US War Against Civilians in the Middle East

By: Jon Kofas

President Donald Trump ran on an isolationist platform, resolved not to follow past administrations with regard to regime change, especially in the Middle East where G. W. Bush and later Barak Obama plummeted the country into tragic wars at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.   But follow he did.

On 15 May 2019, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Iran Threat Debate Is Set Off by Images of Missiles at Sea”, arguing that the US had solid evidence of missiles positioned for action by Iran. This came after the US was seeking justification for moving two “guided-missile destroyers” in the Persian Gulf and prior to that declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as terrorists, thus setting the stage for confrontation. 

Once the US had confirmation that its own EU allies were highly sceptical of any military action against Iran, Trump blamed National Security Advisor John Bolton and “fake media” for wanting war. 

A US attack on Iran will undoubtedly claim far more civilian casualties than men in uniform. However, the US has proved that civilian casualties are acceptable to achieve a military goal, even when such a goal remains elusive. In May 1996, Leslie Stahl of CBS News asked Secretary of State Albright:

“We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

During the Vietnam War, American historian Howard Zin wrote: “All wars are wars against civilians and are therefore inherently immoral” and “political leaders all over the world should not be trusted when they urge their people to war claiming superior knowledge and expertise.” This holds true just as true today as in the Vietnam War era.

While the Western media remains focused on the cult of personality even whether it covers domestic or foreign policy issues and always with all the pre-conceived notions of American Exceptionalism, the US under President Trump has continued the Obama administration’s war in Yemen where 10,000 people have been killed in the last four years and 80% of the population is in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Regardless of repeated warnings by international organizations and the United Nations about these humanitarian crises, nether the Europeans, nor the US have changed their militarist policies that exacerbate the crises. As far as the US and Europeans are concerned, Yemen is a war where crimes against humanity have been defaulted to the parties directly involved, pro-Iranian Houthis and pro-Saudi Yememis. However, the weapons and resources used come largely from the UK, US and France whose foreign policy is inexorably linked to the Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The UAE-Saudi-led coalition strikes carried out in the port city of Hudaida in June 2018 forced not just the estimated 30,000 residents to find a safe place to hide, but placing in jeopardy the entire country that depends on the entry port for its imports, according to the United Nations. Without the multi-billion dollar weapons sales by both the US and the UK, insisting on the pretext that Iran is the aggressor trying to secure a balance of power advantage in Yemen and the Middle East, the humanitarian catastrophe would not have occurred, and if so, not nearly at a such high cost to civilian lives. 

In both cases, the interests of the US as well as the UK rest primarily in maintaining the political-military advantage in the Middle East, while their defence manufacturing companies amass huge profits in weapons sales. Although in May 2017, the Trump administration signed a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, a deal that has policy strings attached, the US war on civilians in both Yemen and Libya transcends US political party line. Its origins rest with the Democrat President Barak Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Since 2011 the US has carried out 550 drone strikes in Libya, far more than in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan where it is also active.

The long-standing bipartisan nature of US foreign policy may have been distracted by the theatrics of a ‘do-no-harm while preserving the status quo’ US-North Korea summit, but both political parties remain steadfastly committed to military solutions, even if they disagree on the degree and burden-sharing costs of multilateralism.  

Although the history of modern US disproves the suggestion that there is no bipartisan militarist foreign policy, and that a single individual, namely the reckless unilateralist Trump is to blame because he withdrew from the Iran nuclear treaty, it should be kept in mind that the Obama administration was the one that began providing defence aid to Saudi Arabia for the civil war in both Syria and Yemen where the casualties are mostly civilians.

While the UN Human Rights Council had no choice but to strongly condemn the US for violating the human rights of migrant children separated from their parents and placed in makeshift prisons, there has been no similar condemnation, despite countless reports about the humanitarian catastrophe in both Yemen and Libya.

This is not to say that Western European governments are less guilty in these wars against civilians, or in the consequences of the wars that result in mass migration. Perpetual US-NATO warfare and no prospect of peace in Libya forces some civilians to find safety across the Mediterranean where a hostile Europe has taken measures to prevent refugee influx.

Civilian deaths and millions of people displaced in wars that the US had led or supported is hardly a concern of the US corporate-owned media. This is regardless if it supports the authoritarian populist neoliberal Trump-led Republican Party or the pluralist-diversity neoliberal Democrat Party whose main focus is to win back power and continue the anachronistic militarist policies. The remarkable continuity in militarist policies from Obama to Trump is buried under cult-of-personality politics, while defense budgets have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, public policy impacting the lives of the vast majority is obfuscated, while militarism exacerbating humanitarian crises in Muslim countries like Yemen goes unnoticed.

In May 2019, as the US was preparing for aggressive psychological warfare against Iran, presumably to force it out of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, it found itself isolated from most of its allies as well as China and Russia which support Iran. The convergence of militarist action against Iran, even at the psychological/symbolic level of encirclement/containment, combined with a trade war not just against China, but against any country enjoying a trade surplus with the US proved too heavy a load for the US to carry. This is especially amid a presidential campaign in which congressional Democrats openly accuse the US of isolating the country from its allies, while seeking war of false pretences, and using tariffs as a form of warfare that has backfired. 

Although there was a turnover in the House of Representatives in the elections of 2018, the wars against Muslim civilians in their own countries will continue. Even if the Democrats are lucky enough to unseat the neoliberal authoritarian populist Trump in 2020, the idea that the US will abandon military solutions to political problems abroad is as likely as income redistribution from the top down rather than from the bottom up.  Militarism as a way of life is a permanent fixture of US foreign policy because it is an integral part of the political economy. The victims will not only be civilians abroad, but working class people whose living standards will continue to decline amid rising cost of living and downward social mobility.

Jon Kofas received his Ph.D. in History at Loyola University – Chicago, 1979; taught various history and international political economy courses from 1979 until 2005.  He has published ten academic books and more than two dozens scholarly articles.  His blog (www.jonkofas.blogspot.com) deals with contemporary international political, economic and social issues.