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Why We Know So Little About the U.S.-Backed War in Yemen

What the U.N. calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” is an unhappy confluence of American media taboos

SANA’A, YEMEN – JUNE 25: (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains graphic content.) Legs of civilian victims are seen at a hospital after they were killed by an airstrike of the Saudi-led coalition targeted their house on June 25, 2018 in Amran province north Sana’a, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

Legs of civilian victims are seen at a hospital after they were killed by an airstrike of the Saudi-led coalition that targeted their house on June 25th, 2018 in Amran province north Sana’a, Yemen.

Mohammed Hamoud/Getty

Thursday, from Al Jazeera: “Yemen ‘on Brink of New Cholera Epidemic,’ Charity Warns.” The piece details how recent developments in the Yemeni civil war — specifically, the possible siege of the port city of Hodeidah — may cause a surge in cholera cases. There were over a million reported cases of cholera between the fall of 2016 and spring of 2018, the largest documented outbreak in modern times. The rate of infection had slowed, but observers now fear resurgence.

Since the conflict began, medical services have been devastated across the war-torn country, and children in particular have been affected, with as many as 400,000 at imminent risk of starvation. In April, U.N. General Secretary Antonio Guterres said that 8 million people in Yemen didn’t know where they were getting their next meal.

If you want to be saddened to the point of nausea, look at these images, in which weeping mothers can be seen holding their malnourished babies and saying things like, “I’m losing my son and there’s nothing I can do about it!”

Yemen is a catastrophe on a scale similar to Syria, but coverage in the United States has been sporadic at best. PBS News Hour did a thorough three-part series, but MSNBC, for instance, has barely mentioned the crisis in a year, during a period when it has done 455 segments on Stormy Daniels (this according to media reporter Adam Johnson).

The reason for inattention is obvious: The United States bears real responsibility for the crisis. A quote from a Yemeni doctor found in PBS reporter Jane Ferguson’s piece sums it up:

“The missiles that kill us, American-made. The planes that kill us, American-made. The tanks … American-made. You are saying to me, where is America? America is the whole thing.”

The Yemeni civil war pits Iran-backed Houthi rebels against Saudi-backed government forces, who receive weaponry and other forms of assistance from the U.S., including the in-air refueling of Saudi warplanes. You can see the reporter Ferguson touring collections of American-made weapons dropped on Yemen — including cluster bombs — at about 2:40 of this video.

Leaving aside the complex question of who is right and who is wrong in this multipolar war (which also includes Al-Qaeda/ISIL forces), there is no question that masses of innocent civilians have wrongly become targets. Hospitals, schools, mosques and other non-military locations have been destroyed indiscriminately.

As Human Rights Watch notes, the Saudi-led coalition forces have used cluster munitions (made by both the United States and Britain), while the Houthi side has used antipersonnel landmines. International treaties have banned both weapons.

Ultimately, the ancillary humanitarian disaster that has grown out of the war has become a distinct tale in itself. The U.N. puts the number of displaced persons at over 2 million, with more than 22 million people “in need.” Yet still the Yemen crisis has received little attention, likely because it represents a whole continuum of American media taboos.

For one thing, the victims are poor nonwhite people from a distant third-world country. Also, our involvement is bipartisan in nature, which takes the usual-suspect cable channels out of the round-the-clock-bleating game (our policies in the region date back to the Obama presidency, and have continued under Trump).

Thirdly, covering the story in detail would require digging into our unsavory relationship with the Saudi government, which has an atrocious human rights record.

Another dark angle: The United States has been conducting drone missions in Yemen for some time. Rolling Stone documented our country’s erroneous killing of anti-terrorist imam Salem bin ali Jaber in a piece earlier this month.

But we have not yet supplied any of the anti-Houthi coalition partners with drones. The reason, ostensibly, is that the United States only sells drones to countries that will “use these systems in accordance with international law.” So we can sell Saudi Arabia F-15s, but not drones – at least not yet.

But this may soon change. The Chinese have been supplying both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with drones, which reportedly have been used in this campaign.

The Trump administration, perhaps freaked out about the loss of market share, is said to be pushing for the relaxation of rules that will allow sales of our unmanned assassination technology to actors like Saudi Arabia.

Selling drone technology to repressive third-world governments is the logical next step in America’s human rights slide. Allowing vicious client states to fill their skies with drones will sharply increase state-sanctioned violence around the world, in addition to emboldening regimes to launch wars in neighboring countries.

Yemen could become a poster child for this development.

In the end, Yemen is a classic example of what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described as the “worthy and unworthy victims” problem in their iconic examination of American media, “Manufacturing Consent.” The obvious-sounding theory holds that violence committed by Americans or by their client states will be covered a lot less than identical acts committed by adversary states.

So a Polish priest murdered by communists in the Reagan years was a “worthy” victim, while rightist death squads in U.S.-backed El Salvador killing whole messes of priests and nuns around the same time was a less “worthy” story.

Yemen features the wrong kinds of victims, lacks a useful partisan angle and, frankly, is nobody’s idea of clickbait in the Trump age. Until it becomes a political football for some influential person or party, this disaster will probably stay near the back of the line.

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