Meet the Senator Trying to End U.S. Support for the War in Yemen
SOURCE: THE INTERCEPT
SINCE A SAUDI-LED coalition began bombarding Yemen in March 2015, more than 10,000 people have been killed and over 2 million displaced. Yemenis are suffering mass starvation and, thanks to the destruction of the country’s water treatment plants, the world’s worst cholera outbreak, with a million cases in 2017 alone. And while most U.S. politicians would prefer to pretend otherwise, all of this is happening with the cooperation and direct support of the United States, which is supplying bombs to the Saudis and refueling the planes that are dropping those bombs — like the one that hit a school bus full of children last month. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy is one of the few lawmakers who has taken a loud and consistent stand against the war, even putting forward an amendment to cut off military assistance to the Saudi coalition. He joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the ongoing conflict — and whether it can be ended.
Senator Chris Murphy: I’ve argued from the beginning that there is a U.S. imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen. I don’t think the Saudis would be conducting this level of atrocity if not for the support from the United States.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to season 2 of Deconstructed, a podcast from The Intercept. I’m Mehdi Hasan, if you’re a returning listener, thank you and welcome back. And if you’re a new listener, great to have you with us. I hope you stay for the ride. My guest today has spent the last few years trying to call attention to an issue that gets shockingly little coverage here in America: the war in Yemen.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy has been at the forefront of efforts to try and end U.S. involvement in that horrific conflict — a conflict which would not be happening where it not for U.S. support for the Saudi-led Coalition that’s been bombing and besieging the country for more than three years now.
CM: This issue is moving quickly, and if I were the Saudis, I would change my behavior or there is going to be a congressionally-forced disruption of the alliance.
MH: So this week on Deconstructed: when, oh when, is the U.S. going to stop supporting war crimes in Yemen.
MH: It is, according to the United Nations, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, no, not Syria, not the Horn of Africa, but Yemen.
BBC reporter: Here is where they’ll now be laid to rest, children calmly digging Graves for children. In Yemen, death has become part of the fabric of life.
MH: Since March 2015 more than 10,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands more wounded and over two million Yemenis driven from their homes because of this vicious conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and their opponent,s the Houthi rebels from the north, who seized control of the country in 2015.
The Saudis say they’re intervening on behalf of the internationally-recognized president of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. They say they’re pushing back against Houthi rebels who are backed by their biggest regional rival, Iran. So it’s become a proxy war, but it’s a proxy war in which innocent Yemenis are paying an astonishingly high price. The head of the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock said earlier this year:
Mark Lowcock: The situation in Yemen, today, right now, to the population of the country looks like the apocalypse.
MH: The apocalypse. He went on to say:
ML: Unless the situation changes, we’re going to have the world’s worst humanitarian disaster for 50 years.
MH: For fifty years! The people of Yemen are suffering mass starvation, a countrywide famine and, thanks to the destruction of the country’s water treatment plants, the world’s world’s worst cholera outbreak – yes cholera outbreak! – since records began. A million cases of cholera in 2017 alone.
Remember: this is not a natural disaster. This is not the result of a hurricane or a drought or an earthquake. This is a man-made catastrophe; this is the direct result of a Saudi-led bombing campaign and a Saudi-led blockade of the poorest country in the Arab world.
Al Jazeera reporter: The UN says Saudi coalition air strikes are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. It says they’ve hit schools, hospitals, markets, even funerals like this one which killed more than 140 people in Sana’a last October.
MH: Those are war crimes. That’s what they are — war crimes. And to be clear: the Houthis don’t have clean hands either. They’ve been accused of war crimes too. But the fact is that the bulk of the killing and all of the blockading in Yemen has been done by the Saudis and their Emirati allies.
And yet the United States is still onboard, still backing this horrific conflict. Because Saudi Arabia is a friend. And you back your friends when they’re carrying out war crimes. That’s what friends do.
Of course Obama wasn’t even considered a friend by the Saudi royals. But he backed them. This war began on his Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning watch, not on Trump’s. People often say Syria is the biggest stain, the biggest black spot, on Obama’s foreign policy record. I disagree. Yemen is.
Because the difference between Yemen and Syria is this: in Syria the Assad government with the support of Russia and Iran has done most of the killing. The U.S. isn’t directly responsible for killing most of the civilians in Syria. Whereas in Yemen, the Saudis and the Emiratis are dropping American bombs with American intel and American help.
That was the case under Obama, and that’s the case under Trump. Just last month, a Saudi attack on a school bus full of Yemeni kids killed 40 children — children! — aged between 6 and 11. And the bomb the Saudis used to incinerate those kids? Yup, made in America.
CNN reporter: Munitions experts tell CNN this was a U.S.-made Mark MK 82 bomb weighing in at half a ton. This number here denotes Lockheed Martin, one of the top U.S. defense contractors.
MH: ‘Why do they hate us?’ Hmm. I wonder why.
The truth is that if it wanted to, the U.S. could have saved those kids. And if it wanted to, the U.S. could stop this brutal and merciless war.
Just listen to Bruce Riedel, 30-year veteran of the CIA and a former adviser on Middle East policy to four U.S. presidents.
Bruce Riedel: If the United States of America and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman, ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. Because the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American & British support.
MH: It could end tomorrow. With a single phone call from the president of the United States to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Instead, what do we have? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying just this week that all’s fine in Yemen and the U.S. will carry on arming and backing this Saud-led war.
Because there’s no sustained pressure on the Trump administration to end it; and there was none on the Obama administration either. Yemen has struggled to get any real or consistent attention from the U.S. political and media classes, even on the left. The U.S. is at war in Yemen; the U.S. is a party to the conflict in Yemen, without any Congressional authorization, but when was the last time you heard Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi mention Yemen? Or with the admirable exception of Chris Hayes, any of your liberal heroes on cable news?
You’d think people in the U.S. media might have noticed the big investigation by the Associated Press in August which found that the Saudi coalition is cutting deals with Al Qaeda fighters on the ground in Yemen, recruiting many of those jihadists to fight alongside them against the Houthis.
Think about the irony of that. This week, the U.S. commemorated the 17th anniversary of 9/11. If I’d told you on 9/11 itself, on 11th September 2001, that one day in the not too distant future the U.S. government, the U.S. armed forces, would be working alongside a coalition that includes Al Qaeda, you’d have laughed in my face. But that’s what’s happening in Yemen right now.
The most sordid and cynical of geopolitical alliances. The most horrific and heartbreaking of crimes. And yet shamefully, many of us, well, we just don’t seem to give a damn.
MH: My guest today is one of the few members of the United States Senate who does give a damn and who has taken a loud and consistent stand against the war in Yemen, and not just since Donald Trump came to office but during the Obama years too. Last month, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut attempted yet again to try and end U.S. involvement in this barbaric conflict by putting forward an amendment to cut off all U.S. military assistance to the Saudi coalition. But it was blocked, by Senate Republicans.
Earlier, I went to see Senator Murphy at in his office on Capitol Hill to talk Yemen, Saudi, and his own possible presidential ambitions.
MH: Senator Chris Murphy thanks for coming on Deconstructed.
CM: Thanks for having me.
MH: You’ve been speaking out about the war in Yemen and the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen pretty passionately, pretty loudly, pretty regularly, unlike a lot of other U.S. politicians. Why?
CM: Well this is the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. You have thousands and thousands of civilians who have been killed by bombs, you have a cholera epidemic that’s the largest in recorded history. And what makes it unconscionable to me is that this humanitarian catastrophe is caused by the United States. This is not something that the United States is watching and not intervening to abate. This is a catastrophe that the United States is participating in causing. I’ve argued from the beginning that there is a U.S. imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen, because though the bombs that are being dropped may come out of planes that are piloted by Saudis or Emiratis, they are U.S.-made bombs. The missions are refueled by U.S. planes. There are U.S. Personnel sitting in the centers that decide the targets. I don’t think the Saudis would be conducting this level of atrocity if not for the support from the United States and it’s unconscionable. And then — I’m sure we’ll get into this — it’s also, you know completely contrary to our national security objectives in the region.
MH: So you say very clearly there that the U.S. is involved in this war. The U.S. government — the Trump Administration, the Obama Administration before it — has said the U.S. is not involved in the war in Yemen, it’s just providing a bit of fuel, a bit of Intel to the Saudis and Emiratis. General Joseph Votel, the head of us Central Command, told the senate in March:
General Joseph Votel: Well, you know, we’re not we’re not parties to this, to this conflict.
MH: ‘We are not parties to this conflict.’ You don’t buy that.
CM: I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s patently ridiculous and I haven’t met many Republicans or democrats in Congress who believe that. As I said, we are inside the targeting Center, we are flying the planes that refuel the missions, we are selling them the bombs. We are an indispensable partner in this military campaign. And so it just doesn’t, you know, it belies common sense to suggest that we are just providing logistical support.
MH: So do you believe the Saudis and their allies are committing war crimes? Because that’s what most human rights groups, that’s what U.N. experts seem to be saying in unison.
CM: Well, listen, I would love for the U.N. to make a finding here. So the latest U.N. report is very careful in its terminology. If you actually read that report, it says that there are ‘possible’ war crimes being committed inside Yemen. I mean listen, I’m not an international human rights lawyer nor am I steeped in the law of war crimes. What I do know is this: in my heart, I believe that the Saudis are intentionally hitting civilian targets. I just don’t think that they could be making this many mistakes with such regularity. And I’ve listened to MBS himself who has said that time and resources are on the side of the Saudi-led Coalition, which sounds to me like a campaign of starvation, a campaign of a purposeful humanitarian hurt.
MH: If those are U.S.-made bombs being sold by the US. — you’ve laid out how involved the U.S. is, the U.S. is a party to this conflict. And if the Saudis are intentionally killing civilians, then by extension, the U.S. is complicit in the intentional killing of those civilians.
CM: So yes, I would argue that the United States is complicit in the intentional killing of civilians.
MH: That’s pretty stark statement for a United States Senator to make. You would think it would be a bigger deal.
CM: I mean listen, at this point, you have to believe your eyes, right? I mean the Saudis have basically said that the bus carrying the kids was a legitimate military target. Now, they, I think, still maintain that there weren’t actually kids on that bus. That’s ridiculous, there were. But the Coalition has admitted that they are hitting targets with civilians. They just argue that there are also some military targets in those places. The U.S. knows this, and we continue to supply munitions, we continue to supply targeting assistance.
MH: So you admirably are one of the few Senators who’s been trying to stop this war for a few years now. In August you put forward an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill to try and cut U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, especially after the attack on the school kids. What would that amendment have done, and what excuse did the Republicans use to kill it?
CM: So that amendment certainly didn’t go as far as I would like, I mean my position is that the United States should be out of this Coalition. If the Saudis want to kill kids they should do it without the United States’ support, but my Amendment didn’t go that far. My Amendment said that until we have a certification from the administration that the coalition is not targeting civilians, we should withhold support. The reason that Republicans objected is because they were ostensibly trying to keep new policy riders off of the appropriations bill, and so in hoping to keep other policy riders from being debated as amendments, they objected to my amendment.
MH: But in your experience of dealing with your senate colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, but these days mainly Republican in terms of supporting this conflict, do they support it because they support the ostensible goals, if you can call them that, of the Saudi coalition, or do they support it because they just don’t want to rock the boat with Saudi Arabia? What sense do you get why some of your colleagues aren’t willing to oppose this war like you do.
CM: Well, you know when you’re sworn into Congress, you get told that the United States and Saudi Arabia have an unbreakable alliance and that you are contrarian and far outside the mainstream if you question that Alliance. And so part of the support for the campaign is because members of Congress just can’t come to actually question the nature of the alliance in the way that I argue they should. Other members support the coalition’s campaign because they see it as a means to confront Iranian aggression inside the region. There are members of Congress who legitimately believe the United States should be actively involved on the Saudi side of the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon. I disagree with that supposition as well, but some of the support for the campaign comes from the feeling that it’s a legitimate means by which to push back against Iran in the region.
MH: You talk about the U.S. alliance and you know, this Saudi-U.S. alliance has been around for a long time since you know, Franklin Roosevelt. Bernie Sanders — who I interviewed last year — he said that he personally does not consider the Saudis, because they are sponsors of terrorism in his view, and an intolerant regime, he said he does not consider them to be allies of the U.S. Do you believe that Saudi Arabia is an ally, a loyal close Ally of the United States today in 2018?
CM: Well, they’re an ally. They’re an ally, but they’re an imperfect ally. They’ve got lots of problems that we should be much more vocal with them about.
MH: And is it fair to say that more and more of your colleagues are now opening their eyes to those problems? You’ve been trying to do amendments and votes on selling weapons, on Yemen, and it seems to be getting closer and closer, those votes over the last couple of years.
CM: Yeah I mean, I was a real outlier in 2016 when I offered the first amendment to stop an arms sale from the United States to Saudi Arabia. I got you know, I think 21 votes, maybe 24 votes, and even I was surprised that I got a quarter of the Senate. We now on those resolutions draw 45 to 47 votes and I would guess that if there is another arms sale to the Saudis to resupply their bombing campaign in Yemen, there may be more than 50 votes.
So this issue is moving quickly. And if I were the Saudis, I would change my behavior or there is going to be a congressionally-forced disruption of the alliance.
MH: Some might say that given your own stance against the U.S. support for this war in Yemen wouldn’t the sensible option be for someone like yourself, a senator like yourself, to not be voting for these big increases in Pentagon spending. I think you voted for the 700 billion-dollar Pentagon budget. Some might say the best way to end U.S. involvement in these destructive foreign wars, stop giving so much power, money, and influence to the Pentagon.
CM: So even if I supported the administration’s campaign in Yemen, there is going to be some aspect of U.S. military policy that I will disagree with. And so I don’t think that your rule as to whether you vote for or against defense packages is that you support the full extent of U.S. military objectives overseas. So I think the United States military is doing incredibly important work in a lot of places around the world. I object to our participation in the Yemen conflict.
MH: But isn’t the big problem for Democrats such as yourself who have taken this very strong position against the war in Yemen and U.S. support for it is of course U.S. Support, as you know, didn’t start under Donald Trump. It started under Obama. It was the previous Democratic president who effectively gave the green light in 2015 for the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Qataris, at the time the Egyptians, to start bombing Yemen, so it’s not just about Trump is it. This goes beyond Trump. This is a bipartisan effort.
CM: I guess it would be a problem if I started criticizing our Yemen policy when Donald Trump became president, but I didn’t in fact I brought a —
MH: I wasn’t referring so much to you, I was referring to the party, the Democratic party, on this, it was a Democratic president who was in office when the Yemen war began and for the bulk of the —
CM: Yeah but remember, so in 2016, I brought a privileged resolution to stop an Obama administration arms sale to the Saudis and half of the Democrats in the United States Senate voted with me. So I don’t think that this is some massive Democratic conversion upon the election of Donald Trump. I can show you a very clear linear path by which Democrats in general but some Republicans as well have been coming to my opinion as it’s been harder to deny the brutal reality of the war.
MH: And would you agree looking back this will be a stain on Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, Yemen.
CM: Well, let’s remember that Barack Obama was changing the nature of our participation in that war at the end of the Obama Administration. So Obama had actually pulled our advisors out of the targeting center because he was worried that we were taking part in human rights violations. He actually put on hold the PGM sale, the precision-guided missile sale, because he believed that they were going to use those missiles to more effectively target —
MH: So you were having an impact, people like yourself.
CM: Yes, so I don’t think you can say that the Obama Administration didn’t understand the problems inside Yemen. They were reorienting our policy in Yemen, and I don’t believe that had they had control of U.S. foreign policy for another two years that they would have done what president Trump did. I think they would have continued down the road of curtailing our support for that war.
MH: Since 9/11 a lot of Americans have asked the question in relation to Muslims, Arabs, people across the Middle East: ‘Why do they hate us? Where does this crazy anti-Americanism, this radicalism, this anger come from?’ Some would say doesn’t it come precisely from disastrous, amoral U.S. foreign policy decisions like this one, to back the Saudis as they bomb the poorest country in the region. A lot of people look at that, they see the U.S.-made bombs on CNN in the rubble of that school bus attack and say, ‘this is why we’re anti-American’ or whatever phrase you want to use.
CM: We’re taping this in my conference room, and about a year and a half ago there were a group of Yemeni-Americans sitting around this table explaining to my office that inside Yemen this is not perceived as a Saudi bombing campaign, this is perceived as a U.S. bombing campaign. They know the Saudis are a part of it. And what makes it so much more dangerous is that inside Yemen are the most radical, most anti-American extremist groups, AQAP and ISIS. And so this isn’t theoretical that maybe someday all of these radicalized Yemenis against the United States will find their way to an extremist group that may end up in an attack against the United States.
MH: It’s on their doorstep.
CM: The arm of Al Qaeda that has the most direct intentions of attacking the United States homeland, AQAP, is right there on top of this conflict.
MH: Reportedly working with the Saudis according to the Associated Press.
CM: So there are these very disturbing reports that the Coalition is, you know, sort of looking at AQAP and ISIS as the enemy of my enemy, which they are, they are both fighting the Houthis in places and forming some alliances with elements of these radical groups that are strengthening their hand.
MH: Before we wrap up. You’ve talked a great deal in recent years about the need for a “progressive foreign policy”, an international foreign policy, more diplomacy, less focus on the military. I just want to get a sense of what that means in practice and I know time is short. So I want to give our listeners a sense of where you stand on some key foreign policy issues, I know your politician, you want to explain each answer, we haven’t got time. So I’m going to throw some things —
CM: Lightning round?
MH: Not lightning, but just kind of get where you stand. For example, you weren’t in the senate in 2003, but did you oppose the Iraq War?
CM: I did, I ran for congress as an opponent of the Iraq War.
MH: And what about escalating in Afghanistan? Donald Trump agreed with his former National Security adviser McMaster to send more troops to Afghanistan last year. Is that something you supported?
CM: I was one of the earliest proponents for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2010/2011.
MH: And moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. What was your response to that Donald Trump move?
CM: I think there will likely be a time and a place to do that. This is not that time and place. It is an inflammatory move that will make peace less likely, not more likely. So I have long been supportive of that as our end goal. It’s just a question of when the right time is.
MH: And just sticking with Israel, the blockade on Gaza. What’s your take on that?
CM: Well, well listen, if It ultimately draws the risk of being counterproductive if your goal is to have a Palestinian leadership that you can negotiate peace with. So I have been supportive of some of the steps that the Israelis have taken when there are real security threats that are posed. But some of the elements of this blockade go beyond mere security threats and seem often overly punitive.
MH: And last one on this: Iran. I know you’re a supporter of the Iran deal. But when in the past you’ve said, it’s good to have the military option on the table — Obama used to say that line as well — some say actually in the current climate with John Bolton around, with this new Iran group at the State Department, the Democrats should go into the next elections, if not the midterms, with some kind of proposition saying ‘You know what? We’re not in favor of military, that shouldn’t be something that’s near the top of a conversation with Iran.’ Is it something, if not rule out, something that you would poo-poo?
CM: Well listen, circumstances change and threats increase, and so I don’t think you can categorically say that we would never ever use military action against Iran or against North Korea. There could be a series of events in which that would be the logical extension or conclusion for a progressive or for a conservative. Certainly I have been very wary of the United States engaging in any pre-emptive action and the one thing I think democrats should very clearly run on is that any pre-emptive action to try to take out an Iranian nuclear threat or a North Korean nuclear threat has to be pre-authorized by Congress. The president does not have the authority to launch a military strike without coming to Congress first.
MH: And just on the domestic front, lastly, do you welcome the recent shift of the democratic party to the left, all these progressives winning primaries on progressive platforms. You’ve supported a $15 minimum wage. You’ve supported tuition free college. You haven’t supported medicare-for-all, not the Bernie Sanders bill that a lot of your colleagues co-signed and co-sponsored. Where do you stand on this ideological debate, if I can call it that.
CM: I think there risks being an over-simplification of the the takeaway from these election results. Just a year ago when Dan Lipinski was winning a primary in Illinois, when Tom Perriello was losing his Sanders-endorsed candidacy for governor in Virginia, we were talking about mainstream centrist Democrats being resurgent. So I don’t think there is a clear narrative across the country. I think there are going to be moments when progressive candidates win because they’re right for their district and they’re going to be cases where more moderate Democrats win because they’re right for the district.
MH: But even moderate Democrats, quote-unquote, are signing up for medicare-for-all, $15 minimum wage. There’s certain things there does seem to be a consensus on.
CM: Listen, I mean the minimum wage should increase because costs are increasing, and I think we’ve all come to the conclusion that it is probably an impossible task to fix our health care System upon this broken foundation. And so I’ve always said that I would support, if I had to design the healthcare system from scratch, I’d design a single-payer system. It’s just a matter of how we get there.
MH: And in terms of defeating Donald Trump in 2020, late last year you said you were ‘ruling out running for president’, but earlier this year you merely said you had ‘no plans to run for president’. Where do you stand —
CM: Are they different?
MH: Yes, I think they’re different. Where do you stand as of right now, September 2018.
CM: I love how all these phrases get parsed as being very different and meaning very different things.
MH: It’s very easy, are you ruling out running for president in 2020? It’s a very straightorward phrase.
CM: So I’m on the ballot in two months and so I’m running for re-election in Connecticut. I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t think it’s in the cards for me to run for the for the presidency.
MH: But you’re no longer ruling it out as you did last year.
CM: I’m running for re-election in Connecticut. I’m going to focus on that.
MH: You’re in your, mid-40s, you’ve got lots of time.
MH: Thank you so much Senator Chris Murphy for joining us on Deconstructed.
MH: That was Senator Chris Murphy. If only there were more people like him in the United States Senate.
The thing is, if you’re going to stop this war in Yemen, you need to get his colleagues on Capitol Hill to pay attention. To you. Don’t just listen to this podcast and get mad or sad. Call your member of Congress. Call your senator. Make your voices heard. Because while you’ve been listening to this show, kids in Yemen have been bombed and shot at; they continue to die from cholera, diphtheria, malnutrition, starvation; and they’re dying because the United States of America is helping to kill to them.
But, look, depending on how things go in the elections in November, come next year there could be a congressional majority in favor of withdrawing U.S. support for this war. It’s up to you.
That’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every Thursday. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or a review – it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much!
See you next week.