Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Patrick Harris
Today our collective eye is rightfully turned towards the horror in Charlottesville. Yet, it is perhaps still worth recalling how fundamentally stable life in America remains. Political violence in this country is vanishingly rare even by the standards of our own recent history. This truth should not make us complacent, but should sharpen our vision when we turn to places where violence and misery are the norm rather than the exception. As I write, a tremendous human catastrophe is unfolding hour by hour in a place the media ignores. But it is a catastrophe in which we as a nation are complicit.
There are more than 25 million people in Yemen, and the vast majority of them are dependent upon aid to survive. Food, clean water, and medicine are dangerously scarce. 300,000 people have contracted cholera, and the nation’s blood banks will soon shutter. More than 10,000 have died. These are the consequences of a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war, a campaign that has made precious little military headway but has immiserated an entire nation through blockade and bombardment.
Unless you pay fairly close attention to foreign affairs or humanitarian policy, it is unlikely you know much about this human-made disaster.
You should. This war is being waged by an American “ally,” using American weapons and equipment, justified as a blow against an American enemy (Iran), and condoned by both the current and previous American administrations. While the Obama White House made disapproving murmurs about the conduct of the intervention, it did nothing to meaningfully restrain our Saudi clients. The Trump administration has moved toward deepening American involvement through intelligence and logistical support for the coalition.
These factors give the United States no small measure of responsibility for the single worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Independent of the immediate human cost, the war’s destabilization of Yemen also makes the United States’ attempts to combat Al-Qaida’s Yemeni branch more difficult (the effectiveness and wisdom of *that* campaign is another story).
For those invested in “the possibility of a peaceful world,” this sorry state of affairs raises at least two questions. Why is this happening, and why do so few Americans know or care?
The brief answer to the first question is the current foreign policy consensus, in either its liberal internationalist or neoconservative wings. Yemen’s internal strife has many sources, but Washington’s indulgence of the Saudi intervention is part of a consistent pattern across multiple administrations, one that supports the destructive and counterproductive behavior of Middle Eastern client states to avoid antagonizing them or empowering Iran. Moving toward a more prudent and just foreign policy will not only mean reconsidering the United States’ direct military commitments, but also the character of its alliances. What we enable often matters as much what we do.
The fact that the tragedy in Yemen is so little discussed is not a product of broad or deep public enthusiasm for that consensus. Support for foreign intervention is at historic lows in recent years and may have even proven decisive in restraining the Obama administration from intervening more extensively against the government of Syria. The Syrian episode aside, however, the pace and extent of overseas entanglements has not met a serious challenge from public opinion over the past decade. Americans intermittently tell pollsters they want a more restrained foreign policy, but they largely allow their leaders free reign for one military adventure after another.
Part of the problem is that so much of foreign policy has come to be conducted by the executive branch outside the political process, including US support for the war in Yemen and the Trump administration’s recent punitive strike on Syria. Foreign affairs are also simply uninteresting to many Americans: the problems are complicated, the actors are convoluted, and the names are hard to pronounce, even when American forces are directly involved (as is not currently the case in Yemen).
In a broader sense, though, any challenge to the compulsive bellicosity that passes for normality in American foreign policy must contend with the fact that the opponents of that (dis-)order have very different values and concerns. The anti-war left, which reached its recent peak under the Bush administration, expresses itself in globalist humanitarian and anti-imperialist terms. It draws on a tradition of protest culture dating back to the Vietnam War, and it speaks a moralistic, legalistic, and idealistic language, seeking to hold the United States to account for its real and imagined crimes.
The anti-interventionist right is a grab-bag of paleoconservative and libertarian tendencies, but is broadly more concerned with American sovereignty and interests than it is with global norms. It is wary of spending blood and treasure on behalf of other nations, skeptical of efforts to export American values, and suspicious of the international institutions that have sometimes been invoked on behalf of the latest call to arms. These tendencies reached postwar height in mainstream politics with the resistance to the Clinton administration’s wars in the former Yugoslavia, though they have periodically resurfaced since. Donald Trump channeled some of the impulses of the right-wing anti-interventionism during his campaign, but has proven far too unprincipled, unfocused, and addicted to blustering shows of “strength” to mark a significant departure in American foreign policy—or not, at any rate, in a more peaceful direction.
This stark portrayal of the different camps should not be taken to mean there is no overlap between them. Nonetheless, the distinct cultural and partisan identities of these groups is a serious barrier to effective mobilization against the latest excesses of American global power. Making the case for a different path will require both sides of the equation, simultaneously arguing that the reigning consensus is bad both for the United States and bad for the world. It is, far too often, a betrayal of both our moral obligations and our national interests.
The title of this post was uttered by Neville Chamberlain during the Munich Crisis as the Prime Minister explained his reluctance to go to war over Czechoslovakia. In the decades since it has often been used to condemn the alleged fecklessness of appeasement. Today, however, the inertia in American foreign policy is quite different. War has become the norm, sinking behind the front page and rarely troubling minds of average citizens. For our own sake and for the sake of “people of whom we know nothing,” this amnesia needs to be dispelled.
Tara Ann Thieke