Yemen and the Defense Department’s Articles of Faith

by Eric Eikenberry

On Tuesday, CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel told Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in an Armed Services Committee hearing that the United States does not monitor the Saudi-led coalition air raids it provides with in-flight refueling and targeting assistance. These missions consistently strike civilian targets in Yemen and have exacerbated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Though The Intercept labeled Votel’s remarks a “surprising admission,” this is a case of studied ignorance. Successive US administrations have understood that their Saudi and Emirati counterparts commit war crimes in Yemen. As a result, involved US personnel need at least a thin veil of deniability between themselves and culpability.

It’s more striking to set this admission of ignorance alongside statements General Votel later made in the same Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to Senator Angus King (I-ME):

King: But you testified earlier that, when we refuel a Saudi plane we don’t have any control over the mission, where it goes, what it does next. If the argument is this allows us to maintain control, are we maintaining some level of control?


Votel: The influence that we derive with them is by working with them to demonstrate how we do our targeting practice…


King: Do they listen?


Votel: They absolutely do.


King: Based on our input?


Votel: They absolutely do.

As Votel had just admitted, he and CENTCOM have no evidence that they are “influencing” Saudi and Emirati targeting in the right direction (although he went on to contend that Saudi forces are adopting some measures to investigate the casualties they’ve already caused). General Votel is asking senators to believe, as he does, without seeing because he has no data to provide.

This appeal to metaphysical standards of civilian harm reduction not only highlights a disquieting aspect of the ongoing relationship between US and coalition forces operating in Yemen but also captures the gist of the administration’s pushback against the Sanders-Lee-Murphy war powers resolution (Senate Joint Resolution 54) soon coming to a vote. If enacted, the joint resolution would direct the president to withdraw US armed forces from providing assistance to coalition jets that can’t (or won’t) distinguish between hospitals and weapon depots, or between small children and rebel Houthi commanders. To combat this measure, Pentagon spokespersons have walked the halls of the Capitol like the stern priests of a bygone era, uniforms substituting for vestments, demanding that unruly Senate staff genuflect properly and scowling at their pesky questions. Having encountered this pushback at one venue or another in two weeks of congressional advocacy for the resolution, I’ve come to view it as part theological argument, part appeal to authority.

The day of the resolution’s introduction, someone leaked a Pentagon letter informing senators that they simply didn’t grasp the limits of their constitutional war powers (according to the Pentagon, Congress has virtually none). It also presented the administration’s views on contentious topics—the definition of “hostilities,” the extent of the president’s Article II powers—as settled facts. The remainder of the Pentagon’s argument, formalized in a curt letter from Secretary of Defense Mattis to congressional leadership, consists of the kinds of tautologies that always stem from unevidenced assertions of authority. Removing logistical assistance to the coalition would worsen the indiscriminate targeting of civilians because it would; continuing the war will set the stage for peace because it will; Saudi humanitarian relief efforts have improved because they said so. And when these arguments prove unsatisfactory, they are followed by oblique references to what’s in the classified information. This is as convincing an argument as clerics waving sacred texts in front of an illiterate populace.

These classified briefs must be remarkable, because publicly available information about US-supported coalition airstrikes is dismal. In its January 2018 report, the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen sampled 10 coalition airstrikes in 2017 that killed 157 civilians and wounded 135 others. The panel wrote that the coalition’s repeated use of precision-guided munitions in these missions—many of which the US supplied—strongly indicated that the airstrikes were hitting their intended targets. It concluded, “The cumulative effect on civilians and the civilian infrastructure demonstrates that even if precautionary measures were taken, they were largely inadequate and ineffective.” Additionally, the Yemen Data Project, an independent civil society group that monitors human rights violations on all sides of Yemen’s civil war, has tracked over 16,000 air raids since the conflict’s start and found that the coalition hit non-military sites at least a third of the time (another third are “unknown” targets and likely encompass further civilian sites). Because General Votel has now revealed that CENTCOM does not track this kind of information, one wonders what his classified documents can muster to refute it.

As General Votel demonstrated this week, the Pentagon’s ultimate demand is that senators affirm their faith in the mission in Yemen—that perpetuating a stalemated civil war is sensible policy, that Saudi Arabia can exacerbate a humanitarian crisis with one hand and alleviate it with the other, that further entrenching the United States and its Gulf allies in an unwinnable war somehow hurts Iran. The senators must take this on faith, for there is no evidence.

Supporters of the Sanders-Lee-Murphy legislation hope that Senators recognize that Congress is not a church and that the generals are not high priests, but civil servants subject to congressional lawmaking.

Eric Eikenberry is director of policy & advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project, Follow him on Twitter @YemenPeaceNews. Photo: General Votel (CENTCOM)

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  1. The author should spend a little time researching and portraying the story more accurately. I have personally witnessed many times how horrific civilian casualties can be in a civil war. In most cases that I filmed, civilians were used as cover, providing protection from exactly the attacks being carried out by the Saudis and Emirates. Hiding weapons or conducting operations behind (or under) a school, or hospital is essential for a guerilla force survival. Lacking an air force to counter air strikes leaves any force helpless in todays combat. Cynical, yes. Essential? Also yes. Ask the Israelis how they have managed such concerns in Lebanon since the 1960s.

  2. Yes Charles, so you mean committing war crime is inevitable! And therefore, you have to continue as you were! Convincing! We have to keep our faith in your feeling!

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