Editorial: The U.S. role in a global catastrophe

  • A cholera-infected man receives treatment at a hospital in Sana, Yemen, in May. AP

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Plenty of domestic crises occupy American minds these days: immigration, racism, health care, infrastructure, drug addiction, voting rights, campaign finance – the list goes on and on. Sometimes those concerns take a backseat to international problems, such as North Korean saber-rattling, the Afghanistan war, global terrorism, China as an emerging threat and Russian election meddling.

But if a story doesn’t have a direct impact on American lives, it rarely gets the kind of attention that creates widespread awareness – even if the story is about a famine threatening the lives of 20 million people.

Military conflict in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen has created what the United Nations has called “the largest humanitarian crisis” since its founding in 1945. The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that 20.7 million people are in urgent need of food assistance and 1.5 million children are severely malnourished. Just under $5 billion is needed to avoid global catastrophe, but only $2.7 billion, or 55 percent, has been raised.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have not ignored the crisis. In May, $990 million was earmarked for international famine relief as part of the budget deal to avoid a government shutdown. But as Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California said at the time, “This funding alone will not bring peace and economic stability to the four nations currently affected by famine.”

In fact, as daunting as the fundraising task is, it would be nice if money was the only problem.

In Yemen, where a famine affecting 7 million is compounded by a growing cholera epidemic, civil war has raged for 2½ years. Civilian casualties are approaching 15,000.

It is a complex conflict involving a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia fighting against Iran-backed Shia Muslim rebels known as Houthis. Land that isn’t controlled by Houthis or loyalists to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced into exile by the Houthis, is held by al-Qaida.

As part of the conflict, the Saudis have blockaded the main port of Hodeida and closed an international airport in the capital city of Sana, which has made it extremely difficult to get food and medical aid to the people who need it most. By providing military and intelligence assistance to the Saudis, both the Obama and Trump administrations have been complicit in the famine.

It wasn’t until the final weeks of Obama’s presidency that the administration began exerting pressure on Saudi Arabia in response to the human toll of the conflict. But the decision to halt the sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh in December was the very definition of too little too late: Over the course of Obama’s two terms, the U.S. sold more than $100 billion in weapons to the Saudis – weapons that helped create the current crisis on which Congress spent $990 million to address.

Trump does not share Obama’s late-arriving crisis of conscience. Not only did he immediately lift the hold on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, he pledged an additional $100 billion in arms sales. His embrace of the Saudis has been complete – and blind.

If the U.S. is going to continue to bankroll military activity in Yemen, it must also demand that the Saudis do much more to assure that food and medicine arriving at the port of Hodeida gets to the people as quickly as possible. If the Saudis fail in that mission, they must be held accountable.

The American people must hold Trump accountable, too. Not just for his bullying tweets, insensitive speeches or incessant lying, but also for the seemingly less controversial decisions that contribute to global human catastrophes.