The crisis in Yemen resulting from nearly four years of war seemed to reach an inflection point on August 9, when 40 boys between the ages of six and 11 were killed.
That sprawling conflict involving Saudi-led coalition forces has produced human misery on an industrial scale. Regular access to food and potable water has been disrupted throughout the country. The spread of cholera infection has reached epidemic proportions. The United Nations warned in May that millions face the prospect of starvation. And then 40 children were killed by a bomb.
According to investigators, that bomb was a laser-guided version of an Mk-82 bomb called a GBU-12 Paveway II. This is a Lockheed Martin product, and one of the thousands of similar munitions the United States sold to Saudi Arabia.
In March, 55 U.S. senators rejected a bipartisan effort to halt aid to the Saudis amid what had become a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, but this atrocity has renewed calls for U.S. divestment from the conflict. The discovery of American bomb fragments at this site made international headlines, and the coverage has a tone of moral urgency to it. Once again, activist groups and American lawmakers are asking why this violence is being committed in our names?
Elsewhere in Yemen, another American bomb is making headlines of a different sort. On Tuesday, American and Yemeni officials revealed that they have high confidence a U.S. drone strike killed Ibrahim al-Asiri, who was described by Barack Obama’s former acting CIA Director Michael Morell as “probably the most sophisticated bomb maker on the planet.”
The Saudi-born bomb-maker for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) made the sophisticated device that was smuggled onto a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day in 2009. That bomb malfunctioned because the “underwear bomber” had accidentally “degraded” the fuse. The following year, Asiri managed to smuggle bombs onto cargo planes destined for the United States. Those devices were designed to detonate simultaneously above two American cities, and the plot was only thwarted due to a last-minute tip to Saudi law enforcement. In 2009, Asiri recruited his own brother to conduct a suicide attack in the Jeddah palace of a Saudi prince.
Asiri is one of many AQAP leaders and mid-level commanders dispatched by U.S. drone patrols in Yemen, and Americans are safer because of those operations. Those American bombs get less attention than the munitions the United States provides to Saudi Arabia and its allies around the world, but they are all part of the same campaign.
The bomb that killed 40 young boys on August 9 was part of a shipment to Saudi Arabia that was approved by the State Department in 2015, under President Barack Obama. That was not a particularly controversial move at the time. By then, the president was facing bipartisan criticism from lawmakers for being too cautious about engaging in the nascent Yemeni civil war. “We need some special operations in these countries on the ground,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told CBS News amid a new wave of Islamist terror in the Middle East, “more than just advisors.” She was right.
In late 2014, the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency seized vast swaths of territory in Yemen, including the capital of Sana’a. Washington’s desperate need to maintain good relations with the government in Yemen initially led the Obama administration to make overtures of friendship toward these militants. Those overtures were publicly rebuffed. The possible disruption of America’s anti-terror operations in this theater wasn’t the only peril this new conflict posed.
After taking Sana’a, the Houthis descended on the strategic port of Aden, which is situated on the vital Bab al Mandab Strait. That tiny, two-mile-wide northbound shipping lane leads directly into the Suez Canal and provides every port on the Indian Ocean with access to the Mediterranean and Europe. If the Houthis captured it, Iran would be free to shut the strait by deploying mines or harassing shipping vessels. No American administration, Republican or Democratic, would tolerate such a threat to international trade and global security.
The Obama administration happily outsourced the job of rolling back Iranian influence in Yemen to the Saudis and their regional partners, but the alternative to a Saudi-led war is not American disengagement. It is direct American engagement. As recently as July, a coordinated attack on two Saudi tankers by Yemeni rebels in the Gulf of Aden prompted Riyadh to shut down transit through the strait and caused a spike in global oil prices. This is a crisis that cannot be ignored by the world’s lone superpower. The only question is what form American involvement in this conflict will take.
There is a tragic irony in the position of those who are appropriately enraged by the senseless murder of children. If American guided munitions were called onto targets by American observers on the ground in Yemen, it’s entirely possible that the kind of needless death that occurred on August 9 might have been avoided. But who thinks that direct U.S. intervention would mollify anyone condemning U.S. support for Saudi-led operations? Calling for immediate American disengagement, as so many liberal and libertarian lawmakers have done, is not a serious approach. It is a luxury available only to those who are not responsible for the preservation of the U.S.-led global order.
War is terrible. In war, people die, often needlessly. Americans did not start the civil war in Yemen, but neither can they afford to ignore it. Pragmatic lawmakers have offered alternative paths to de-escalation that also preserve America’s position in the region. Unfortunately, that kind of sobriety is mocked as a half-measure by those who believe that pounding the table protects their moral authority.
Being a speechifying firebrand means never having to take responsibility for American lives and treasure unnecessarily lost to passivity. Fortunately for the rest of us, the stakes are far higher for those who sit behind the Resolute Desk.