For Chris Murphy, the newly re-elected junior senator from Connecticut, Yemen is a byword for the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East. For the past three years, he has been a consistent and often lonely voice in the government for ending United States military support for Saudi Arabia’s war on its southern neighbor, which has turned the country into a hellish failed state while accomplishing nothing.
Yemen is a small, impoverished country torn by domestic tribal power struggles and the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as a long-running covert U.S. drone war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The current conflict is essentially a civil war between the Saudi-aligned government, backed by a coalition of Gulf monarchies, and an indigenous Shia rebel group known as the Houthis.
To beat back the rebels, a Saudi-led coalition is mercilessly bombing Houthi-controlled areas, and blockading the country’s ports, causing mass starvation. The Saudi coalition is supplemented by proxies or mercenaries that include American, British, Australian, Mexican and Colombian contractors working for Abu Dhabi. The dirt-poor Houthis have a tenuous connection to Iran, but otherwise the battle for control of Yemen’s capital has very little to do with American national security interests. But beginning under Obama, the Pentagon has been enabling the Saudi coalition with special-forces advisers, inflight refueling of warplanes and target-spotting for airstrikes.
The American role has been more overt since Trump took office. One of his first actions as president was to commit the United States to an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $110 billion. While hugely profitable for American weapons manufacturers, the war has caused extreme suffering. Thirteen million people are now at risk of starvation in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, and the cholera epidemic is the worst in a century.
Despite the scale of the disaster, it has been largely ignored by cable news and broadcast television in the U.S. That makes it all the more surprising that Sen. Murphy has been speaking out against it since day one. With little to gain politically, he has introduced bills to cut off the supply of weapons, and consistently denounced Saudi atrocities, such as the incident on August 9th when a Saudi warplane dropped a bomb manufactured by Lockheed Martin on a school bus in Saada, killing 40 little kids.
It was another incident, though, that finally turned American opinion against Saudi Arabia’s malign regional influence: the October 2nd murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudis’ Istanbul consulate. It had little to do with Yemen, but the serial-killer methods the Saudis used got people asking why the United States is allied with such a regime.
In late October, Secretary of Defense James Mattis called for a ceasefire in Yemen within the next 30 days. But any optimism that the war might finally come to an end was short-lived. The Saudis immediately stepped up their attacks on the port city of Hodeidah, the main lifeline to food and medicine in the Houthi-controlled west. In Congress, a number of legislative measures were being drawn up to to curb military aid to Saudi Arabia, but on Wednesday, House Republicans used a complicated procedural ploy to block a resolution that would have directed the Trump administration to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen.
Sen. Murphy is a 45-year-old lawyer whose first elected position was on the planning and zoning commission in the Connecticut town of Southington. He steadily rose through the state legislature and the House of Representatives, often bumping off Republicans, before winning Joe Lieberman’s Senate seat in 2012. He’s the proud holder of an F rating from the National Rifle Association and was previously a critic of the use of private military contractors in Iraq. I spoke with Sen. Murphy in August, and caught up with him again this week to get his take on the latest developments in Yemen.
The Saudis are attacking the port city of Hodeidah. What do you think they’re trying to accomplish?
The Saudis would never admit to intentionally causing a humanitarian catastrophe as a military strategy, but they seem to be very methodical in their efforts to make it as hard as possible to get humanitarian resources into the country. [Saudi crown prince] Mohammed bin Salman once said that time is an asset for the coalition. What I think he meant is, as the campaign continues and starvation gets worse, it’s more likely the Houthis will be forced to the negotiating table.
And yet, just two weeks ago, it seemed like the Trump administration might try to force an end to the war. Was that empty talk by Jim Mattis and [CIA director] Mike Pompeo?
I’m glad the administration has stopped support for refueling. It’s an important first step. But I don’t get the sense that Pompeo and Mattis are willing to undertake the direct and consistent intervention necessary to end this quagmire.
You’re referring to the Pentagon’s announcement last Friday that the United States will no longer be refueling Saudi warplanes inflight. Do the Saudis have the technical capacity to carry out a sustained air war without that logistical support? Not many countries do.
The have some internal capacity. They will be able to continue their bombing campaign, but at a slower pace. They will have to be more selective in their targets.
Why do you say Pompeo and Mattis aren’t willing to do what it takes to end this quagmire, as you called it?
One problem is we don’t talk to the Iranians. There’s been this strange double-standard where the administration is gleefully enthusiastic to talk to the North Koreans but not the Iranians, which makes no strategic sense. Another thing is, we don’t even have an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, because of the administration’s negligence in filling key positions at the State Department. The administration’s hair is regularly on fire when it comes to foreign policy. It’s hard to get it together when you’re engaged in daily pissing matches with your allies.
You’re probably the most senior American official to consistently criticize U.S. involvement in this war. What was it about Yemen that first got your attention?
Yemen is a symbol of our continued military hubris in the Middle East. An addiction Obama was supposed to cure but didn’t. I ran in 2006 as an opponent of the Iraq War, and I came to Congress to change overreliance on U.S. military power. Yemen struck me as a place where we were beginning to make the same kind of mistakes as in Iraq. There are a lot of humanitarian nightmares in the world, but there’s only one country that’s in the middle of a famine caused by the United States. I couldn’t stand by and allow that to happen.
For a long time you’ve said that American intervention in Yemen makes the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. How so?
We’re radicalizing a generation of Yemenis against the United States. They see the bombs falling on them as U.S. bombs, not Saudi bombs. AQAP is much stronger than it was before the civil war started.
Why do you think that is?
AQAP took quick advantage of the civil war. At one point they controlled a major port city, Mukallah. Technically, AQAP controls less territory than before the war, but my sense is that they are not weaker as an organization. It was not a long fight for Mukallah. AQAP willingly gave it up, because they’ve got plenty of space to operate.
In fact, AQAP is closely aligned with elements of the Saudi coalition the United States is supporting.
There are not clear lines between these radical Sunni extremist groups. People travel seamlessly between them. We know the Saudi coalition is aligned with radical Salafist militias whose members may be moving back and forth between groups that want to do us harm, including AQAP.
Do you believe the Saudis are deliberately striking civilian targets?
I don’t have an audiotape in which a Saudi general tells a pilot to strike a civilian target. I just know what I’m seeing. At some point you have to believe your own eyes. We gave these guys PGMs [precision-guided missiles], and since then they’ve been hitting more civilian targets.
Do you believe the Saudis are deliberately exacerbating the cholera epidemic in order to further their military objectives?
You don’t hit a cholera treatment center inside a humanitarian facility by accident. You don’t hit a water-treatment facility for the third time by accident.
The Khashoggi affair seems to have been what finally caused Washington to sour on the war. But Khashoggi’s murder had little or nothing to do with Yemen.
I think there’s a pretty simple explanation. Many people in D.C. had been supportive of the bombing campaign because they believed the Saudi lobby wouldn’t flat-out lie to us when they said the strikes on civilians were accidental. The Khashoggi case made it clear that the Saudis are absolutely willing to lie through their teeth about things that are easily disprovable.
The Saudis have killed thousands of Yemenis and pushed millions into starvation. What does it say about our foreign policy establishment that it was the killing of one rich guy who wrote for The Washington Post that finally got people’s attention?
I’ve been beating the drum on Yemen for years and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why Congress didn’t care more. I’m sick over the fact that it was one journalist’s death that caused many of my colleagues to wake up, when so many thousands have died needlessly. This town places a different value on human life depending on who you are. Your life has more value if you speak English, have light skin or you’re a journalist.
Do you still feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, or do you think this issue is finally getting some traction?
I feel like I’ve got a little bit of a chorus now. Jeanne Shaheen, Bernie Sanders, Todd Young, Rand Paul. For a while there I was a soloist.
Long before the Khashoggi case, you were saying the United States ought to rethink our alliance with Saudi Arabia. Why is that?
About four years ago, I challenged myself to do a deeper dive into the roots of extremism. We were throwing a lot of ordnance around the world and dispatching a lot of special operators to deep dark places, and the extremists were not going away. In my research, I kept running into the Saudis, and this very intolerant form of Sunni Islam financed by the Gulf States. The relatively unconditional nature of our alliance with them is a total head-scratcher. It’s a leftover consequence of our previous dependence on Saudi oil, which we don’t have today. It’s also the result of a ton of Saudi money floating around this town. I can’t throw a nickel from the Capitol without hitting a think tank that’s been financed by one of the Gulf States.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.