America’s decades-long alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia warps our foreign policy and turns our country into an accomplice in the world’s worst human rights disaster.
Despite their long track record of bankrolling violent Sunni extremists and spreading the fundamentalist ideology of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, the Saudis are virtually immune from Washington criticism. Their leaders, especially the brash young Prince Mohammad bin Salman, masterfully play western political leaders and our media.
In the span of just a few years, the prince has viciously purged his competitors, masterminded a massive famine in Yemen, peremptorily pardoned Saudi soldiers for war crimes, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, launched a reckless blockade of neighboring Qatar and arrested Saudi feminist activists as fifth columnists. Yet, earlier this year he took a grand tour of the West, hobnobbing with politicians, columnists and tech executives, and earning glowing reviews as a Middle Eastern modernizer and visionary.
In the context of this bizarre relationship, the United States sells Saudi Arabia smart bombs, assists in targeting and refuels their jets for the senseless, murderous war in Yemen, where the Saudis aim to restore Yemen’s deposed president to power. For four years, the Saudi-led coalition has bombed wedding parties, schools and markets, and imposed a starvation blockade on this neighboring country, causing tens of thousands of civilian deaths and bringing 8.4 million Yemenis to the edge of starvation.
Earlier this month, the Saudi coalition fired American-made smart bombs at a school bus, killing 44 children. After several days, the Saudis declared that two Yemeni rebels were aboard, making it a military target. The State Department mumbled its concern, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to bring it up in his personal call with Saudi leadership in the immediate aftermath.
This outrageous tolerance for Saudi crimes has a mirror image: Washington’s persistent obsession with the crimes of Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, Iran. The two are linked: our leaders tolerate Saudi barbarism because they know Riyadh is equally dedicated to toppling the ayatollah regime in Tehran.
The Iranian government has plenty to answer for. Tehran sponsors militant groups in Palestine and Lebanon, suppresses protests and arrests dissidents, and supports the murderous Assad regime in Syria that has butchered countless civilians. There is no reason for our government to ignore these actions. But when Pompeo endlessly tweets out his concern for civilian protesters in Tehran while aiding and abetting the murder of Yemeni schoolchildren, it is difficult to believe his sincerity.
What we end up with is a foreign policy seeped in moralistic language but unmoored from any real ethical principles. Well-informed Americans can clearly see that our government is ignoring and obfuscating the crimes we could prevent (mass murder of Yemeni civilians by our Saudi ally) while fixating on the crimes of a government that has long been in the crosshairs for regime change.
Thus, moral outrage against Iran’s crimes is less about defending human rights in that country than distracting from human rights outrages in Yemen and laying the groundwork for another disastrous Middle Eastern war.
It is exhausting and revolting to watch this charade, especially if you find the murder of Arab children heartbreaking whether it is done by U.S.-fueled Saudi jets or by Iranian artillery in Syria. But there is no doubt where our first moral obligation lies: in withdrawing all our arms, fuel, intelligence and diplomatic support that makes the massacre of Yemenis possible. This will do vastly more to save innocent lives than scolding and threatening the Iranians.
Some opponents of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East have suggested that the U.S. “picked the wrong side” in the Saudi-Iranian regional confrontation and that Tehran is our natural friend in the region. This is a strange perspective. The true choice is not between these two states, whose complex and competing interests will never truly align with our own, but between two very different kinds of foreign policy. One of them is based on unquestioning support for regional clients regardless of their brutality, while the other is based on a cool assessment of our nation’s core interests and is constrained by moral standards comprehensible to Americans.
For all my life America has had the first kind of foreign policy, and the destruction of Yemen is simply its most recent toxic fruit. I hope to live to see us adopt the latter kind, but as a first step, we must acknowledge the current crimes of our government and allies.
Brian Milakovsky is from Somerville. He works in the humanitarian aid sector in eastern Ukraine.
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