How a Bernie Sanders resolution is normalising the war on terror
A recent measure proposed by US Senator Bernie Sanders to end the war in Yemen masks US raids in the country.
Donald Trump launched his presidency with the killing of nine children. Only a week after taking office, the reality star turned commander-in-chief ordered a made-for-TV raid in the dead of night that saw Navy SEALs storming a rural village in Yemen. A leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was said to be hiding out there.
“A fierce gunfight turned into an intense aerial bombardment,” the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported. By dawn, 14 militants had been killed – along with 25 civilians, among them the 8-year-old daughter of extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi. Awlaqi and his 16-year-old son had already been killed in separate US drone strikes in 2011.
The raid, during which a US soldier also died, was a brazen and characteristically botched statement of intent from the new president: This would be an administration that puts “America First”, even – or perhaps especially – when standing on shaky legal ground. According to news reports, Trump approved what would end up being a massacre while having dinner with his son-in-law and a man he now calls “Sloppy Steve“.
“I’m really worried about US engagement in Yemen under this administration,” Will Picard, executive director of the Yemen Peace Project, told me at the time. “I don’t think they care who they kill.”
In his first hundred days, Trump ordered as many US air strikes in Yemen as his predecessor did in the previous two years combined. Even the most targeted of air raids inevitably kill innocents, and this president has not expressed any desire for greater precision, but the opposite: He campaigned on purposely killing the families of terrorists, too.
Amid this carnage, US Senator Bernie Sanders has called for the war in Yemen to end. A democratic socialist who almost won the Democratic nomination for president, Sanders has introduced a measure that would restrict direct US support for the disastrous war that Saudi Arabia has led against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But the resolution specifically exempts direct US involvement in Yemen itself, so long as the Trump administration continues carrying out raids for the same reason it already claims: because terrorists live there.
US bombs in Yemen
The resolution was first put forward to vote in the Senate in March, but was defeated. Nevertheless, Sanders intends to bring back the measure for another vote, according to his spokesperson Josh Miller-Lewis .
“The resolution is concerned specifically with the lack of authorisation for US military support for the Saudi-led war against the Houthis,” he told me in an email exchange.
Ending the Saudi-led war should be a priority for anyone who values human life. Since 2014, weddings, funerals and street markets have all been bombed by the Saudi coalition. Yemenis are besieged and mortared by Houthi militants, too, but they are killed, overwhelmingly, by the other side, which drops bombs that the US and Europe provide.
By the end of 2017, according to the United Nations, more than 5,200 civilians had been killed as a result of a war with no clear point or end in sight; tens of thousands more face death from starvation or cholera.
The issue is the normalisation, without debate, of a 'war on terror' that has produced a body count higher than that of the evil it is supposed to counter.
Washington provides the intelligence used on the bombing raids; provides fuel for the bomber jets themselves; and gives both Saudi and UAE pilots the cluster munitions that they drop near civilian areas, ensuring appendages and lives will be lost to this war years after its over.
But while Sanders’ resolution would curtail the more direct forms of support for these hostilities, it would allow the other US war in Yemen to continue. In fact, it makes sure that the proposal is not construed as limiting it, providing an exemption for “United States armed forces engaged in operations directed at al-Qaeda or associated forces“.
If Sanders’ resolution had been passed on January 20, 2016, that language would mean that every raid and drone attack in Yemen that Trump has authorised since would have happened anyway. US cluster bombs will continue to fall on Yemen, so long as it is part of a war on terror.
Amnesty International says one such US cluster bomb attack, in 2009, killed 41 Yemeni civilians, including 21 children. US drone strikes have alone killed another 1,000 people in Yemen, most of the dead alleged to be militants – but at least four dozen of them were children.
Sanders has previously voted to repeal the 2001 authorisation passed after the 9/11 attacks that is used to justify ongoing US foreign military operations from Djibouti to the Philippines. A majority of his colleagues have not.
His resolution, and the focus on Yemen, is billed as a more focused response to an impasse. To actually get anywhere in the Senate, cosponsor Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, has argued, “We have to deal with these conflict by conflict.“
Sanders’ office did not answer when asked why language exempting the war on terror was included in the resolution on the Yemen conflict. One could speculate that it’s a legislative strategy: Don’t let ending all wars be the enemy of ending the war you can. But Sanders isn’t selling it that way. His argument against the Saudi-led war in Yemen centres on its humanitarian toll, but also notes it has “undermined US efforts to stop terrorism.”
This effort, in Sanders’ view, requires authorisation of the use of special forces and drones wherever the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which split from al-Qaeda, shows up.
Blood on our hands
Under the Obama administration, Sanders was pointedly ambivalent when asked about the extrajudicial killing of the elder Awlaqi, an al-Qaeda propagandist in Yemen. He also has not addressed the killing of Awlaqi’s innocent children, who, like their father, were US citizens.
The issue is not Sanders’ own personal anti-imperialist credentials, nor is critiquing a worthy effort to end a war a holistic condemnation. The issue is the normalisation, without debate, of a “war on terror” that has produced a body count higher than that of the evil it is supposed to counter. Sanders’ resolution, excluding this US war from debate on a US-backed war in the same theatre, reflects this.
There is no need to vouch for the character of al-Awlaqi or any other extremist to believe it at least worth asking the question: Is doing this – periodically picking off militants and bystanders in perpetuity – doing any more lasting good than not doing that?
In Iraq and Syria, the US and its European allies have complemented the wars on terror waged by friends and nominal enemies with targeted air strikes that have led to a civilian kill rate, “not seen since Korea or Vietnam“, according to the monitoring group Airwars.
In Yemen, in 2018, the war on terror is a complementary evil, but it’s also the root of all the others. The need to wage it, for over a decade, led Washington to support a dictator – and, when that dictator fell, to support the installation of his vice president, despite the Arab Spring‘s cries for change.
This US war in Yemen cannot be divorced from the other conflicts raging there, particularly when Donald Trump is helping escalate them all. Children are being killed in the dark, their blood is on the president’s hands. It’s arguably too late, but also worth asking: Do we want it on ours?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.