For 21 months, a coalition of nations led by Saudi Arabia has been relentlessly bombing Yemen, using U.S.- and U.K.-produced weapons and intelligence in a war that has devastated Yemen and killed well over 10,000 civilians.
There is abundant evidence that the high civilian death toll in Yemen is the result of deliberate — not accidental — strikes by Saudi Arabia. During its air campaign, Saudi Arabia has bombed endless civilian targets — including homes, farms, markets, factories, water infrastructure, hospitals, and children’s schools — and has even gone so far as to use internationally banned cluster weapons, which are designed to inflict damage over a wide area and often remain lethal years after being dropped.
But when secretary of state nominee and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was asked about Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster weapons during his confirmation hearing Wednesday, he declined to answer, and suggested that the way to discourage Saudi Arabia from hitting civilians in Yemen is to provide them with additional targeting intelligence.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., asked Tillerson during his confirmation hearing: “Saudi Arabia has been utilizing cluster munitions in Yemen. Much of the world has said these are terrible weapons to use, because they have a range of fuses and they can often go off months or years after they’ve been laid down. These are the cluster bombs, you’re familiar with them. They’ve also been targeting civilians. How should the U.S. respond to those actions?”
Tillerson replied: “Well I would hope that we could work with Saudi Arabia perhaps by providing them better targeting intelligence, better targeting capability to avoid mistakenly identifying targets where civilians are hit, impacted, so that’s an area where I would hope that cooperation with them could minimize this type of collateral damage.”
“How about with regard to the use of cluster munitions?” the senator asked.
“Well I’d have to examine what our past policy has been. I don’t want to get out ahead, if we’ve made commitments in this area, I don’t want to get out ahead of anyone on that,” Tillerson concluded.
Merkely clearly saw Tillerson’s response as an example of how the U.S. gives Saudi Arabia a pass due to its oil reserves. “We’ve often been reluctant to put as much pressure on states that we are dependent upon for oil, than in situations with states where we’re not dependent on oil,” he noted.
But Tillerson’s response went beyond deferring to the Saudis — it showed either a callous disregard for civilian lives lost or striking ignorance about what is going on in the region. And the latter is less likely, considering that before becoming CEO, Tillerson oversaw Exxon’s operations in Yemen and negotiated extensively with the Yemeni government for natural gas concessions.
The United States already provides targeting intelligence — and that has not stopped Saudi Arabia from bombing civilian targets. In fact, there are indications that the Saudi Arabia may be using U.S. intelligence to intentionally target civilians. Obama administration officials told the New York Times in August that the U.S. provides Saudi Arabia with a “no-strike” list of critical infrastructure, and that Saudi Arabia has violated it. On August 14 for example, coalition warplanes destroyed a bridge to Sanaa, Yemen’s capital city, that U.S. officials had designated for them as “critical to responding to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”
The Obama administration has actually reduced intelligence sharing in response to Saudi Arabia’s apparent disregard for civilian life. In December, after publicly rebuking Saudi Arabia for bombing a funeral home, the Obama administration cut back its targeting support the Saudi coalition and stopped a shipment of guidance systems that convert bombs into precision-guided munitions.
The move was a tacit acknowledgment that Saudi Arabia is not killing civilians by mistake, but intentionally targeting them with U.S. technology and intelligence. Obama administration officials even anonymously told Reuters that their decision was motivated by “systemic, endemic” problems with Saudi Arabia’s targeting decisions.
The Obama administration also put a hold on a transfer of CBU-105 cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in May, but has been reluctant to condemn their use publicly. In June, Pentagon opposed a Congressional measure that would have stopped the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.
“Instead of ‘providing them with better intelligence,’ Rex Tillerson should call for a cut-off of all U.S. arms and military support to Saudi Arabia,” said Sunjeev Bery, the Middle East Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA, in an email to The Intercept. “The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition has been merciless in its bombardment of civilian communities across Yemen. In its war against the Houthis, Saudi Arabia and its allies have shown utter disregard for civilian life, killing and injuring thousands — and displacing millions.”
In August, Textron Industries — the last producer of cluster weapons in the U.S. — announced that it would phase out the production of CBU-105 bombs. Textron explained the move in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, saying that sales of the weapon relied on “both executive branch and congressional approval,” and that “the current political environment has made it difficult to obtain these approvals.”
“Last year, U.S. cluster bomb manufacturer Textron announced that it was getting out of the business,” said Bery. “It is time for the U.S. government to do the same. The U.S. should sign the international treaty banning cluster bombs and join the 100 nations that have already ratified the treaty.”
Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March 2015, months after Houthi rebels overran the capital city Sana’a and deposed the Saudi-backed leader, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The U.S. has been a background partner in the war since the beginning, by supplying the bombing coalition targeting intelligence and tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons, and flying refueling missions for Saudi aircraft.
Throughout his administration, Obama has sold $115 billion in weapons to the Saudis, more than any other president.