Episode 133: The Art of Fake-Ending Wars

Citations Needed | April 14, 2021 | Transcript

President Richard Nixon announces the entry of US troops in Cambodia in 1970, during the Vietnam war. (STF / AFP / Getty Images)

[Music]

Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: We are back after our spring break. Thanks, everyone, for sticking with us, for bearing with our little hiatus, but you know what we are back now and one team member stronger. Adam has had a baby. So congratulations, my friend.

Adam: Yes, Peter Gene Lazare was born February 12, 2021 in healthy condition. He’s eating a lot. He’s a chubby baby, which we’re very excited about.

Nima: I should actually make a correction there, Adam did not have a baby, Sarah had a baby.

Adam: I did not have a baby. That’s correct. But no, he’s doing good. We’re very happy with him. He’s great. He poops and pees everywhere, you know, normal stuff. We’re trying to get him a job though. I feel like he’s kind of freeloading a little bit.

Nima: Yeah, it’s been a little while, it’s been a little while already.

Adam: I’m just saying, you know, no more free rides is what I’m saying. Anyway.

Nima: Right, time to pull his weight. Can’t just get those PPP checks forever.

Adam: That’s right.

Nima: So, yes, we are now back and of course thrilled to be back. For those who don’t know this already, I’m gonna say it anyway, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly helpful. It keeps the show going. We have no commercials, no ads, no billionaire benefactors and so it is all listener-funded and we cannot thank you enough for that.

Adam: Yeah, if you can help us out. We got kids to feed, literally now. Although you’ve always had kids.

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Nima: “Yemen war: Joe Biden ends support for operations in foreign policy reset,” reports the BBC. “Trump: US will be out of Afghanistan by Christmas 2020,” cheers Military Times. “Trump Orders Withdrawal of U.S. Troops From Northern Syria,” the New York Times tells us.

Adam: For decades the United States has very often appeared to have “ended” wars that do not in fact end at all. Open-ended jargon like “residual counter terror forces,” “Vietnamization,” “military advisors,” deliberately ambiguous timetables, process criticisms — all are used to confuse the average media consumer. The US’s politicians know the American public broadly dislikes war and empire — and thus wants to see it restrained — but these same politicians don’t really want to end wars, so they have a frequent PR problem: How do you make it look like you’re ending a war or occupation without really doing so?

Nima: To resolve this problem, American political leaders have perfected the art of fake-ending a war. Which is to say announcing a war is going to end, typically around election time, only to — once the headlines make a big splash — backtrack, obfuscate, claim the quote, “situation on the ground has changed,” end quote, or that military involvement will only be in a “limited” or “defensive” capacity, they shuffle troops around, or find other thin pretexts to continue the same war or occupation indefinitely.

Adam: In this episode we will discuss the US’ history of fake-ending wars, who these pronouncements are meant to please, why troop levels are often impossible to know, and why so many of our so-called “wars” are not really wars at all, but military occupations that are never really meant to end.

Nima: Later on the show we will be joined by Shireen Al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Teacher Education, a tireless educator, commentator and activist on ending the US and Saudi-led atrocities in Yemen. Shireen is also a contributor at In These Times magazine.

[Begin Clip]

Shireen Al-Adeimi: There’s still joint exercises happening, the Saudis were bragging about that on Twitter not too long ago, between the US military and the Saudis. There’s still all the training, all of the support that, you know, of the vehicles and the aircraft, whether they’re sold by the US or not they’re being updated, repaired, all of that by the US Army. There’s the support with the blockade. There’s everything but pulling the trigger, minus a couple of minor things that they’ve now said that they’ve stopped to do, but we still don’t even have proof for it. Where’s Congress? Why isn’t Congress pushing a War Powers Resolution like they did under Trump, why aren’t they legislating an end to this war? Why are they trusting the guy who’s got us into this mess to end it? Are they just taking him at his word, basically? And that’s what it feels is happening, this authority that Congress has to oversee wars, they wanted to take the authority back during the Trump era and now it seems like okay, they’re trusting the executive branch again.

[End Clip]

Adam: In February of this year, newly minted President Joe Biden announced the end of the war in Yemen, which we’ll talk to our guest about and get to in more detail later, and when that announcement was made, there were two huge qualifiers in the announcements that were big red flags that we found fascinating that no one was really mentioning, which is that Tony Blinken, when he made the announcement, said they were still going to support defensive operations, and that they were going to limit or curb arm sales or pause arm sales, and then with the fine print, they said they were going to continue the arm sales anyway.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: What was interesting about at the time is, you know, we talked about this offline is just how much the media uniformly — BBC, New York Times, even Democracy Now and supposed progressive outlets — trumpeted the headline that Biden ends the war in Yemen, or US involvement in the war in Yemen and now that two months have gone by, and the war has actually gotten worse in many ways, again, as we’ll cover with our guests, there was no sense of follow up of well, how exactly did we limit our participation in the war in Yemen? What is the US doing to actually end the war, if anything at all, and the predictable reality that these qualifiers that were thrown in by Secretary Blinken, were there for a very specific reason, which was to not really end the war and this got us talking about how many times in our lives there has been endings of wars announced that were later then, ‘Actually JK’ or ‘Not really’ or the kind of hype didn’t really live up to what was promised. Then we realized in our research and discussing this, that it was actually quite common.

Nima: Yeah, this actually happens all the time.

Adam: US presidents have a history of announcing the end of wars or pronouncing the intent to end a war without actually doing so at all and then that raises the question of, well, who exactly are these announcements for and whether or not — God forbid — the media ought to be skeptical of announcements of intention or announcements of a vague process, rather than the substantive evidence that said war has actually ended or troops have actually been withdrawn.

Nima: Right, what are the actions that provide the proof that wars are over or military occupations have ceased? So I think a perfect example to start with, is going into how many times we heard about Obama ending the war in Afghanistan, pulling out of US occupation troops there, and how often the media lapped it up, and then fed it back to all of us as yet another example of Obama sticking to his word, remember what we heard on the campaign trail where he was going to bring the troops home, and that they were, you know, dumb wars, and he’s not going to do stupid things? Well — you know what? — after more than a decade in Afghanistan, Obama’s gonna do it. He’s going to end another war, right? So during his presidency, Obama promised multiple times to end the war in Afghanistan in both 2012 and 2013. He claimed that that war would be over by the end of 2014 — and, lo and behold— in December of 2014, the United States and NATO formally ended the longest war in US history, the occupation of Afghanistan, with a flag lowering ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan. Now media outlets of course were quick to parent this message: The war has been ended. For example, CBS News had a headline that ran on December 8, 2014, saying, “U.S., NATO officially end Afghan combat mission.” The article would go on to state, quote:

The U.S. and NATO have ceremonially ended their combat mission in Afghanistan, 13 years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks sparked their invasion of the country to topple the Taliban-led government. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, which was in charge of combat operations, lowered its flag Monday, formally ending its deployment.

End quote.

However, even as these articles ran, there were signs that the war in Afghanistan was not in fact ending. Just the previous month, November of 2014, Obama had signed a secret order greenlighting a more expansive military operation in that country as The New York Times reported, saying this, quote:

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

End quote.

Adam: Meanwhile, Obama was already going back on the promised troop withdrawals right around the time of the flag lowering ceremony, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that there would be 1,000 more troops kept in Afghanistan in 2015 that had previously been promised by Obama. And then there was the US-Afghanistan bilateral security agreement signed in September 2014 that secured another decade of US troop presence meddling, training, arming and funding of the Afghan military and not only had Obama prolonged war in Afghanistan, which was already 13 years old, in 2015, a year and a half after the end of the war, Obama stated that he would not withdraw troops in Afghanistan, because, quote, “Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be.” Obama then announced that the US would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan through the end of his term in 2017. At the time, Obama administration officials insisted that he in fact had not not ended the war, that he had not broken his promise by the ironically named Josh Earnest, Obama’s press secretary, said, quote, “over the last seven years we’ve made a lot of important progress,” unquote. Homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco said that the open-ended mission would be to prevent a safe haven for terrorist groups and quote-unquote an “enduring security partnership” with authorities in Kabul. So Obama on two separate occasions, in 2012 and 2013, I think most notably during the 2012 election with Romney, had promised that within two years the war would be over. It’s now 2021 and US troop levels in Afghanistan are relatively stable, they’re still there in Afghanistan, and there’s no indication that they’re going to not be there for some time.

Nima: But they lowered a flag, Adam. They had a ceremony and they took a flag down.

Adam: Right, and so I felt like I was going crazy, because didn’t Obama end the war? Another thing that Obama did is he promised to end the war in Iraq, which formally he did, American troops for the most part, did leave Iraq in 2011 but it’s important to note that it was reported partly at the time that Leon Panetta and Obama wanted to keep thousands of American troops in Iraq but because of the WikiLeaks cables, and the collateral murder video, which showed the mowing down of Iraqi citizens by American troops, had caused such an outrage that I mean, in many ways Chelsea Manning was responsible for ending the Iraq War, because the WikiLeaks collateral murder video is what caused so much outrage in Iraq that basically made it completely politically untenable for the Iraqi Congress to give the Americans the immunity clause they demanded to stay, which is to say American troops cannot be prosecuted by Iraqi courts.

Nima: Which is what the Obama administration wanted to maintain.

Adam: Right. So again, they even tried to fake it in the war in Iraq but because of Wikileaks cables that Chelsea Manning had blown the whistle on, it became politically impossible for them to do that. So, that’s an example of when the US sort of technically did pull out for three years before they came back in August of 2014 to ostensibly fight ISIS and other bad guys in West Iraq and Syria, that they had actually wanted to stay. So that was an attempted fake ending.

Nima: But due to a Status of Forces Agreement that demanded that all US troops withdraw from Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011, that was not altered by the Iraqi government.

Adam: Otherwise, the Obama administration would have had to effectively re-invade Iraq and so that was a failed fake attempt. So that was a war we actually did end briefly, and for about two and a half years.

Nima: Briefly, briefly. There were still plenty of military advisors and contractors in the country and the largest quote-unquote “foreign embassy” which is really just a military base on the planet. But hey, it was sort of ended in a different way than, say Afghanistan.

Adam: Likewise, President Nixon, who was trying to win some of the skeptical war vote when he ran for president in 1968, throughout 1969 he made various promises to end the war in Vietnam, which didn’t formally end until 1973, but really didn’t until 1975. So tens of thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and others in Laos and Cambodia died after these alleged pronouncements were made.

Nima: So for instance, during the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon explicitly promised to end the war in Vietnam, and stated so in a campaign ad at the time.

[Begin Clip]

Richard Nixon: Never has so much military, economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively as in Vietnam. If after all of this time and all of this sacrifice and all of this support, there is still no end in sight, then I say the time has come for the American people to turn to new leadership not tied to the policies and mistakes of the past. I pledge to you, we shall have an honorable end for the war in Vietnam.

Man: This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.

[End Clip]

Adam: So we’re going to read various headlines all throughout 1969, his first year in office, February of 1969 Orlando Sentinel, quote, “‘Nixon will end war’ GOP Told.” June 1969, The Star Press, quote, “President Nixon’s Plan to End War in Vietnam Revealed.” September 1969, “Nixon: End Viet War In 1979 Our Objective.” November 1969, the Nashua Telegraph, quote, “Resolution Backs Effort by Nixon to End Viet War.” While at the same time his first few months in office, Nixon was very eager to escalate the war, he ordered secret B-52 bombings of the North Vietnamese camps in Cambodia, otherwise known as the Menu bombings or Operation Menu that killed tens of thousands, some argue hundreds of thousands of Cambodian civilians. What Nixon wouldn’t say was that he feared that ending the war before the election would hurt his chances for the presidency, as he was running on ending the war and wanted to be credited for it. So Nixon infamously went so far as to thwart the Johnson peace talks in 1968, which has been well documented that Johnson was actually on the verge of reaching some kind of peace agreement and Nixon, specifically Henry Kissinger, came in and torpedoed it, because they didn’t want to give Johnson credit for ending the war. So, Nixon never said the war is over, he continually had a kind of mystery ending the war plan, because, this is, again, why the fine print is important because he would say we need to end it honorably or end it in a way that creates a sustained peace or what have you, right? So now you have a situation where, okay, you want to end the war, but to do it honorably or to do it with some kind of stability, well, that’s just an invitation to have another war for another 10 years, which means you don’t really want to end the war at all.

Nima: As you heard in the ad, the spending and the ineffective use of military power, all of that is a dig at the previous Democratic administration. So you’re trying to say they were irresponsible in the way that they prosecuted this, and then doing this kind of hedgy thing, because it was a campaign ad to say, you know, bring about a responsible end to the war. So you both appeal to those who see that this is going badly, while also placing the blame on the previous administrations and clearly not on your own party, which then continues to prosecute the war.

Adam: Well, this is part of the process criticism John Kerry did against Bush in 2004. ‘It’s not that war’s wrong, because obviously I voted for it, it’s that the war is not being done competently,’ and Nixon did this to Johnson all the time, as did by the way many pro-Vietnam War democrats did to Nixon, it’s a way of sort of looking busy without actually opposing war.

Another place we see emerge, the kind of fake-ending the wars now with the, we’re jumping around here chronologically, forgive us, is the supposed Biden withdrawal or desire to withdraw from the Afghanistan war, something that the last two presidents had promised that never came to be over a span of three terms, over the span of 12 years. So what they do now with Biden, which you see also with the quote-unquote “border crisis” is that what was now a deliberate act by the most powerful person in the world, which is ethnic cleansing policy at the border by way of parallel, which is to say, the Afghanistan war is something they can control, now mysterious forces are thrust upon Biden and he has no real agency over the process, we’re now back to the kind of ‘woe is me’ quagmire, the situation is the problem, not necessarily the decisions made by the person at top, and you see this framing now with matching Biden’s campaign rhetoric because he campaigned to end the war in Afghanistan, quite explicitly, and now mysterious outside forces make the US having to stay in Afghanistan. Typically, there’s two excuses that are used, they need to fight for women’s rights, everyone knows that NATO and the US are women’s rights organizations with guns, or if they leave, they’ll cede to the evil Russians and Chinese.

Nima: So you see this kind of dilemma framing of the Biden pending decision about what to do with Afghanistan. You see this in The New York Times on February 16, 2021, an article headlined, “Stay or Go? Biden, Long a Critic of Afghan Deployments, Faces a Deadline,” and the article says this, quote:

Mr. Biden, one senior aide noted, started his long career in the Senate just before the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam; the image of helicopters plucking Americans and a few Vietnamese from a roof was a searing symbol of a failed strategy. Mr. Biden is highly aware of the risks of something similar transpiring in Kabul, the Afghan capital, if all Western troops leave, and he has privately described the possibility as haunting, aides said. But the president also questions whether the small remaining contingent of Americans can accomplish anything after 20 years in which almost 800,000 U.S. troops have deployed, or whether it will ever be possible to bring them home.

So again, you have this framing where it’s not about all the people that US troops have killed or a country that was destroyed or people living in a country having control over their own destiny, self-determination, none of that. It’s all, let’s not repeat the Vietnam mistake where you know, American might was defeated and we were humiliated and we fled, right? The cut and run and so, you know, again, you see Vox from March of this year, March 4, 2021, you have an article written by Alex Ward entitled, “An ‘emotional’ moment at an NSC [National Security Council] meeting shows why withdrawing from Afghanistan is so hard.”

Adam: It’s so hard, Nima. It’s hard. It’s difficult, it’s quagmire.

Nima: The article says this, quote:

Women’s rights ‘will go back to the Stone Age,’ [Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chair] Milley said, according to two of the sources. He argued that it wasn’t worth leaving the country after ‘all the blood and treasure spent’ there over the last two decades. He also added that, in his view, the lack of 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan would make it harder to stem threats from a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

So again, there are all of these reasons why US troops cannot stop occupying foreign countries. We just can’t do it. Why would we have spent 20 years of blood and treasure, if only to leave now? Which I mean, I guess you could say 200 years from now, right?

Adam: CNN also provided cover for Biden, March 23, 2021, headline reads, “Biden wrestles with Afghanistan troop dilemma as time to make a decision runs out.” There’s always a reason to continue the war. The article blindly accepts and parrots excuses for Biden prolonging the war, writing, quote:

Biden promised voters he would end the country’s longest war. Yet a countervailing impulse has also taken hold. Biden worries that removing American troops from Afghanistan by May 1 would set the country up for collapse. Warned by his military commanders of such a possibility, Biden has ruminated on the burden of becoming a president remembered for allowing the war to end in ignoble failure.

Unquote.

So again, there’s always this mysterious force out to get us. Biden was going to end the war, right? But oh, the situation on the ground has changed. So mysteriously, the war in Afghanistan is not really meant to end because US occupation of Afghanistan has tremendous strategic value, not necessarily for Afghanistan, but because it counters Chinese influence in Central Asia, it counters Russian influence in Central Asia, it keeps an eye on Iran, which of course, is central to the American Middle East strategy. So there is this disconnect, which we talked about, which is that everybody wants to end these wars, no one understands why we’re there, the public doesn’t like them, they poll very badly. Politicians, when they run for office, need to sort of gesture towards that but once they’re in power, because we have, you know, back before Trump turned it into a conspiratorial pejorative, we actually have a deep state, we have a security state, which we’ll get into in much greater detail later about why that is, that says, ‘No, we’re not going to leave.’ The weapons contractor funded think tanks, the military brass, again, if you ask an ice cream man what to have for dessert, he’s going to tell you ice cream, if you ask the commander’s if we should leave a war zone, they’re always gonna say no. They don’t say yes to that question ever historically, because that’s the business. They’re in the business of occupying and war and so of course, they’re gonna say, ‘Well, no,’ and so then suddenly, it becomes this hand wringing exercise, it’s a dilemma, a quagmire, it’s unwinnable, there’s sort of no right answer.

Nima: Declaring victory would be premature, you can’t leave rapidly, you can’t have a, you know, rapid withdrawal of troops because of the vacuum (laughs) we could write all of these articles a million times over.

Adam: And so 20 years later, we have no choice, we have to keep our troops there. And then the most bizarre example of this was Trump in Syria, northeast Syria, where troops have been occupying now for several years, Trump on two major occasions, three or four depending how you count it, announced his intention to withdraw American troops from Syria. The media had a meltdown for a week about ceding the territory to Russia, ceding the territory to Assad or in the case in 2019, portraying the Kurds, suddenly everyone cared about the Kurds for about two days until they stopped caring about them again, and this was met with much outrage.

But it turns out, none of these withdrawals ever actually happened. So April 4, 2018, here’s an article from The Washington Post, “Trump instructs military to begin planning for withdrawal from Syria.” This was one of the first media meltdowns we had. The article said:

President Trump has instructed military leaders to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible and told them he wants Arab allies to take over and pay for stabilizing and reconstructing areas liberated from the Islamic State, according to senior U.S. officials.

Then a week later, there was a chemical attack in Syria, which then Trump responded to with an airstrike at the Syrian airbase, which is not to be confused with the airstrike in April 2017 and then everybody sort of forgot about it on April 15, 11 days after Trump announced his alleged intention, although he’s a fucking toddler, so it’s never clear what he actually wanted when, CNN reported quote, “French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday ‘President Trump said he would like to withdraw from Syria, but we have convinced him it is necessary to stay there.’” So then Trump says, Okay, we got to stay there now because we got to fight Iranian proxy forces.

Nima: Blah, blah, blah, right. Flash forward seven months.

Adam: New York Times headline, quote, “Trump to Withdraw U.S. Forces From Syria, Declaring ‘We Have Won Against ISIS.’” Now that’s December 2018 and then in October 2019, roughly 10 months later, The New York Times says, quote, “Trump Orders Withdrawal of U.S. Troops From Northern Syria” Now I’m gonna read you these two leads and these articles 10 months apart, okay, I’m gonna read these two leads and I want you to note that they sound exactly the same, quote:

President Trump has ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria, bringing a sudden end to a military campaign that largely vanquished the Islamic State but ceding a strategically vital country to Russia and Iran.

So apparently, it’s America’s country to cede to Russia and Iran.

Nima: Indeed.

Adam: And then so here’s the lede from 10 months later, in The New York Times, quote:

President Trump ordered a withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria, a decision that will effectively cede control of the area to the Syrian government and Russia, and could allow a resurgence of the Islamic State.

So both of these withdrawal announcements have virtually the exact same language 10 months apart, based on what appears to be Trump telling senior leaders he wants to do it and then there was a media meltdown about how we’re ceding this to Russia, we’re ceding it to China, we’re betraying the Kurds, which again, suddenly everyone cared about, but then of course, we found out later there was never any withdrawal ever. So this was an article from November of 2020 after Trump lost the election, in Times of Israel, quote, “Outgoing US envoy to Syria says he hid true number of troops from Trump team.” The article would read, quote:

Veteran diplomat James Jeffrey, the outgoing US special representative in Syria, reportedly said he and his team were deliberately ambiguous in communications with senior Trump administration officials about the number of American troops in Syria.

President Donald Trump ordered withdrawals of US troops from northeast Syria, where they partnered with Kurdish forces to oppose the Islamic State, in 2018 and in October 2019, saying that the terror group had been defeated.

The withdrawal of the American soldiers was seen as a major shift in US policy, and a betrayal of the Kurds — longtime, close allies to the US whose territory was invaded by Turkey shortly after the US withdrawal. The Kurds were the main American partner in the fight against the Islamic State and bore the brunt of the fighting, losing thousands to the terror group.

‘We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,’ Jeffrey told the Defense One outlet in an interview published Thursday.

The number of US soldiers remaining in Syria was ‘a lot more than’ the 200 troops Trump agreed to leave there, Jeffrey said. The actual number of soldiers still deployed in the area is unknown.

‘What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,’ Jeffrey said. ‘When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out. In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story.’

As defense consultancy firm Stafor wrote: Although the full number is still not publicly known, Jeffrey, who is now retiring, hinted that troop levels had been unchanged since October 2019, when around 1,000 troops were estimated to be in Syria.

So the US did briefly pull out of parts of north Syria, to let Turkey invade, our NATO partner invade and kill Kurds. Of course, we have no problem betraying the Kurds or killing the Kurds. But the overall number of troops in Syria never changed, and in many ways went up, and of course, we don’t actually know what the number of troops in Syria is. So the idea that we were ceding Syria to Russia and Iran never really came to pass because the US can’t give up its territorial gains in northeast Syria, because they control the majority of oil in Syria, the government, the Syrian government says it’s 90 percent, maybe 70 percent, 60 percent, but whatever it is, the US supposedly they say the Kurdish forces technically control it, but it’s a Delaware-based US corporation that now runs the oil in northern Syria, under the control of US forces and those forces are not going to give up that oil because that would be seen as again, like with Afghanistan, giving in to Iran —

Nima: Of course.

Adam: Or the Russians and that’s not acceptable. So what you get is, you get these constant claims, because Trump always likes to sort of speak in this isolationist, anti-military rhetoric, or he did rather, but there’s never any follow through.

Nima: What’s even weirder here is that literally a US official is admitting to not giving correct information about troop levels in a foreign country to the commander in chief of the military, and now look, I am not one who necessarily gives a fucking shit about that title and certainly not someone like Trump wielding that kind of violence, but it is surreal to hear this quote from James Jeffrey being like, we were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there, because, basically, the military decided that withdrawing troops was not a thing they wanted to do.

Adam: As the military always decides, right? Like, the military doesn’t say, ‘We’re actually, we’re good, we’re happy to lose,’ these are prideful people, these are people also with an economic interest to keep the war machine going and so nobody sort of cared about this report when it came out really because Trump, you know, Trump’s the bad guy.

Nima: Right. So it’s like, they didn’t even trust him and they were lying to Trump, right?

Adam: Yeah, but like, theoretically, he was elected and in theory the elected leader decides troop levels not mysterious forces within the State Department and the Defense Department, which is exactly what happened. He says it out loud. He says, ‘Oh, yeah, we just told him to fuck off.’ Which is sort of, I think one of the points of this episode, which is that there’s a steady war state, that in many ways, I don’t think it actually really matters who you elect, it doesn’t really matter what their campaign promises, the basic features, the basic contours of American wars aren’t really permitted to change.

Nima: Because as Jeffrey says, there will always be five better arguments for why we need to stay.

Adam: And then strangely, he sort of doesn’t even say that those arguments won the day or that they convinced him, he says they just ignore it or lie to him. So I think this is, it’s a pretty remarkable admission and I think it sort of speaks to some of the stuff, again, leftists suspect, especially with Obama or even, although I think Trump’s alleged dovishness was way overplayed, I don’t even think he really cared. I think it was just an impulse thing. I think he literally saw Tucker Carlson that night and decided to pull out of Syria for purely racist reasons.

Nima: Right until someone else asked him something the next night, and he was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m gonna triple the amount of troops.’ It is nonsense.

Adam: So again, this is why you have this tension between what we’re talking about between the rhetoric about ending a war and the reality of actually doing it and why there’s such a gap and really, I think the point is, maybe generally speaking the CNNs and I New York Times of the world should not not put that in scare quotes. They shouldn’t say, you know, ‘Trump to end war’ or ‘Trump to pull out of Syria.’ Wait till he does it.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Wait till it’s actually done and you verify, and you go there and you talk to activists, or you talk to, you know, independent third parties, ‘No, there’s no there’s no troops left in Syria,’ because, again, when this happened — and I am tooting my own horn here — I said, this is literally not going to happen. This is literally not going to happen. Eli Lake, liberal media, oh ceding to Russia, Trump’s in Putin’s pocket, ceding to Russia and I’m like, guys, listen, there is literally zero percent chance the US is actually going to pull out of Syria and of course, we now know that they never did and they never going to.

Nima: Of course.

Adam: Because they can’t, because they can’t, the US doesn’t just randomly voluntarily give up oil-rich land to its fucking enemies, this is not going to happen, it is not going to happen under Biden, it was never gonna happen under Trump and so that brings to the surface bigger questions about what the value of elections are on foreign policy, you know, I think domestically there are huge differences, but for the most part, these wars kind of just go unabated and I think that that’s, again, I think that has troubling implications that people don’t like to think about.

Nima: Which also then brings us to what we mentioned at the top of the episode, which is the February 2021 Joe Biden announcement that the United States was ending its support for the Saudi-led violence in Yemen, for the blockade, for the siege, for the devastating bombings, for this years long destruction of Yemen. We heard in February that was now over. We’re ending that, right? However, what evidence do we have so far to show that that is the case? The answer is none. So two months ago, Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan vowed to end US support for what he called quote-unquote “offensive operations” during the nearly six year long war in Yemen but as good friend of the show, Sarah Lazare, and our guest today Shireen Al-Adeimi observed in an article for In These Times, back in February, the Biden administration couched this supposed promise in really noncommittal language that would effectively permit the continuation of US involvement in the war indefinitely. So Biden, for example, delivered a speech not only repeating the “offensive operations” qualifier, right? So there’s offensive operations and apparently defensive operations are still okay? So he repeated the thing about offensive operations, but also stated that this applied to quote-unquote “relevant arm sales,” implying that any de-escalation would be pretty much conditional and totally incomplete. Additionally, strictly ending offensive operations would effectively allow the war to continue unabated. In the article by Lazare and Al-Adeimi, they note that the Obama administration, which ushered the US into war back in 2015, and which Joe Biden of course served in that administration, Obama framed the American entry into Yemen and its support for Saudi Arabia as — what else? — purely defensive stating this, quote:

In response to the deteriorating security situation, Saudi Arabia, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, and others will undertake military action to defend Saudi Arabia’s border and to protect Yemen’s legitimate government.

End quote.

That was the announcement to get the US involved, couched in this language of defense, not aggression.

Adam: Yeah and we saw misleading headline after misleading headline. The New York Times, February 10, 2021, headline read, “Biden Ends Military Aid for Saudi War in Yemen. Ending the War Is Harder.” The article goes on to say, “President Biden announced that he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, including some arms sales.” This is of course in direct contradiction to the headline which did not qualify “some.” BBC, February 5, “Yemen war: Joe Biden ends support for operations in foreign policy reset.” NPR, February 4, 2021, “ Biden Administration Ends U.S. Support Of Saudi-Led Offensive In Yemen.” AP, February 5, 2021, “What US ending Saudi war support means for Yemen.” Yet, the war has, as we’ll discuss with our guest, has gotten worse, and there is very little evidence or there’s no direct evidence or so far no direct reporting, that the US has meaningfully reduced its support for the war because they have a different definition of offensive versus defense and that basically gives them a free pass to continue their support. There’s a couple things Biden has done, the more cartoonish stuff like not making the Houthis a registered foreign terrorist organization, that is helpful, and he’s also brought back USAID to Yemen, which is helpful, but the actual war itself and the basic structures of the war itself haven’t really changed. All of these articles are simply based on an assertion by Biden and his Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Nima: And speaking of assertions made by the Biden’s State Department, just recently, on Monday, April 12, a staggering claim was made by a State Department official, as documented by Vox reporter, Alex Ward.

Adam: After mounting pressure from Congressional Democrats and activists on the Biden administration, the Blinken State Department, to respond to specifically pressure from real content, Bernie Sanders have been trying to get Biden to lean on the Saudis to stop the blockade, which they very much have the ability to do, which is why Democrats are asking Biden to do it. The State Department through a spokesman via Alex Ward, he asked them about the blockade, people have been trying to get a response from the Blinken State Department, the Biden White House, and they did something very strange. They said, quote, “It is not a blockade.” Which is strange, because the Saudis have been referring to it as a blockade for the past few months, and indeed have offered to ease the blockade in exchange for concessions from the Houthis.

Nima: Easing the blockade, that they are enforcing that the US is now claiming doesn’t exist, but they’re proud that it does exist.

Adam: Because the problem is, is that Blinken, who’s doing you know, going around doing all his high-minded, scoldy human rights shit, there’s a contradiction at the heart of this, right? Benevolent empires, the sanctimonious Empire, is built on a contradiction. And those contradictions —

Nima: What?

Adam: Right, and in case you haven’t noticed, one of the things we do on the show is expose the contradictions or heighten the contradictions, as it were. And so he can’t square the circle and say, ‘Well, this blockade is actually useful or good’ because that undermines, again, just two hours prior, the head of USAID, Samantha Power, talked about 5.5 million refugees from Venezuela. And it’s the worst humanitarian disaster on Earth, all due to the Maduro regime. Forget the fact that Biden still has the brutal Trump sanctions on Venezuela, which super calculated kill 40,000 people a year, which The Economist explicitly said are designed to starve Venezuelans. Forget any human rights claptrap, and Biden has kept those for the last three and a half months, even though he could end him with a stroke of a pen. By the way, he’s kept all the Iranian sanctions, by the way.

Nima: Of course.

Adam: Even though those were supposed to be radical, barbaric sanctions, we were told when Trump was in office, but Biden hasn’t gotten rid of them. And so their gambit was to just deny there’s a blockade, which when you stop and think about it is pretty much the only thing they can do. Like they can’t justify it. And they can’t oppose it because they support Saudi Arabia, and they support their war.

Nima: Well, right. And so what you do is you get into this weird, pathetic semantic thing, where you say, well, there isn’t really a blockade. And then as Alex Ward reported, after a follow-up being like, uh, all the reporting is that there is and literally human beings know that there is it just because it’s reported by CNN, doesn’t mean it’s then finally real. It was real before then as well. There are food and fuel shortages. This has been known for years. And yet, when that was brought up, as a counter to this official claim that there is no blockade, the response from the official, the US official was this, quote, “A blockade would imply there’s nothing getting in,” end quote. So the idea that maybe there’s a tiny bit of food, maybe there’s a tiny bit of oil getting through despite the fact that Saudi warships have been blockading the port not letting anything get through. When anything gets through, when there is some tiny bit of, ‘Oh, well, just enough food so that people can not literally starve in the street,’ that is seen as being magnanimous that is seen as proof that there is not a full-on siege. There’s not a full-on blockade. The same kind of shit is said all the time about Gaza. Right? Like always, it’s like ‘Gaza is not under occupation. Because oh, well, you know, look like there are three trucks of food getting through for you know, a million people.’ That is the gambit here. And I think that what you see is the US just doing that same kind of propaganda and shifting what words are supposed to mean to somehow say there’s no blockade when obviously, there’s a blockade, and not only is the US facilitating it, enabling it, funding it, supporting it, but Saudi Arabia, which is actually sieging Yemen, they boast about it and also use it as leverage. So to claim that there’s no blockade is, in a way the most kind of egregious evidence of imperial hubris here.

Adam: Apparently, there’s some pro-Houthi conspiracy on CNN and Jake Tapper and the New York Times that have referred to it as a blockade for some time now. They’re arguing that that’s not true. So here we have again, now Democrats in office and he’s doing the evil thing. There’s a cottage industry of blue checkmark, think tank hacks who will come in and say, ‘Well actually, let’s begin to negotiate.’ You know, because again, Israel does the same thing, right? They say, ‘Well, this is — stuff gets into Gaza. So how can it be a blockade or how could it be a siege by virtue of there being some stuff,’ but any activist who’s worked in Yemen and tried to end this war will tell you this point.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Shireen Al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Teacher Education, she is a tireless educator, commentator and activist on ending the US and Saudi-led atrocities in Yemen. Shireen will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.

[Music]

Nima: We are joined now by Shireen Al-Adeimi, welcome back to Citations Needed Shireen.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Thanks so much for having me.

Adam: So I want to start off by doing what we would typically try to do, which is to update our listeners on the sort of what’s on the ground, the reality of what’s on the ground. It’s been two months since President Biden announced what The New York Times referred to on February 10 of this year, quote, “the end of US support for operations in Yemen” unquote. So I want to begin by getting an update on the alleged end of the US involvement in the war, what we know has happened, if that’s different, what has not happened that’s not different and I think most importantly of all, which I think is one of the problems we ran into, I think when working on the show, is what we don’t know changed —

Nima: The unknown unknown.

Adam: Because it seems like as a matter of material reality for those in Yemen, nothing has changed at all and I want to start by sort of recapping what the facts on the ground are, as they say.

Shireen Al-Adeimi

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Yeah, so first thing to remember is that Biden’s administration began by undoing a lot of the harm that was done by the Trump administration toward the end of the Trump administration and so some of those things that should have never happened in the first place, like Trump cutting all USAID to Northern Yemen, where the Houthis rule, and where 70 or 80 percent of the population live, them designating the Houthis as terrorists and so Trump had passed the FTO designation, you know, and it went into effect a day before Biden took office and he reversed that and that was, by the way, the shortest reversal ever. The shortest time before this was two years. So we were really worried that this designation would go through, and then it would just go through this bureaucratic nightmare to reverse it and it would essentially spell genocide in northern Yemen, because no US organization would be able to legally operate in northern Yemen and deliver aid. So that reversal, thankfully, took place right away. The weapon sales that the Trump administration was trying to push through the Emiratis got paused and reviewed. So all of these things seemed like they were movements forward but really, they were just kind of getting us back to status quo and then in addition to that, the Biden administration announced that they were ending offensive operations in the war in Yemen and they said they stopped intelligence sharing. What that means, of course, is that we actually have no idea. There’s no way to verify this. There has not been transparency, the bombing has escalated, the blockade has been tightened and so the reality on the ground for Yemenis is actually much worse the last couple of months and my sense is that the US continues to support the Saudi-led coalition. We just don’t know right now.

Adam: Yeah, because it seems like there was a sense, especially when you talk about the arm sales, I remember when they first announced they were quote-unquote “pausing” arm sales to Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, a bunch of lefties started spiking the football. If you actually read the fine print in the Wall Street Journal article, they said it’s completely standard, every new administration reviews arm sales, so it’s normal, it’s not unusual, which is to say if they didn’t do it would be very remarkable, but them doing it is actually quite normal and then there’s a line where they say, I’m paraphrasing, but it says something to the effect of ‘the arm sales are expected to go through anyway.’

Nima: Yeah, exactly. This review is routine and pretty perfunctory.

Adam: And then from there, I began to think well, okay, at the very least, we know that there’s an incentive either deliberate or some kind of institutional incentive here for I think the media to start framing things in the most generous way possible for the Biden administration with respect to, well pretty much everything was to be honest, but in the context of Yemen, that we were rounding up to the most generous reading of things, because, you know, if the headline said, ‘Biden to engage in normal routine pause for weapons sales that are going to go through anyway,’ I don’t think people would have really been celebrating, but it’s how you sort of frame it and you bury the real substance at the end and it seems like at that point that there was there was confusion as to what was actually going on.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Yeah. So you’re right, the headline gives him a lot more credit than he deserves and this is kind of what’s followed since then, because that first announcement was about the weapons sales review, which turned out to be completely routine, turned out to be two very specific shipments, you know, and not review of all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and then of course, they also said, ‘Yep, this is likely going to go through.’ And so the Biden administration, of course, is very much aware and does feel the pressure to do something about ending the war in Yemen. Activists have campaigned long and hard and we’re six years into this war now that the Obama-Biden administration began. So it’s not like they thought this was a bad idea to begin with but it did compel Biden to say something on the campaign trail. In 2019, he finally started saying that he wanted to end the war in Yemen, end the war in Yemen. Now, it seems like, again, the fine print really, really matters and we have to be extremely critical about what it means to end the war. What does he mean when he’s saying offensive versus defensive, for example, when this whole entire war was framed as a defensive operation during the Obama era?

Nima: Totally. Actually, that leads directly to, I think, something we’ve been thinking a lot about and talked about a little earlier in the show, this idea of semantics, and as you say, reading the fine print, right? So ending quote-unquote “offensive operations,” leaves open the linguistic kind of turn of phrase to say, well, they’re still engaged in defensive operations. Really, virtually all countries in the history of the planet have referred to aggressive wars as being defensive or as being preemptive or preventative, right? We’ve heard this all the time. This is kind of the way that you justify your violent aggression as a nation, you say it’s defensive, Shireen, can you talk about what the offensive versus defensive modifier really entails in the way that we are receiving this information in the media, but also what it actually means on the ground?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Yeah. So for six years, nobody was making this distinction between offensive and defensive. The Obama administration, when they began in 2015, they released a press statement March 26, I remember it, and I remember when Biden was making that statement, you know, about a month ago, it just reminded me of the statement that Obama’s White House made back in 2015, when they said, we’re entering this, you know, they kind of said, we’re not entering a war, because obviously, it was illegal for a president to declare war, but they said they’re providing support for the Saudi-led coalition, because of their interest in defending Saudi Arabia. At the time, it didn’t make any sense because the Houthis were not encroaching into Saudi Arabia, that came later as retaliation, but, you know, the Obama administration seemed to be very interested in securing Saudi borders and territories and now Biden seems to be making that same exact statement, he made sure in his statement to underscore the importance of defending Saudi sovereignty in Saudi territories and there’s this uncritical kind of repetition of that in the media, like why? This is the country that you said, he was saying he was going to make MBS a pariah during the campaign trail and now we’re all of a sudden very much interested, invested in Saudi security, and at the expense of home, you know, defending Saudi Arabia really from Houthis who don’t even have a single helicopter, let alone several nations worth of arms, like the Saudi-led coalition does and has been using for the past six years.

So I think it’s just preposterous to all of a sudden make this arbitrary distinction between offensive and defensive and we’re here trying to figure out what is the difference when the war continues? We learned maybe a couple weeks later that the Biden administration supposedly ended intelligence sharing with the Saudi-led coalition, but again, I don’t know what this means and where’s the verification? Right? So does that mean we no longer have commanders in the command room helping to choose targets or are we not making it easier for them to operate in Yemen based on intelligence the US gathers on the ground? What is the difference? Are we not providing logistical support anymore? Are we not helping with the blockade? There’s so much that the US is involved in and we just have no proof. We’re just taking their word for it, you know?

Nima: Right. I mean, where’s the evidence that the US has stopped refueling Saudi planes?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Right.

Adam: They’re defensively refueling them.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: You know, because one of the contradictions here is that for years we were told, you know, by Bruce Riedel and others, and former Obama administration officials, including Ben Rhodes, that if the US really wanted to end the war tomorrow they could. Now, the spare parts issue, I know refueling, I think Saudi Arabia has fixed some of that or can do that independently, but the idea that the US really wanted to through some form of sanction or withholding of military aid or a number of other levers, that they really could in the war. That’s what we were told, we were told this was a US sanctioned war that if the US did not really approve it, it couldn’t really happen and then we hear a president say, ‘Oh, we really want to end it,’ and then we turn on our TV Two months later and it’s gotten worse. So there’s something wrong with this story, right? Which is to say it appears that — at least from my perspective, and this is what I predicted was going to happen, and I believe is happening and I think will be proved to be the case — is that because Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken are going around doing this sort of scoldy human rights tour, which they love to do, sort of restoring the moral order, this this very sanctimonious moral pretext to sort of further meddle in Central Asia, East Asia, Latin America, Venezuela, Bolivia, that they have to have some thin credibility for the kind of New York Times crowd, right? And the way you maintain that thin credibility is by taking the most egregious example that you’re full of shit, which I think most people would agree with Yemen, sort of the, the most glaring example of US hypocrisy and then you sort of nominally say, ‘Oh, we’re out of here,’ but then suspiciously nothing changes and I think this is where the sort of eternal question for activists is, is that in some ways, do you feel that it’s kind of easier to push back against a war when you have a kind of cartoon Republican warmonger like Trump versus this very kind of slick PR-centric, because a lot of I think a lot of the wind was taken out of the sails when Biden made his announcement but as a matter of substance, at least from my perspective, I don’t really see any change to the status quo. Do you feel like in some senses that makes it harder? Obviously, you know, some people would say at least the Biden administration listens but if that listening is only PR driven, I don’t know what the value of it is to be honest.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I mean, you know, when Sarah Lazare and I wrote that piece the day that Biden made the announcement, this is what we were worried about, we were worried that people would just slap it up, activists would stop and celebrate, when, in fact, and then it would make it so much harder to bring attention to the fact that nothing’s changed, you know, and my predictions about Biden too you know, from months ago, were that he was going to make some sort of deal with the Saudis, he was going to make it look like support had ended, but would continue to support them in different ways or find more reasons to legitimize the war. So Blinken is going around telling the Houthis that they should not attack Marib, which is the province that’s rich in oil and gas, and it’s been a battleground for over a year now but the Houthis have intensified their attacks in that area, when the Saudis essentially tighten the blockade, and especially the fuel blockade. So for Blinken to be making statements about Houthis de-escalating in Marib kind of sets the stage for then the Biden administration to say, ‘Oh, no, we really need to be stepping in here in this area, to provide additional support to Saudi-led military because the poor Saudis can’t occupy this part of Yemen.’ And so yes, I do think it’s harder, you know, during the Obama era, Adam and Nima, this was incredibly difficult. It was like yelling into the void, nobody would listen, I would tell people that the US is involved, has been involved since day one, is fueling, at the time, we were, you know, we had proof that we were doing mid-air refueling and involved in so many ways, and it was all illegal and it was all just so incredibly disastrous for civilians in Yemen and nobody seemed to care because, you know, the sentiment was like, ‘Oh, you know, we trust Obama, we trust the Obama administration to do the right thing.’ And that’s what I’m hearing now about Biden, ‘We trust Biden, give him time, this is a difficult task, and we trust that he’s gonna do the right thing.’ You know, we can’t give him more time. These people have destroyed an entire country, a child under the age of five is dying every 75 seconds, right? It used to be 10 minutes. Now it’s every 75 seconds. How much longer can Yemenis wait for justice to happen? And in this case, in the case of Yemen, sadly, all we’re asking for is for the US to stop supporting the Saudis, stop bombing, stop blockading, stop supporting the Saudis militarily, and let Yemenis just kind of sort it out among themselves. That’s all we’re asking and it’s been six years now.

Adam: Yeah, because it seems like the drumbeat has waned, you know, sort of, we’ve washed our hands of it, there’s this huge black box of what we’re actually doing. Chris Hayes finally started talking about it after basically ignoring it for two years on his show when Trump was in office, and then he hasn’t tweeted about it or talked about it since January of 2021.

Nima: Well that’s the thing, right, Adam? I mean, when you have this cartoon villain in Trump, you get to say that you’re against all these things but then when you have the prestige imperialism of Obama, or now, you know, returning to it with Biden, that sense of complicity for these atrocities is deemed to be different. Biden is not just the next president after Trump, as Obama’s VP, he was complicit in the destruction of Yemen during the Obama years. So, Shireen, I guess my question to you here is seeing this happen again, with the neoliberal New Yorker set, not really paying as much attention to Yemen or that’s not on their, you know, radar as much as it was in this litany of Trump atrocities, what is the current state of play for activists? And I say that not just in the United States or say, Western Europe, but even in Yemen, what is happening and then how can those activists for accountability, for justice, for ending this US-backed slaughter, how can they be best supported?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Yeah, so you know, if this war had started under Trump, it could have ended by now but it started under Obama. So there’s this very strange place that Yemeni activists and activists for Yemen have found themselves in where the media didn’t want to say anything during the Obama era, the first two years of the war, and then when it became Trump’s war, they also didn’t want to say much, because then they would have had to implicate Obama. Now it’s back to a democratic presidency and they don’t want to be critical about it either with the exception of this one CNN investigation, recent investigation, by Nima Elbagir, who smuggled herself into Yemen, and did this incredible reporting about the blockade and the US support for the blockade, which by the way, Biden’s envoy to Yemen, Lenderking just denied, denied the existence of a blockade when a child is dying every 75 seconds, because there’s no fuel or medicine or food coming into the country that isn’t approved by the Saudi-led coalition. So I think that, for activists moving forward, it’s desperate right now, I’ve always said that this is the time where we up our game, it was maybe easier to do this during the Trump era, because you’re right, Trump was such a cartoon villain that this was easy to pen these atrocities and he would just the veto was so dismissive of all of the complicity, US complicity in Yemen, when the War Powers Resolution got to his desk, and he basically did nothing about it and so what we need right now is to really move forward, fight harder than we ever have. I know of young activists who are on a hunger strike, they went from Michigan to DC to protest the US support for the war in Yemen, particularly the blockade, US support for the blockade, and are literally starving themselves to bring attention to this because if you like under this administration it’s been really really difficult to get anything moving.

Adam: Yeah, because I mean, you had all these sort of what I think are kind of, to be quite honest, are somewhat sheep-dogging supposed anti-war groups that were all spiking the football and I felt like I was going crazy. I was off Twitter, it was around the time my child was born, so I was a bit distracted, but I kept reading the fine print and you read the fine print and it’s like, they’re not stopping arm sales to Saudi Arabia. They said they were stopping quote-unquote “relevant arm sales,” then people were saying, ‘Oh, they’re wanting to stop selling arms to them.’ If you actually read, for example, The New York Times contradicts itself from its headline to its lead, they say, quote, February 10, 2021, “Biden Ends Military Aid for Saudi War in Yemen,” And then the lead said, quote, “President Biden announced that he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, including some arms sales.” Some arm sales. So the implication is that they’re still selling them arms, which contradicts the clause that they are ending military aid, because we’re still selling them fucking arms. And so it’s like, you know, in this business, in the media criticism business or in any kind of bullshit detection business, the more modifiers someone has, the more smoke they’re blowing up your ass.

Nima: Ending offensive, relevant arms sales.

Adam: Do you enjoy the chicken salad I made for dinner? Yeah, I enjoy it right now. Well, why would you say right now, that’s a weird thing to add to that sentence. You know what I mean? Like, it’s, it’s, it’s like, oh, well, relevant arm sales, you know, defensive or offensive operation. Well, this, to me implies that, I mean, again, maybe I’m a hardened cynic, it’s what my job is, but I don’t think anything really changed and the extent to which they did pull back on things, they did it because the Saudis could do it themselves.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Exactly. They’ve worked with them for six years, I mean, even the most incompetent army we know of is the Saudis honestly, and even they learned a thing or two after six years of support from basically the entire world and so it feels like on the areas that they’ve enabled them to do on their own they’ve been able to pull back but, you know, there’s still joint exercises happening, the Saudis were bragging about that on Twitter not too long ago, between the US military and the Saudis. All the training, all of the support that, you know, of the vehicles and the aircraft, whether they’re sold by the US or not they’re being updated, repaired all of that by the US Army. There’s support with the blockade. There’s everything but pulling the trigger, minus a couple of minor things that they’ve now said that they’ve stopped to do, but we still don’t even have to go for it. Where’s Congress? Why isn’t Congress pushing a War Powers Resolution like they did under Trump? Why aren’t they legislating an end to this war? Why are they trusting the guy who’s got us into this mess to end it? Are they just taking him at his word, basically? And that’s what it feels is happening, this authority that Congress has to oversee wars, they wanted to take the authority back during the Trump era and now it seems like okay, they’re trusting the executive branch again.

Nima: You know, when we hear it either from Victoria Nuland under Obama, or now again, with Jen Psaki under Biden, referring to Saudi Arabia as a very important partner in security, etcetera, etcetera. I’m curious as to how you see these endless fake conclusions, fake cessation of support, these fake endings of wars, how are these just making the work of peace and justice just so much harder?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I think if we don’t understand the project of imperialism, of US imperialism, then it’s just gonna feel like whack a mole, here’s a war or let’s stop this and now here’s another one that pops up and actually the same one popped up again, you know? There has to be a critical understanding. Yemen didn’t lose its strategic interests because this war killed all of these people and became very unpopular with the average US person who happens to know about it or hear about it, Yemen is still of strategic importance to the US, of course, the Saudis as well, but we’re talking about the role of the US here. For example, you know, we talked about or we’ve been seeing this ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal and it halted 10 percent of the world’s trade or something like that. Well, where do you think that ship came from, you know, the chokehold just before that was Yemen, Bab al-Mandab Strait. So traffic to Europe and US and shipping traffic to Asia goes through Yemen and that’s why Yemen’s always been an important strategic location to both the Saudis and the Americans and it didn’t just lose the strategic importance and so, I think, we have to understand that there’s this broader project of imperialism, this project to control other people and their internal matters, it’s not about democracy or human rights, it’s about controlling and securing our interests and as long as that project is still important to the US government then we’re never really going to end anything, it’s just going to be fighting to have a voice but we really need to understand that all of these are connected. Yemen is just one part of the symptom, right? The cause here is imperialism and we continue to see no difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to this project. The only difference is the way it sounds. One of it sounds like it’s packaged in decent words, Biden feels bad about what’s happening in Yemen, but he’s still gonna keep doing what he’s doing whereas Trump just didn’t give a crap, and so that’s the only difference, it is the linguistic difference. I think we just have to be keenly aware that this is what we’re up against and understand that promises are one thing, but we really need concrete proof here and we need to be pushing for proof.

Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to end it. We’ve been speaking with Shireen Al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Teacher Education, a tireless educator, commentator and activist on ending the US and Saudi-led atrocities in Yemen. She is a contributor at In These Times magazine and you can follow her on Twitter @Shireen818. Shireen, thank you so much for joining us, again, on Citations Needed.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: It’s great to be back. Thank you so much, Adam and Nima.

[Music]

Adam: Yeah. I think that, you know, the question of, you know, you don’t want to be a doomer, you don’t want to be cynical and say, ‘Well, they’re all fucked and it’s not worth engaging with the political process,’ because you sort of have to, I don’t know what else you’re going to do really, but it is true that to some extent, having a slick liberal administration that speaks the language and, and pats the head of certain so-called progressive pundits and kind of, again, from a foreign policy perspective, basically, no one is criticizing Biden, it’s a total free pass. I mean, after Trump, it’s just a free pass for everything for Biden, pretty much, I mean, that’s just, there was so much PTSD, and I mean, I mean that seriously with Trump.

Nima: Yeah. in a certain way it’s understandable. It’s also completely unforgivable.

Adam: Exactly, yeah. And now we’re in a situation where it’s like, you announce it’s over and then ‘Okay, mission accomplished let’s all go home,’ and a lot of energy into ending the war, especially in Congress, Bernie Sanders is a fucking no show, doesn’t talk about it anymore, that that energy is now taken out because we’re sort of supposed to just assume that behind the curtain that they’ve done X, Y and Z but again, very little evidence. There was a report in the Wall Street Journal on April 1 about reshuffling priorities in the Middle East and moving some weapon systems out of Saudi Arabia but it’s not quite clear how many or what context.

Nima: Again, reshuffling because everything’s a fucking game. Everything’s a shell game, right?

Adam: Well, right. It’s a game of Risk. But no, there is no evidence, and again, maybe by the time this airs that changes, or maybe it changes a week after it airs and we look like idiots, but there’s no evidence that this war, or US support for the war has materially changed much. Because again, I think to the extent to which the US stopped doing certain things, they stopped doing them only to the extent to which the Saudis can easily do them themselves. But again, we have, we have Blinken. Now, you know, except for some hand wringing and a rhetorical wrist slapping, has reaffirmed America support for Saudis military, military defense, has reaffirmed America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, has made it very clear, for example, that they have no interest in really in re-entering in any kind of Iran deal. We have basically what we had before and others have noted this, George Will in The Washington Post said Biden’s foreign policy is basically Trump’s foreign policy. Foreign Policy Magazine even had an op-ed that said the same thing, although others have observed that there’s a lot of continuity between the two and the main differences, I think, is in rhetoric, I think it’s in how it’s framed and in many ways that can be more damaging.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in November 2020. (CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP via Getty Images)

Nima: And also, as our guest Shireen mentioned, some of the changes that have already happened, and you know, this is still less than 100 days into the Biden administration, but even the changes that have happened are things that rolled back some especially egregious thing that Trump did, like in November and December after he had lost, do you know what I mean? So it’s like, even the rollback, even the change gets us back to the status quo of October 2020. Hardly anything is changing and to say that Biden has now undone some of the worst things that Trump has done is really setting the lowest kind of bar to undo what Trump did in a hissy fit in the last eight weeks of his terrible presidency, that is not then a gain or something, you know, positive that the Biden administration has done. That’s bare minimum, that doesn’t even take us to, you know, back to the Obama administration. It takes us to still just the sad, waning months of the Trump administration. So we really need to be aware of what we’re talking about when we talk about what Biden is doing on foreign policy and it really just seems like this continuity is couched in nobility and the kind of renewed prestige, the building back of the reputation of American empire that went on unabated was maybe, you know, a little grosser, because the figurehead of it was this cartoon villain, but under Biden, we’re not seeing that much change and when it comes to say, Yemen, we see these news reports that are hailing what Biden is doing, ending offensive operations, or pausing on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But then nothing actually changes. It all winds up being either routine or perfunctory and then how long is it going to be until Mohammed bin Salman comes to the US again or Biden goes to Riyadh and we see photo ops with them together and there’s some, you know, finger-wagging about human rights, but the arm sales continue, the siege continues, the cholera epidemic continues, and we just see the same old shit.

Adam: If you just put defensive in front of everything that’s different.

Nima: That’s right. That’s right.

Adam: You know, it’s not the same, it’s a defensive war now.

Nima: Defensive arm sales, defensive drone strikes.

Adam: Defensive bombing campaigns. Again, if someone could name me anyone in history who’s ever said their war was offensive, other than maybe the Nazis, although I think even they claimed it was defensive, then I’m all ears, but I’m pretty sure everybody thinks their war is defensive by definition.

Nima: Yeah, that’s how it works. That’s how you fake-end wars. And that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. We are now back on our regular schedule. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon and so incredibly appreciated. We are 100 percent listener funded and as always, an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, for listening. We’ll catch you next time.

[Music]


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

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