election, his organization opened eight companies there, which he subsequently closed after their existence was made public. Shortly after his Inauguration, in January of last year, as Isaac Arnsdorf reported for Politico, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia checked into a Trump hotel and ended up spending more than a quarter of a million dollars. In April, Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, signed on to a partnership with a law and lobbying firm retained by Saudi Arabia. In May, Trump travelled to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip. Amid great pageantry, he posed for a strange photograph with the King, their hands atop a glowing orb, and performed a traditional sword dance. According to documents obtained by the Daily Beast, the Saudis presented Trump with lavish gifts, including robes lined with tiger and cheetah fur. While there, Trump announced a hundred-and-ten-billion-dollar arms deal. Reversing Obama’s decision, precision-guided missiles were included in the package. Trump said that the deal would see “hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Since the election, Saudi Arabia has increased its lobbying presence in Washington. Some of the lobbyists have even found their way into Trump’s government: soon after being hired as a commissioner for White House fellowships, Rick Hohlt, a Republican political consultant from Indiana, filed forms indicating that he had received nearly half a million dollars from the government of Saudi Arabia. Hohlt declined to speak with me, but he told the Center for Public Integrity that he was involved in lobbying congressional officials about weapons sales. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is also associated with the Saudis. He has flown to the kingdom repeatedly for secret talks. In a relationship fostered by the Emiratis and by the Lebanese-American businessman Thomas Barrack, who is a friend of Trump’s, Kushner has grown close to King Salman’s thirty-two-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a chief proponent of the war in Yemen. (Gause, the professor at Texas A. & M. University, told me, “This is his war, it was his idea, he owns it.”) Kushner negotiated the new arms deal. As initially reported by the Times, he called Marillyn Hewson, the chair of Lockheed Martin, and asked her to lower the price of a radar system. According to a number of current and former government officials and weapons experts, Kushner’s action was irregular. It was also bad dealmaking. “Usually, a U.S. official would be lobbying a foreign government on behalf of U.S. industry, not vice versa,” Andrew Exum told me. “That just struck me as odd.”
As Riedel and others pointed out, however, the deal isn’t all that it appears to be. Riedel said that the agreement doesn’t actually commit the Saudis to purchasing arms. With falling oil prices, he said, “where is Saudi Arabia going to get a hundred and ten billion dollars these days to buy more weapons?”
Still, a parsing of Trump’s words is terrifying; when he visited Riyadh, he made no mention of human rights. As the senior State Department official told me, “The Trump Administration has decided to de-link the human-rights dialogue from the security-support dialogue.” Senator Murphy told me that the U.S.’s support for the coalition will prove detrimental to the country’s interests. “Our first job is to protect our citizenry, and, to me, these arms sales put U.S. lives in jeopardy,” he said. Dafna H. Rand, a Middle East expert who covered Yemen for the State Department under Obama, said, “The longer this war goes on, the longer there’s a risk of deep resentment against the United States that will be radicalizing and lead to full-strain extremism.” The Yemenis I spoke to expressed frustration with the U.S.’s role in the war. “We used to love and appreciate the U.S., because a large number of Yemenis live there,” Hebari, the chanter, told me. The war has now changed that calculus. “What appears to me is that the U.S. is funding and Saudi Arabia is the implementer.” In August, the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh began to show cracks. The Houthis murdered a top Saleh aide at a checkpoint; in response, to prove his popularity, Saleh threw a huge celebration in Sana’a, with giant banners and blaring music. Sixteen hundred poems were composed in his honor for the event. But his power had been diminished by the conflict. “President Saleh used to say that ruling Yemen was like dancing on the heads of snakes,” Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni expert in conflict resolution, told me. “Well, now one of the snakes—the Houthis—has bitten him.” On the morning of December 4th, a group of Houthi soldiers raided Saleh’s house in Sana’a; later that day, a video was released showing his dead body in the bed of a pickup truck.
The State Department insists that it is doing everything it can to bring an end to the war and to reduce civilian casualties. “Everybody, including the Saudi leadership, agrees the war has gone on too long, proved too costly, killed too many lives, caused too much humanitarian damage, too much infrastructure damage,” Timothy Lenderking, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State who oversees Yemen policy, told me. “The Saudis are not going to get everything that they want, nor are the Houthis.” But since President Trump’s visit to Riyadh, and the new precision-guided-munitions sale, the pace of the coalition’s bombing raids has increased. In May, the Saudi foreign minister committed to expanding the no-strike list in Yemen and promised to abide by the laws of armed conflict. But, in a single week this past summer, some sixty civilians were killed in Saudi-led strikes. On August 23rd, coalition bombs killed around fifty farmers who were staying at a hotel. A journalist who visited the site said that the ceiling of the building turned black with charred blood.
Two days later, a Saudi strike, aimed at what the spokesman for the coalition later said was a Houthi command-and-control center, hit an apartment building in Sana’a. Mohamed Abdullah Sabrah, a forty-two-year-old sales supervisor at a food-importing company, lives in an apartment about thirty yards from the building that was struck. He said that the area had housed a missile-storage depot on a nearby mountain before the Houthis came to Sana’a. Since the beginning of the war, he told me, the Saudis had frequently bombed the neighborhood. Yet he hadn’t seen trucks or soldiers arriving for a long time. “It would be impossible for Ansar Allah”—the name for the Houthis—“to be stupid enough to keep weapons inside that place,” Sabrah said. On the night of the bombing, at around 2 a.m., he heard the thud of ordnance on the mountain. “We went to a corridor in my apartment that has no windows or doors, for fear of glass and shrapnel,” he told me. “We hid there. I was holding my granddaughter, and my wife was holding my daughter.” Another blast followed. “Suddenly, the whole world turned upside down, the building was shaking beneath us, and shrapnel came to us,” Sabrah went on. It was as if some malevolent spirit had rushed through the room. “Nothing was left. My furniture, the cabinets—every wooden thing was broken.”
In the rubble outside, Sabrah saw what he described as “bits and parts” of human beings. “A woman used to live with her children in one floor of the building. They used to get up in the morning and sell boiled eggs,” Sabrah told me, his anger rising. “What danger did these children pose to the coalition? What danger did they pose by selling eggs in the street?” When I asked Sabrah how he felt about U.S. involvement in the war, he replied, “America is the main sponsor of all that is happening to us.” He had reached this conclusion only recently. “The Gulf countries are merely tools in its hands.”
Intensified hostilities in Yemen have forced more than 32,000 people to flee their homes in the past two months, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
They join some two million Yemenis already displaced by the war, AFP reported Friday, citing the UNHCR.
The arrival of winter in Yemen has added to the hardship of many, particularly those displaced and living in informal settlements exposed to the elements with little protection against the cold, the agency said.
Flare-ups in fighting in the rebel-held capital Sanaa, as well as the provinces of Hodeida on the Red Sea and oil-rich Shabwa in the south, had driven the displacements, UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said.