The United Nations describes the situation in Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Just a handful of numbers make the case. More than 20 million Yemenis, two-thirds of the country’s population, qualify as “food insecure,” or struggling to avoid hunger. That includes 10 million, or the near equivalent of all Ohioans, deemed severely so. Thus, many face famine and starvation. One estimate recently counted at least 85,000 children dead from malnutrition.
Disease has arrived, notably the world’s largest outbreak of cholera, more than 1 million reported cases and 2,500 related deaths. Roughly 3 million have fled their homes. Finally, there is the direct civilian toll from the armed conflict that has produced the loss and ruin, waged since 2015, 6,800 dead and 10,700 wounded, one-half due to the air war conducted by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners.
November was the most violent month of the past three years in Yemen, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Saudi Arabia launched its campaign to thwart Iranian-backed rebels. The thinking among Saudi officials was: This will be quick. The reality is that little has changed in the fight as the devastation has mounted. Already a poor country, Yemen must cope with shortages of shelter and food, medicine, water and electricity. A Saudi-led blockade has fueled an inflation crisis.
What can the international community do? The United Nations recently brokered something of a deal between the rebels and the government, the parties agreeing to a limited cease-fire, a prisoner swap, a corridor for humanitarian aid and a framework for future talks. Yet, as analysts have cautioned, all of this is fragile.
Needed is sustained international attention and pressure. Which gets to the role of the United States, and not simply in seeking to advance a settlement (far off as that now appears) but as an enabler of Saudi Arabia, especially its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whose dark deeds include the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and this air war, a strategic blunder in that Iran appears stronger as a result.
On Wednesday, the New York Times published a report cataloging just how complicit the Obama and now Trump administrations have been. It appears the assumption going back further has been: The Saudis wouldn’t actually use the air power Americans have sold to them. Yet they have of late, and American military personnel, including mechanics and technicians, have advised and assisted.
That isn’t to say Americans have gone along without objection. They have stressed ways to limit civilian casualties and promote accountability. The Obama White House suspended the sale of munitions, which Congress eventually authorized. The Trump administration has ended American air-to-air refueling. Yet, for the most part, the Saudis haven’t listened while American support for their campaign has continued, with the president looking the other way in the Khashoggi killing part of the pattern.
This month, the U.S. Senate at last declared it had run out of patience, a 56-41 bipartisan majority calling for an end to American support of the Saudi air war. Unfortunately, the House then balked. Still, the Senate majority is right about taking such a step, applying pressure in the form of shutting off assistance to the campaign, even halting arms sales. One argument goes: The situation would be worse without the American presence. Actually, the plan now should be about making things better, for Yemenis facing a calamity, for Saudis who have blundered badly and for the United States, its reputation tainted by its contribution to so much wreckage.