Prof. Matthew Crosston: Yemen War is Largely Absent from the Main Media Sources
Criticism against the Saudi Arabian government has turned more vehement as the military campaign in Yemen worsens the humanitarian situation, and the death of scores of Muslim pilgrims in the Mina stampede is being widely attributed to the incapability of Riyadh officials in handling the Hajj rituals adeptly.
Many Muslim leaders and scholars have blamed the Saudi rulers for investing their political and military capital on attacking Yemen while failing to take care of the safety of pilgrims.
The Saudi military intervention in Yemen has just entered its tenth month, and the number of civilian casualties and the damages sustained by the infrastructure of the impoverished Arab country are rising rapidly.
There are many reflective aspects to the war on Yemen, including the media coverage of Yemen’s developments in the United States and Europe, the importance of international law and the underlying reasons behind the eruption of the bloody conflict in Yemen.
A professor of political science tells Fars News Agency that the problem with the media coverage of the Yemeni war is not the level of bias in news stories, commentaries and video footage being released, but the overall absence of the conflict from the media reports.
“The problem is not how biased the media is here in the West, trying to portray it in a one-sided and unfair fashion and engendering a misinformed public perception. No. The problem is how absent the conflict largely is from the main media sources,” said Prof. Matthew Crosston.
“This of course means the population simply does not have an opinion one way or another, because it simply does not know. There is no real awareness of the Yemen conflict. I fear it is in the shadow of such ignorance and indifference that the worst of human nature comes out,” he added.
Prof. Matthew Crosston is the Miller Chair for Industrial and International Security and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies (ISIS) program at Bellevue University in Nebraska. He has authored two well-received books, several book chapters and nearly two dozen peer-reviewed articles in venues like the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Journal of Strategic Security, International Politics, Journal of Military and Strategic Affairs, and Journal of Global Analysis. Prof. Crosston has received his Ph.D. from the Brown University. He looks at the war on Yemen from a strategic perspective. In the following interview, he shared his viewpoints with FNA about the different dimensions of the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, which started in March 2015 and has claimed more than 6,000 lives so far.
Q: The Saudi Arabian forces have been leading a military invasion of Yemen for the past ten months. They continue carrying out airstrikes on the different parts of Yemen on a daily basis. Legally speaking, the attacks have not been endorsed and authorized by the UN Security Council. Do you think Saudi Arabia is violating the international law by spearheading airstrikes on Yemeni cities, regardless of the political justification for their attacks?
A: This conflict provides a perfect case study for those of us in the school of skepticism when it comes to international law. We skeptics have raged for years that, perhaps unfortunately, international law acts more like ‘international guidelines’ rather than actual law. What this means in real terms is that power balances and dominant control over conflict narratives often determine just which conflicts will come up on the global stage for judgment by the international community.
What Assad does to his own people in Syria clearly passes the threshold and therefore becomes international news – in the West, at least – for months on end. But what Saudi Arabia may or may not be doing to the Houthi rebellion within Yemen with either the implicit or explicit support and backing of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel, remains relatively unfocused and ambiguous across global Western media. So, the real issue is not so much whether or not Saudi Arabia is violating international law, but rather why is international law being violated in this case with little fanfare or outrage while it can be violated in other instances to great attention? The second half of this question leads to the more poignant and perhaps sad fact of global affairs: political justification is more important than international law. I do not say this to say I support this fact, but rather admit that this fact must be acknowledged by all. Because if global affairs in the modern age has shown us anything, with increased and instantaneous media communication all over the world, it is that how a state is able to argue its behavior is actually more relevant and impactful than what the actual behavior is. And if this supposition is in fact true, then it consequently shows international law to be nothing more than window-dressing to make states feel better about themselves.
International law matters when we are following it. If we are not following it, then it does not matter and we can give other reasons as to why you should not care either. This flippant retort is an accurate paraphrase of just about every nation on earth when it comes to its individual contemporary global affairs.
Q: The Saudis, their Arab partners and the United States have been giving their backing to Yemen’s fugitive President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and showed their commitment to keep him in power. Now, he has returned from exile, and delivered a speech before the UN General Assembly. However, some observers of the Yemen politics maintain that the February 2012 election in which he was elected president cannot be truly called a representation of democracy, as he was the only one candidate, and won the elections with 99.80% of the votes, which is not really a democratic transition. Meantime, he was to have a two-year term that ended last year. What’s your idea on that?
A: Not to be flippant with the question, but the reality is there are very few truly open, transparent, and fair democratic elections around the world. This is because such elections can only happen when the institutions of society [including] media, press, civil liberties, judicial independence, legal redress, etc. are not only well-founded but well-executed in the everyday life of said society. In other words, there has never been a ‘fair democratic’ election where 99% of the votes went to a single candidate even when that candidate was the only one running! It simply violates the common sense laws of statistical anomaly. So, of course the election in February 2012 was not free or fair. But, perhaps most importantly, there was no one in the region or beyond that ever expected that to be the case anyway. The problem we have today is that everyone in the world has ‘buy in’ when it concerns democratic language, but not democratic reality. Every country, even the most tyrannical and dictatorial, always couches its activities and policies today in democratic posturing. In one way that is a victory, because it means people all over the world are at least becoming acquainted with the principles of real democratic governance. In another way, however, that only drives up cynicism and resentment around the world as more and more people realize this knowledge is not going to be met with real-time democratic transition and consolidation. Perhaps worse still, riding along the tone of the previous question, global affairs today seem to show a disturbing habit, that the world always gives proper lip-service to democratic ideals strengthening and the desire to see the cradle of democracy enlarge its numbers, but that same lip-service is then compromised if not directly undermined by other mature democracies if it behooves their individual foreign policies and national interests. This reality should sound very familiar to all readers in the Middle East and [Persian] Gulf, as this has literally been the political play across the region for decades.
Q: So, the humanitarian situation in Yemen seems quite alarming. Unofficial figures show that more than 6,100 Yemenis have been killed so far. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its partners estimate that about 80% of the country’s population – 21.1 million people – require some form of humanitarian protection and assistance and about 20.4 million people lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation. The international aid seems to be insufficient. What should be done for the improvement of the dire living conditions of the Yemeni people, and especially the traumatized children? Who is responsible?
A: Before I can answer that question I must remind your readers that they are interacting right now not with a professor of religion, or ethics, or even law, but with a Professor of Intelligence Studies. This means my raison d’etre is to ascertain the interests, motivations, passions, and subjective desires of states. It is about learning the stimuli that push them to act or not act, to understand their perceptions and misperceptions and determine how those might incur certain actions or reactions. It is a fascinatingly Machiavellian discipline, which is to say it is amoral in its considerations. For these reasons, questions about moral responsibility are incredibly difficult to answer. Because in the world of intelligence, we know quite literally that every conflict has multiple interlocking layers that cannot be easily untangled; that every human catastrophe should not be painted in caricatures of ‘good guy vs. bad guy’ but must be accurately shown as a perfect storm of factors that made the catastrophe gain an almost unstoppable momentum. There is no doubt that any conflict that involves an inept local government, impassioned insurgency, and opposing international players with an interest in the outcome will also inevitably create a human disaster in the conflict’s wake. Who is responsible? Everyone above. What can be done about it? International aid and assistance is a wonderful note and gesture, but if there are not local organizations at the local society level able to process and protect that aid and see that it gets used effectively and fairly, then aid simply tends to make a situation worse. I fear that Yemen was never a well-governed state even before the conflict erupted. Therefore, expecting something good to come of the human catastrophe right now, with the conflict still so undecided and disbalanced, is really nothing but wishful thinking. Justified and needed wishful thinking, of course, but not likely to be something that creates a real plan to deliver the innocent people of Yemen from their suffering.
Q: Is the US government interested in the continuation of Saudis’ airstrikes on Yemen, or does it want a lasting truce to take place? According to the Los Angeles Times, there are currently about 45 US military advisors working with the Saudis to give them guidelines on how to conduct the airstrikes. What would be the ultimate goal of this elongated military involvement in Yemen?
A: The US government will remain interested in the continuation of the conflict in Yemen as long as an outcome in line with its foreign policy remains undetermined. What I mean by that is that the clear foreign policy interest of the United States, rightly or wrongly depending on your own foreign policy perspectives and priorities, is to make sure Yemen does not end up under the control of a group that is sympathetic to or directly aligned with Iran. This is because at the moment the United States still sees Iran as an adversary with no track record of trust between them. This is why the new JCPOA accord could prove to be a watershed moment in history. There is at least an outside chance that the accord creates opportunities, if both Iran and the United States know what is good for them and do not wish to simply parrot-like mimic the status quo of the past 3-4 decades, where both sides learn to accept some begrudging trust of the other. There are opportunities to collaborate and build relationships where there have been none for so long. That would ultimately be a great thing not just for Yemen but for the whole of the Middle East. But that is how the wildly swinging pendulum of global affairs never allows us to stop to take a breath; if the Yemen conflict erupted, say, 10 years from now, after Iran had responsibly acted under the JCPOA and even undertook certain joint exercises of trust with the United States, then we all could have seen a decidedly different look and feel to the current problem. So, in all honesty, if Iran is interested in seeing a United States that does not just ‘knee-jerk’ react in opposition to everything Iran does or has an interest in, then it needs to begin strategic engagement that fosters not just its own national objectives but also cultivates international respect and trust, even if at first this is only in a begrudging form. Without that paradigm shift in reality, then any discord that is thinly veiled as a Saudi-Iranian tet-a-tet will see the United States staunchly support the Saudi side. I for one have always seen that as a tenuous position; everyone knows that Saudi society is not exactly a shining beacon of democratic openness and principle, while Iranian society, at the grassroots level at least, has long held a high level of democratic knowledge and embracing of democratic ideals. One of the problems with foreign affairs is that we never anticipate a real change of direction until after the change is already well underway. I see this potentiality – a US switch from Saudi interests to Iranian ones – as just one of those changes that only seem far-fetched right now. But with a few well-placed and strategic initiatives, it might not be so far-fetched at all.
Q: MIT linguist and author Noam Chomsky has described the Saudi military intervention in Yemen as “the most extraordinary global terrorism campaign in history”, and American journalist Paul Street says the Obama administration supports the Saudis in this campaign because he needs their oil and money, and so he should “placate” them. What do you think of this assessment? Is it really that the Obama administration has been dragged into the Yemen war involuntarily?
A: I have somewhat answered this question in my previous answers. But in an effort to not be repetitive let me first say that although I greatly admire and respect the academic standing and achievement of Professor Chomsky, the reality is that the prime of his greatest political insights is already in sunset and he has basically created an entire industry unto himself where he is the chief curmudgeon and moral judge against all things American and within American national interests. I do not believe the Saudi military campaign should be judged a global terrorism campaign – especially not the ‘most extraordinary’ in history, simply because it resembles too closely what a standard conventional war campaign looks like to me. And unless we want to judge all conventional warfare as a terrorist campaign, something I feel Professor Chomsky would likely enthusiastically raise both hands in the affirmative to, then the Yemen conflict is not a terrorist campaign. It is a war like so many other wars before it: it is not just about the internal sides fighting for control of the small local pie but also the external sides jockeying around the internals, trying to massage and manage the result to make sure the bigger global picture comes out in their individual favor. As for the Street assessment, it is an easy target to take aim at, most certainly: America needs oil and doesn’t make enough of its own, so as goes the oil, so goes the American interest. It is overly simplistic, however, because the global oil market is slowly but surely changing, and what I find most fascinating is that Iran may now become a much bigger player in that market in the aftermath of the JCPOA. So again, while it is very easy to assume the status quo and make grand immutable generalizations about the state of global affairs, the reality is that it is a constantly changing and amorphous blob of interaction. That is what makes it so fun for professors and analysts in my discipline. It will never be boring! After all, Ghandi was once labeled a terrorist. Arafat was literally ranked as the world’s number one criminal. The former ended up achieving near sainthood while the latter was ultimately embraced on the world stage as a statesman. In short, things change. And they often do in wildly unanticipated and sudden ways. So I would ask that your readers strive to be two things I always force on my own students: first, never believe the first story given at face value and second, be subtle. I always question the veracity of a ‘knowledgeable’ person who speaks on global affairs without subtlety. Inevitably, that person proves him or herself to be far less knowledgeable than we first surmised. Alas, in today’s world, with conflicts like the one in Yemen, there are an awful lot of ‘unsubtle’ people.
Q: In a recent report, the Media Lens website has analyzed the US and British media coverage of the Yemen war, and cited a number of “shortcomings” in the way they’ve been reporting on the Saudi airstrikes and the subsequent human casualties. The report said the media in the UK and America have failed to keep track of the involvement of their respective governments in the war on Yemen and their role in the suffering of the people of the Arab country. Do you believe that the media reaction to the Yemen war has been biased, as the Media Lens notes?
A: This is always a problematic question, simply because war is a horrifically inexact science exemplified by chaos and distraction. Getting accurate numbers of casualties and the true impact and damage while a war is still ongoing has always been a vexing problem for media entities. Now that does not mean all media sources are created equal. Indeed, in America we have a vexing problem that I consider to be the ‘fusing of news with news commentary.’ The pundits who wax poetic on everything, often with little evidence but with great style and flair, often portray themselves as ‘experts’ in the given subjects they are discussing. More often than not, they are no such thing. But the portrayal sticks and since the news corporation that gave them their elevated position has a vested interest in keeping the ratings high and popularity soaring, it does what it can to lend even greater style gravitas to said pundits. On the flip side, ‘hard-core’ news dedicated to objective, substantive, and long-reach analysis is a dying art form in America. The reality is that the American people themselves seem to have little time or desire to delve deeply into the depressing reality of global affairs. Yes, it is indeed hard to blame anyone for not wanting to hear copious detail about the suffering of innocent children or the wanton destruction of civilian areas in a war that they’ve never heard of in a place they likely could never find on a map, even with 100 guesses. On the other hand, however, acquiescing to this reality means we raise a society of ill-informed and indifferent global citizens. The consequences of that, I’m afraid, are quite stark: wars last longer, catastrophes become more prolonged, and atrocities likely become more vicious, as no one cares to notice or, at best, feels that there is nothing they can do to change the situation.
Indeed, to me that has been the much more egregious situation regarding media coverage of the Yemen conflict: the problem is not how biased the media is here in the West, trying to portray it in a one-sided and unfair fashion and engendering a misinformed public perception. No. The problem is how absent the conflict largely is from the main media sources. This of course means the population simply does not have an opinion one way or another, because it simply does not know. There is no real awareness of the Yemen conflict. I fear it is in the shadow of such ignorance and indifference that the worst of human nature comes out.