Saudi Arabia’s years-long blockade and bombing campaign in Yemen has gotten very little coverage in the United States, even as the extreme food and fuel shortages have developed into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Now, as the Saudi noose on Yemen tightens — leaving 7 million people facing starvation and another 1 million infected with cholera — the war is having its moment in the media spotlight.
On Sunday, “60 Minutes” aired a 13-minute segment on the war’s devastating humanitarian toll. The program featured imagery of starving children and interviews with displaced people, all obtained after Saudi Arabia blocked “60 Minutes” from entering the country.
“You keep going like you’re going, there’s not going to be anybody left,” David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, told CBS’s Scott Pelley. “All the children are going to be dead.”
Coverage on such a high-profile program is frequently enough to get politicians to pay attention to an issue, and the “60 Minutes” feature comes amid a growing debate about the U.S. role in the war. Just last week, the House of Representatives voted to say that Congress has not authorized American military support for the Saudi-led coalition.
Still, the program did not once mention that Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, and that U.S. support is essential for the Saudi campaign to continue.
For two-and-a-half years, the U.S. government has backed Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen every step of the way. The United States has dispatched warships to reinforce the blockade. It has refueled Saudi planes, sent the Saudi military targeting intelligence, and resupplied them with tens of billions of dollars worth of bombs.
The U.S. has had the power to pull the plug on the intervention since the beginning. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, explained last year that “if the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia], ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”
That means that for years, former President Barack Obama — and now President Donald Trump — had the power to stop the bombing campaign in an instant. Instead, U.S. government officials have watched Saudi Arabia use American weapons on homes, markets, farms, water infrastructure, hospitals, and children’s schools, and made a conscious decision to continue that support for the sake of not upsetting a regional ally.
To be fair, the U.S. position since 2015 has been that the warring parties should come to some kind of negotiated peace, and the State Department has played an active role in peace talks. And in late 2016, the Obama administration put a hold on one transfer of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, although Trump later reversed that action. But military support has remained a constant, and the U.S. government has never seriously considered cutting Saudi Arabia off more broadly.
Per “60 Minutes’s” framing of the conflict, the crisis in Yemen is a random tragedy happening on the other side of the world – manmade, but outside U.S. control. The truth is nearer the opposite. Without U.S. support, the humanitarian crisis would not exist on such a catastrophic scale.