Donald Trump’s executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” has caused much outrage in the country. This is not without good cause. The order prohibits the entry of any refugees into the United States for 120 days and the entry of refugees from Syria until further notice. It also bans citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. These countries include Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. The executive order also led to green-card holders returning to the United States from other countries to be detained at the airport.
The countries listed in the executive order have had direct interactions with the United States in recent history and have been explicitly affected by US polices. One country stands out for immediate reasons as it has been recently exposed to the aggression of the US military-industrial complex, while going virtually unreported in the country. Yemen has been engulfed in a civil war since the US-supported president was deposed and the Houthi rebels, a Shia group said to be backed by Iran, took power in many large cities in northern Yemen as well as the capital, Sana’a. History proves that when a US-backed leader loses power, either through revolution or through the democratic process, the United States seeks to intervene to secure its various political/economic interests. Naturally, a military intervention in Yemen was in the cards.
Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s northern neighbor and dominant player in the Middle East, has, over time, accumulated super-wealth from oil drilling. This has allowed the government to fund schools and hospitals as well as secure a middle-class dependent on the State’s organization of society. There has been some room for private businesses to emerge, but mostly state-sponsorship determines stability in the country. The Islamic Police, mutawwi, have been around to secure Sharia law of the Saudi type, which stems from the conservative Wahhabi tradition that is specific to Saudi Arabia.
The United States is one of the leading allies of Saudi Arabia. Known for its oil ties, US-Saudi relations have held strong for decades as the sale of arms to the Arab country has amplified. Ronald Reagan, with much opposition from American citizens as well as the Israel lobby, successfully finalized an arms sale to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. This was the largest arms sale in the history of the United States at that time. It benefited Boeing tremendously because the transaction consisted of selling Boeing aircraft. This massive US subsidy and protection of defense companies and contractors have led to their profitable success.
Decades later, Barack Obama secured deals of over $100 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In April 2015, William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, commented on the quantity of arms sold by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Hartung stated that to “outsell the eight years of Bush, to sell more than any president since World War II, was surprising even to me, who follow these things quite closely. The majority, 60 percent, have gone to the Persian Gulf and Middle East, and within that, the Saudis have been the largest recipient of things like U.S. fighter planes, Apache attack helicopters, bombs, guns, almost an entire arsenal they’ve purchased just in the last few years.” (1) The US government also gives the Saudis military intelligence and assistance in military affairs.
Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, the president of Yemen was the target of protests and demonstrations. President Ali Abdullah Saleh received much criticism for corruption and economic turmoil in the country. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and, with the wave of discontent toward State power sweeping the region, the country has become very unstable. Saleh was thrown out of the government in 2012 and replaced by Mansour Hadi. The new government did not secure the political and economic demands of the citizens who then protested further. The Houthis mobilized around this agitation. As the State did not provide what the citizens wanted, many of them turned to the Houthis, propelling their support throughout Yemen. In 2014, the Houthis took the capital city of Sana’a. Hadi fled to the southern city of Ada as the Houthis took additional cities in northern Yemen.
March 2015 marked the beginning of the Saudi militant reaction to the political coup. Saudi Arabia, acting with military intelligence provided by the United States, began to bomb Houthi sites and later implemented naval blockades while sending in ground troops. The Saudis want to defeat the Houthis and bring back the Hadi government, loyal to both Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Houthis are supported by former-president Saleh, who saw the struggle as an opportunity to regain power.
The Saudi-led coalition campaign has devastated much of Yemen in their process of securing a stable ally on their southern border. All the while the US has actively supported the atrocities. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept explains that while “the Saudis continued to recklessly and intentionally bomb civilians, the American and British weapons kept pouring into Riyadh, ensuring that the civilian massacres continued. Every once and awhile, when a particularly gruesome mass killing made its way into the news, Obama and various British officials would issue cursory, obligatory statements expressing ‘concern,’ then go right back to fueling the attacks.”(2) Sites that have been subjected to the bombings include schools, hospitals, and even funerals.
Jamie McGoldrick from the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in January 2017 that the death toll of the almost two-year conflict has reached 10,000, while 40,000 have been wounded. (3) The office also reports that 3.11 million Yemeni citizens have been internally displaced and 14.12 million citizens are food insecure. (4) Human rights organizations have found the acts of the coalition unlawful and disastrous.(5) Such crippling action has allowed the Houthis to win support and has helped Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State to enter the destabilized country.
Now that Donald Trump is in office, the same US support for State terror continues. Under President Trump thus far, the State Department has secured a $1.85 billion in sales of munitions and equipment. This includes a $525 million transaction with Saudi Arabia. The country will receive observation balloons, Aerostats, which will be used to patrol their southern border during their ongoing military confrontation with Yemen.(6)
Trump also launched a covert commando raid in Yemen in an effort to kill the leader of AQAP. The mission resulted in the death of an American Navy SEAL as well as around two dozen innocent civilians. Among the civilians killed was an 8-year-old American girl, Nawar al-Awlaki.(7) She was the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen and alleged al-Qaida member, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2011. His 16-year-old son, also an American citizen, was soon after killed in a drone strike.
The death of Nawar al-Awlaki is, unfortunately, in line with the platform Trump ran on during the election. He stated in 2015, “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.”(8) Sadly, he fulfilled this promise and killed an 8-year-old child. The State terrorism continues.
AQAP is an enemy of the Houthis as well as the Yemeni, Saudi, and American governments. However, the aggressive targeting of this group in Yemen causes immense destruction and loss of life. The civilian population is being killed and the infrastructure necessary for civil society to exist is being destroyed. The US plays a huge role in this devastation, yet it is nearly unreported in the American media.
It is in this context that the executive order barring people from Yemen from entering America was issued. Trump is continuing the policies of Obama and the CIA, which is playing a major role in Yemen’s disintegration. This Yemeni episode of disintegration, similar to Iraq’s, creates a power vacuum and allows reactionary elements in society to develop. The “radical Islamic terrorists” of which Trump speaks are, in part, a direct product of the country’s destabilization caused by US policies. In addition, the internal power structures that vary from one country to the next often marginalize certain people and communities based on how society is organized.
After bleakly setting the scene of the Middle East for the American people in speeches and interviews, the Trump administration can make their claim that they need stricter immigration laws. This is done while maintaining the benevolence of the US military. Republican Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, condemned the US raid on Yemen saying, “Every military operation has objectives. And while many of the objectives of the recent raid in Yemen were met, I would not describe any operation that results in the loss of American life as a success.”9 However, the White House quickly came out to correct those who were being critical of the raid because of the high death toll. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that the operation was “absolutely a success” and that “[a]nyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens,” who was the US SEAL killed during the mission.(10)
This is quite troublesome because a warped sense of patriotism (supporting America despite the destruction that it causes) is being placed above common ideals that seek to minimize or eliminate pain, suffering, and loss of life. However, it plays well with Trump supporters who tend to put their identity as Americans above all else; hence the slogan “Make America Great Again.” People do not need to worry about making Yemen great, or Iraq great, or Mexico great. The US deals with these countries in a calculated manner and can then just close its borders to the residual consequences of human suffering. The policies are extremely problematic; however, they are informed by this type of mindset which is ubiquitous across the country. It is this type of perspective which needs to be deconstructed and replaced with a new framework to organize the ethical solidarities of people across the country and world.
The United States’ role in the atrocities in Yemen must be made more aware and must be incorporated into a movement for change. The intellectual foundation and the discriminatory policies, such as the executive orders, resulting from it must be criticized. Those who truly seek to challenge such abuses of power cannot escape the fact that they live within a State structure that carries out actions around the globe. Trump is not the first president to exercise twisted logic and criminal behavior. However, his actions nonetheless warrant intense scrutiny. The abuses of power must be effectively challenged and terminated for steps to be taken toward a more just and humane world.
William Hartung, interview by Amy Goodman, “Are Obama’s Record Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Iraq Fueling Unrest in the Middle East,” Democracy Now!, April 7, 2015, https://www.democracynow.org/2015/4/7/are_obamas_record_arms_sales_to.
Glenn Greenwald, “U.S. and U.K. Continue to Actively Participate in Saudi War Crimes, Targeting of Yemeni Civilians,” The Intercept, October 10, 2016, https://theintercept.com/2016/10/10/u-s-and-u-k-continue-to-actively-participate-in-saudi-war-crimes-targeting-of-yemeni-civilians/.
Jamie McGoldrick, quoted in Ahmed al-Haj, “Yemen civil war: 10,000 civilians killed and 40,000 injured in conflict, UN reveals” Independent, January 17, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/yemen-civil-war-civilian-death-toll-10000-killed-40000-injured-conflcit-un-reveals-a7530836.html.
“Yemen,” OCHA: United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, data as of January 2017, http://www.unocha.org/yemen.
“Yemen: Events of 2015,” Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/yemen.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Trump’s first arms sales, holdover from the Obama era, are business as usual,” The Washington Post, January 24, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/01/24/trumps-first-arms-sales-holdovers-from-the-obama-era-are-business-as-usual/?utm_term=.736da53ed2d6
Bonnie Kristian, “Everyone is missing the big picture in Trump’s Yemen raid,” Business Insider, February 6, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/big-picture-trump-yemen-raid-2017-2.
Tom LoBianco, “Donald Trump on terrorists: ‘Take out their families’,” CNN Politics, December 3, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/02/politics/donald-trump-terrorists-families/.
John McCain, quoted in Emily Shultheis, “Sean Spicer defends U.S. raid in Yemen as ‘absolutely a success’,” CBS News, February 8, 2017, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/sean-spicer-defends-u-s-raid-in-yemen-as-absolutely-a-success/.
Sean Spicer, quoted in Shultheis, ibid.