Since 2015, the civil war between the Saudi-backed Hadi government and Houthi rebels supported by Iran has killed nearly a hundred thousand Yemenis. Many more have been left impoverished, without access to necessities like food and water.
As with most conflicts, no side is blameless. But the greatest perpetrator of violence is undoubtedly the Saudi coalition, whose indiscriminate airstrikes are responsible for two-thirds of civilian deaths.
This has made Western governments rethink their close military ties with the Saudi government. On June 20, The US Senate passed multiple resolutions to block $8 billion worth of arms deals with Saudi Arabia. However, there still remained 45 senators who voted against all of the resolutions. This means that they are unlikely to survive a presidential veto.
It is jarring that so many politicians continue to advocate for the brutal Saudi regime. Those who attempt to explain themselves, like Senator Tom Cotton, portray support for Saudi Arabia as a necessary evil to counter Iran.
Saudi supporters also fail to address Saudi war crimes in Yemen. For his part, Cotton ignores independent research and quotes a US diplomat’s baseless claim that the Houthis are responsible for "almost 100 percent of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen."
If the argument for Saudi arms deals is strong enough to convince 45 senators, there must be a worthwhile summary of it somewhere. Considering that all 45 of those senators are Republicans, conservative media would be the best place to look. Yet, strikingly, there is no significant conservative echo chamber supporting Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is not a top story on Fox News. They are more concerned with Iran. But their website does have a short clip about the Senate arms deal vote. Interestingly, though, it does not explicitly take the Trump administration’s side. Indeed, other Fox articles from this month have covered the massive death toll from Saudi airstrikes and allegations that US weapons in Yemen are ending up in terrorist hands.
Meanwhile, a Breitbart article about the June 20 vote gives some quotes from an earlier interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who makes no attempt to defend Saudi actions in Yemen but rather focuses on the supposed threat of Iran.
The most explicitly pro-Saudi coverage from an American news source probably comes from the Epoch Times. Its article on the arms deal vote emphasizes Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran and even derides murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a "Muslim Brotherhood advocate." But it gives little attention to the death and destruction in Yemen.
Meanwhile, the most recent pro-Saudi op-ed from a major conservative publication was written on April 10, by David Reaboi of The Federalist. In it, Reaboi bemoans criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He includes a brief condemnation of US media for "undermining [Saudi Arabia’s] defensive war in neighboring Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi insurgents," but he does not address the issue any further.
It seems that the foremost tactic for defending Saudi war crimes in Yemen is to ignore or gloss over them. Most conservative news sites only give the briefest mention of American and Saudi involvement in the Yemeni Civil War before moving on to other issues.
Maybe we are looking in the wrong place. These days, news outlets are not the only platforms for political discourse. Thought leaders congregate on social media sites like Twitter. Given that the Republican-controlled Senate just rebuked the President on a major foreign policy issue, they must have some strong opinions.
Twitter is a massive site, and it would require advanced analytical tools to swamp through every comment. Luckily, PJ Media made a list last year of the most high-profile conservative Twitter accounts. With some basic search tricks, we can take the top twenty accounts and see every tweet that they have ever made that includes the words "Saudi" or "Yemen."
Not a single one tweeted about the June 20 vote. In fact, most of them have not said anything about Saudi Arabia or Yemen within the last year, if ever. And many of their earlier comments show an antipathy for the fundamentalist kingdom.
In 2015, Kellyanne Conway shared a link to a clip criticizing Apple CEO Tim Cook for doing business with " homophobic Saudi Arabia."
After Khashoggi’s murder in late 2018, Mike Huckabee tweeted "We’ve looked the other way at Saudi crimes long enough."
Around the same time, pro-Trump commentator Laura Ingraham shared a New York Times article criticizing Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen.
Even as so many politicians remain lockstep in support of the Saudi government, their case for continued arms deals is exceedingly weak. They insist that the US has an unconditional duty to stand by its partnership with Saudi Arabia. Ruining the lives of Yemen’s 27 million citizens is a necessary sacrifice to maintain the kingdom’s tactical superiority over Iran (of course, knowing that this part is unpopular, they say it in hushed tones).
The idea that the US-Saudi partnership is unjust and that is it, in fact, not in America’s interest to take sides in a cold war between two Islamist dictatorships does not cross their minds.
In most foreign policy issues, such as tensions with Venezuela and Iran, there exists enough ambiguity for militarists to portray themselves as morally righteous. But in Yemen, the Saudi coalition’s turpitude is self-evident. No amount of spin can make the bombings seem justified. Instead, supporters of arms deals hope to keep the story out of the limelight. As long as the public is ignorant and apathetic, they can continue to carry out their policies behind closed doors.
For peace advocates, the obvious solution is to raise awareness. In a 2018 poll, many Americans did not know about the conflict in Yemen. But a three-fourths of those who had an opinion opposed American involvement.
If we can get the Yemen war in the center of public discourse, the pressure will be on. There is no support for it in the conservative media universe. Political calculus will not allow elected officials to step in front of the cameras and defend the indefensible. Enough of them just might change their minds to override the president’s veto.
Liam Glen is 18 years old and has completed his first year studying political science at the University of North Carolina. He serves as a research intern at Nonviolence International. He can be contacted here.