POLITICS

Congressman Trolls Obama Administration Over Yemen Waffling

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) thinks it's silly to simultaneously call for an end to Saudi-led bombing and enable it to continue.
U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power (left) on Monday called for an end to Saudi-led strikes on Yemen.
U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power (left) on Monday called for an end to Saudi-led strikes on Yemen.

WASHINGTON ― A lawmaker critical of the United States’ role in enabling mass slaughter in Yemen is using an Obama aide’s statements to highlight problems with the administration’s narrative of the war.

After Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, urged the Saudis and their Iran-backed opponents, the Houthis, to stop fighting, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) issued a statement on Tuesday saying Power was on the right track.

“I commend U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power for calling for an end to airstrikes by the Saudi-led military coalition (which includes the United States) in Yemen,” Lieu said.

“The logical consequence of this apparent change in U.S. policy is that our nation must stop aiding and abetting the military coalition by pulling out of the coalition immediately,” he added. “The U.S. must stop refueling Saudi jets that have struck civilian targets over 70 times in Yemen; stop transferring vast amounts of arms to the Saudi military; and demand an independent investigation into allegations that multiple war crimes have been committed against Yemeni women, men and children by the Saudi-led coalition.”

Washington is not actually changing its policy, officials were quick to clarify after Power made her remarks Monday at a U.N. Security Council meeting.

But Lieu’s statement underscored how ludicrous it can sound for the U.S. to both call for strikes to end and keep enabling them with refueling, logistical support and weapons sales. 

If the U.S. were to cut its assistance, it could instantly slash the Saudi-led coalition’s ability to kill Yemenis.

Power’s critique of the Saudis seemed unusually direct, but it matches the Obama administration’s broader approach to the coalition’s missteps: be loudly critical without actually doing anything to stop them. U.S. officials regularly call for an end to the U.S.-supported airstrikes. They say they want both the coalition and the Houthis to commit to ceasing hostilities, and they were deeply invested in a 72-hour pause in fighting last month.

The U.S. won’t pressure the Saudi-led coalition to stop fighting until both sides lay down their arms, officials say. Forcing this to happen would only encourage provocations by the Houthis and anti-Saudi forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, they argue. They worry about missile strikes across Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia or further Houthi advances in contested areas that would increase tensions.

Administration officials want more attention to be paid to their efforts to make the Houthis and the pro-Saudi Yemeni government agree to U.N. peace proposals. Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s internationally recognized president, rejected the latest U.N. plan, arguing that it ignores his electoral mandate and gives too much power to the rebels, whose controversial move into the Yemeni capital in 2014 sparked the latest crisis.

Observers like Lieu challenge this logic. They believe the only way for the U.S. to show that it is serious in seeking peace is for the government to stop supporting the coalition. Human rights groups agree. And experts say that if the U.S. were to cut its assistance, it could instantly slash the coalition’s ability to kill Yemenis and achieve the kind of de-escalation of violence that Obama administration officials say they want. 

A funeral strike that killed 140 people on Oct. 8 prompted the administration to review its involvement in the war, according to White House spokespeople. However, a Huffington Post investigation found that there is almost no evidence that President Barack Obama is serious about reassessing the role of the U.S. there. As the review continues, so does the bombing: 60 people died Saturday in a strike by the U.S.-backed coalition.

Lieu’s statement suggested that the war’s critics are becoming increasingly aggressive in holding the Obama administration directly responsible for the more than 10,000 deaths in Yemen since the full-on fighting started last March.

Speaking of the U.S. as a member of the Saudi-led coalition represents a break from previous rhetoric from the congressman and other lawmakers. Even as they have blasted U.S. assistance for the coalition, they have mostly stayed loyal to the Obama administration’s argument that the president has not forced the U.S. to become a combatant in the conflict.  

Denying combatant status is one way the administration has tried to distance itself from the scores of war crimes allegedly carried out by the coalition.

But Lieu, a former military lawyer, has already argued that U.S. officials may be liable to international prosecution and investigations over those apparent violations of international law ― and a Reuters investigation found that some Obama administration lawyers felt similarly. Three laws that regulate when the U.S. can provide security assistance to foreign governments already require the Obama administration to stop helping the coalition until its excesses can be investigated, the American Bar Association has said

While less well-known than the war in Syria, the Yemen conflict is fast becoming one of the most urgent humanitarian crises in the world. The country is now “one step away from famine,” the U.N.’s humanitarian chief said Monday. 

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