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Rep. Ro Khanna: U.S. Must Stop Saudi-Led Attack on Yemeni Port City & Prevent Catastrophe

June 12, 2018
In The News

The United Nations is warning an impending Saudi-led offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah could have catastrophic humanitarian consequences. This comes as the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition bombed a new Doctors Without Borders cholera clinic in Yemen’s northwestern Abs region. Doctors Without Borders said that before the strike the group had provided the coordinates of the clinic to the Saudi-led coalition and that the roof of the building clearly identified it as a medical site. The ongoing U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen has sparked the world’s worst cholera epidemic, with more than 1 million people affected. In Washington, D.C., we are joined by Rep. Ro Khanna.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In Yemen, the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition bombed a new Doctors Without Borders cholera clinic in Yemen’s northwest Abs region. Doctors Without Borders said that before the airstrike the group had provided the coordinates of the clinic to the Saudi-led coalition and that the roof of the building clearly identified it as a medical site. The ongoing U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen has sparked the world’s worst cholera epidemic, afflicting more than a million people.

This comes as the United Nations is warning an impending Saudi-led offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah could have catastrophic humanitarian consequences. This is Mark Lowcock, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

MARK LOWCOCK: Seven million people are completely reliant every month on food, and more than 7 million on other assistance, from humanitarian organizations. So, Hodeidah is absolutely central to the preserving of life. And if, for any period, Hodeidah were not to operate effectively, the consequences in humanitarian terms would be catastrophic.

AMY GOODMAN: The Wall Street Journal reports the Trump administration is weighing expanding its role in the war in Yemen by providing direct assistance to the impending Saudi-led offensive against the port city of Hodeidah.

We are joined by Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California, co-authored a bipartisan letter calling for Defense Secretary James Mattis to help prevent a catastrophic military operation on the port city of Hodeidah.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressman Khanna. Talk about what you are calling for.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it would be an appalling catastrophe if the Saudis attacked the port of Hodeidah. First of all, it would lead to extraordinary civilian loss of life. You couldn’t have that kind of attack without massive civilian casualties. Second, Yemeni civilians rely on that port for basic access to food and medicine. We have it in our power to make sure that the Saudis don’t launch that offensive. I have called for, and Senator Sanders had called for, us stopping any aid to the Saudis, in terms of refueling, in terms of targeting assistance in Yemen, that’s causing this catastrophe. But even absent stopping that fueling, certainly we have the leverage to insist with the Saudis that they don’t attack the port.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you know about this Doctors Without Borders cholera clinic that the Saudi regime just bombed? They said they gave their coordinates to the Saudis. We have heard this so many times before in other places, for example, in Afghanistan.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s really shocking and unconscionable. And this is not the only incident. We’ve had reports over the last year, year and a half, about the Saudis indiscriminately bombing civilian sites, bombing relief workers. And that’s not something that the United States should in any way participate in. Our refueling of the Saudi planes is something the Saudis desperately rely on. We started doing that as a sop to Saudi Arabia when we did the Iran deal. We thought, “OK, we’re going to do this Iran, and the Saudis are insistent on this. So, let’s provide some assistance.” It was a mistake. I don’t think anyone would have anticipated the level of humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

It’s important to understand that this is not a counterterrorism operation in Yemen against al-Qaeda. This is an active interference in the Saudi effort to bomb the Houthis and engage in a civil war. So the United States needs to stop our role in furthering the Saudi effort. And we certainly need to do everything in our power to stop the Saudis from attacking the port of Hodeidah.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Khanna, The Wall Street Journal is reporting the Trump administration is weighing a request by the United Arab Emirates to expand the U.S. role in the war in Yemen by providing direct assistance to the impending offensive against the port city of Hodeidah. So you’re talking about, oh, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates. These are the countries also that particularly Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, senior adviser to President Trump, is very close to. What does this direct assistance mean? And how is this happening without congressional approval?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, there’s been, candidly, a lack of transparency by the Trump administration. In the past, when Secretary Mattis has testified to the Armed Services Committee, on which I sit, he has been very clear that our efforts in Yemen are largely limited to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and that he has said that the United States does not have an active role in assisting the Saudis in their fight against the Houthis. But then we are hearing reports that that is not true and that they’re considering expanding our aid to the Saudis, not because of counterterrorism interests, but really because of the civil war, which is a proxy war with Iran. And so, that is what prompted several of us to write Secretary Mattis a letter.

At the very least, we need transparency from the administration about our objectives in Yemen. They are relying on the 2001 AUMF, authorization of force, which allows us to go after al-Qaeda or its affiliates anywhere in the world. That was overly broad, but even under that authorization of force, there is no authority to go after the Houthis. And the administration just needs to be far more transparent. And we’re going to demand transparent answers from Secretary Mattis and others.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the United Arab Emirates? It’s United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. What is the U.S. interests in both of these places?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, we see them both as allies, candidly, to contain Iran. And this type of balance-of-power politics has gotten us into a lot of problems in the Middle East. And, unfortunately, we’re continuing the same type of thinking, saying that we need to ally with countries that may be a check on Iranian expansion. Unfortunately, the administration has continued down that path of thinking, without any authority from the United States Congress. But the first step is to really understand what our involvement and role is in Yemen. The administration has been very coy about admitting that we’re actually aiding the Saudis in a proxy civil war, aiding the United Arab Emirates in a proxy war in Yemen against Iran, because they know that has absolutely no authorization under congressional—by Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk more about this, for people who are not familiar with the U.S. role, why the U.S. is at all involved in this on the side of Saudi Arabia. Under Obama, for a period, they were directly assisting. Then, as you pointed out, they put some limitations on that assistance. If you could explain what that was and what caused that, and then how Trump himself is responding? Do you think he has any understanding of what’s happening in Yemen, with—I mean, not even to mention the deaths, something like 15,000, but talking about just people afflicted with cholera, the worst situation in the world? Over a million Yemenis are suffering from cholera. The Doctors Without Borders clinic was a cholera clinic.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, you’re right to point out the humanitarian catastrophe. I mean, this is the single worst humanitarian crisis in the world. And, unfortunately, in this case, unlike in Rwanda in the past or in Bosnia, the United States has had a role, because we initially provided aid to the Saudis, and we continue to refuel their planes.

The reason for our aid to the Saudis was as a balance to our supporting Iran with the Iran deal. We were negotiating with Iran to have the Iran deal. The Saudis complained to the Obama administration at the time, saying, “We feel insecure with the normalization of the relationship with Iran.” And the administration made a decision that they would provide some assistance to the Saudis, partly to make sure that the Saudis still felt secure in their relationship with the United States. Now, when you talk to most of the former Obama administration officials, they will say that was a mistake, that they could never have fathomed the level of brutality of the Saudi regime in Yemen. They couldn’t have fathomed the civilian casualties.

They tried to wind it down. Well, then they realized that the Trump administration was coming in, but it was too late for them to wind down the efforts and the support to the Saudis. And then the Trump administration comes in, and they redouble their support of the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates as a check on Iran. The Trump administration is singularly focused on containing Iran, on supporting allies of ours that may help us box Iran in. And so, the administration has doubled down on aiding the Saudis in this catastrophe and with a huge civilian loss of life.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about cluster bombs, Congressman Khanna, the U.S.—I mean, actually, this was during the Obama years, 2010—selling something like, oh, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s appalling that we did that. And I don’t think they could have anticipated how these would be used. I mean, that doesn’t make it excusable—we shouldn’t have done it—but now that we see directly the Saudis’ use of these bombs in killing civilians, we should, at the very least, stop any of our direct aid to the Saudis in the efforts with bombing the Houthis.

Here’s what the administration does: They try to conflate the issue. They say, “Well, al-Qaeda is in Yemen. Al-Qaeda poses a threat to the United States. And we’re engaged in counterterrorism operations.” Many of us on the Armed Services Committee and in Congress have called on the administration to be clear about the distinction of counterterrorism operations and our support of the Saudis in their bombing of the Houthis, and the administration has been unwilling to make that distinction. And so they just hope that there’s not the scrutiny, that are we are—continue to support the Saudis. And the Saudis have had almost no regard for human rights or humanitarian interests.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Khanna, you’ve also called for an investigation into whether U.S. allies in Yemen were responsible, involved with torturing prisoners and if U.S. personnel are directly involved in that.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, that’s one of the very sad things about Yemen, is this is not the United States’ way of doing business. These are not our values. No one in the Congress, Republican or Democrat, would condone the way the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates have been conducting the campaign in Yemen. And yet, because we have been providing refueling, because we have been assisting in targeting, we have been caught up in this war. So I have said we need to, at the very least, investigate allegations of serious war crimes that are being committed there, torture among that, and make sure that the United States has no role, or, if they did have a role, to discipline and take appropriate action against U.S. personnel who were involved, but, more broadly, that until the United States stops the assistance to the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, we’re really complicit in a war that does not comport with human rights or our own standards of conduct.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the response? Because your legislation that you introduced called on Defense Secretary James Mattis to probe this, what has been the response not only of Mattis, but also Republicans and Democrats, your fellow Democrats, in Congress?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I would say, over the last year, there has been much greater awareness in the Congress—and, frankly, in the country—about the catastrophe in Yemen. There were almost 44 senators who voted to stop any aid to the Saudis in their campaign against Yemen. We had a strong vote in the House of Representatives recognizing that this was going on, our aid to the Saudis, and recognizing that it wasn’t authorized.

But we still have not had transparency from the administration. We have not had a clear public response. And what we are asking the administration for is a very clear public response to three questions: What is our role in the assistance with the Saudis in their campaign against the Houthis? Second, what are we doing to make sure that the United States isn’t engaged in any torture or war crimes? And third, what are we doing to make sure that everything is done to prevent the Saudis from attacking the port of Hodeidah? We have not received a transparent response, and we need more voices in Congress to make it clear that the funding of the U.S. efforts in the Middle East will be contingent on them giving us and the American people a transparent response to these questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said, “We cannot have war in Hodeidah. It would be like war in Rotterdam or Antwerp. These are comparable cities of Europe.” It’s sad that in order for people in the United States, he feels, to have sympathy, you have to compare it to a European city.” But with 80 percent of the aid flowing through Hodeidah, what about the significance of this particular port?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I appreciate and agree with the perspective of the under-secretary of the United Nations. He’s absolutely right. The first point is it would just be a catastrophe of civilian casualties. An attack on Hodeidah would mean thousands and thousands of women and children and civilians would die. Second, the port of Hodeidah is the only place right now, for practical purposes, that food and medicine can get into Yemeni civilians. So, this is—one would think it just should be common sense that the United States and the international community would be doing everything in our power to keep that port open. In the past, even Ambassador Nikki Haley has talked about the importance of that port for civilians. And it would be really a dereliction of our own values to not do everything in our power to stop that attack, and do everything in our power to stop refueling the Saudis from their bombing campaign in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ro Khanna, we—in Part 1 of our conversation, we talked about this historic summit in Singapore between North Korea and the United States. What about the U.S. approach to Iran, pulling out of the nuclear deal there and then making this deal, the beginning of a deal, with North Korea?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I think the Democrats need to have a clear, different foreign policy from the neoconservative worldview. We need to be for a foreign policy of military restraint, engagement and diplomacy. I supported the Iran deal, as did many of my colleagues, saying, “Let’s reset the relationship with Iran, going back to the original sin of 1953 in the overthrow of Mosaddegh. Let’s start anew.” Well, you can’t be for engagement with Iran and resetting the relationships with Iran, and then, when it comes to North Korea, just because you have a Republican president, say, “We’re now not for engagement in North Korea.” We should listen to the advice of Bill Perry, who was so successful in the 1990s of helping engage North Korea. And we should welcome the efforts to engage with North Korea and to try to bring a framework towards peace.

We should criticize the president when he isn’t prepared or when he isn’t taking steps that are constructive. But we should embrace the broader framework. And I think it’s just critical, whether it’s on Yemen, whether it’s on Iran, whether it’s on North Korea, whether it’s on Ukraine, for the Democratic Party to be the voice for restraint of our military power, engagement in diplomacy, engagement in fighting the climate change, in supporting education, in exporting our values. We need to provide a real alternative to the neoconservative foreign policy of the last 20, 30 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And in your letter, which is also a response to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham calling for authorization for a military strike on North Korea, if this deal does not work out, what would that look like in Congress?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Lindsey Graham is just being totally irresponsible. And the Joint Chiefs of Staff or even Secretary Mattis would tell you there is no military solution in North Korea or on the Korean Peninsula. Millions would die if there was a war and, God forbid, nuclear weapons were launched. And I, frankly, don’t understand why people continue to go to Lindsey Graham, who’s been wrong about Iraq, wrong about Syria, wrong about expanding NATO, wrong about Libya. He’s the last person that we should be listening to. And we need to, instead, in the Congress, make it clear that we should not have a preemptive strike against North Korea. And that is legislation I have introduced with—John Conyers had introduced it before me. And we have a lot of people supporting that legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California, from Silicon Valley, has co-authored a bipartisan letter calling for Defense Secretary James Mattis to help prevent a catastrophic military operation in Yemen on the port of Hodeidah.