The bloody civil war raging in Yemen gets little attention in the American media, but some commentators have begun to take notice and express concern about the brutal toll it is exacting on the civilian population. Most recently, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lambasted the U.S. “for helping to kill, maim, and starve Yemeni children.” This accusation rests on the fact that Washington is providing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with munitions and technical advice as they wage an aerial campaign to support the Yemenite government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. To Robert Nicholson, Kristof’s evaluation of the situation is both deeply misinformed and deeply misguided:
The truth is that the U.S. is not killing or maiming innocent people in Yemen. The U.S. is supporting the elected government of Yemen as it tries to take back the country from a Shiite political sect called Ansar Allah (commonly called the “Houthis”) that overran the capital and the northern part of the country in 2014. The Islamic Republic of Iran supports Ansar Allah, which is similar in many ways to the Iranian-backed Hizballah faction in Lebanon.
Lest anyone be confused about its ideology, Ansar Allah has helpfully emblazoned its less-than-subtle manifesto on its flag: “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse the Jews. Victory to Islam.” . . .
The U.S. has legitimate objectives in Yemen: restoring an elected government that was unlawfully overthrown. Thwarting a violent Islamic sect that seeks to kill those who don’t abide by its theology. Countering Iran’s regional expansion. Preventing territorial safe havens for Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters who have profited from [the country’s] collapse. All of these harmonize with our values and interests.
But Kristof and others are right to be concerned about the humanitarian toll. It is truly staggering. The U.S. has sent almost a billion dollars in aid to Yemen since the beginning of 2017, but much more is needed. So long as we are playing a role in the war, even an indirect one, we must minimize human casualties and ensure that our military partners do the same. We have the leverage to rein in Saudi Arabia and the UAE; we must use it.
However, Kristof’s moralistic sermonizing and reductionism won’t do anything except aggravate partisan squabbling in the U.S. To say, [as Kristof has done], that Americans “are willing to starve Yemeni schoolchildren” because “we dislike Iran’s ayatollahs” is so simplistic as to be immoral in itself. That kind of sentimental, grade-school analysis of complex events gets us no closer to discerning a just course of action.