In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and soon to be confirmed as secretary of state under President Clinton, sat for an interview on 60 Minutes with Lesley Stahl. At the time, the United States was enforcing an embargo against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Clinton administration saw Saddam as a threat to regional stability and believed he was pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Reports about the effects of the embargo on Iraqi civilians were dire. 

Stahl asked Albright about that: “We have heard that a half-million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” 

Albright responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” 

In subsequent years, Albright apologized for that deeply troubling statement, though she largely blamed Stahl for what she deemed the question’s unfair premise. And Stahl’s number may have been inflated, though no one disputes that the embargo had profound consequences for Iraqi civilians. 

But the exchange reflects a disturbing reality about American foreign policy, especially in certain regions of the world: American elites, whatever their intentions, display a consistent disregard for the basic sanctity of human life when other interests are at stake.

Nowhere is this more evident in 2019 than in Yemen. 

For the past several years, since the beginning of a civil conflict that has escalated into a regional war, Yemen has become the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

According to some estimates, sixty thousand Yemenis have died between 2016 and 2018. In a country of about thirty million people, the UN estimates that roughly 80 percent of the population is in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. 

The conflict is typically portrayed as a proxy war between Houthi rebel forces, backed by Iran, and the deposed Hadi regime, backed by Saudi Arabia and a sometimes-shifting coalition of Gulf states. Experts say it’s more complicated than that, with unstable regional alliances intermingling with divergent interests among the coalition allies. 

From the perspective of U.S. foreign policy, those nuances don’t matter. 

Since 2014, America’s backing of the Saudis in Yemen, including as their chief arms provider, directly implicates us in the ongoing atrocities there. These include a blockade that has strangled humanitarian aid, including food and health supplies, and which has resulted in the world’s worst cholera epidemic in decades.  

The Trump administration has been unabashed in its support for Saudi forces and has also worked double-time to whitewash the image of the Saudi regime, which was tarnished badly last year after the gruesome murder of the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi. But support for Saudi Arabia has, of course, long been a bipartisan affair. 

After the political uprising in Yemen in 2011, the Obama administration increasingly deployed drones in Yemen to rout out Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s been well-documented that drone strikes there, as elsewhere, resulted in civilian massacres, which have escalated since the Saudi-led airstrike campaign began in 2015. 

Last year, after Khashoggi’s murder, Congress passed a bipartisan bill to end military aid to Saudi Arabia specifically earmarked for the war in Yemen. Trump vetoed it. Notably, foreign policy is the one arena in which congressional Republicans have shown any inclination to push back against Trump.

There’s no realistic chance that the savagery in Yemen will abate under the Trump administration, which has continued to support Saudi actions (and has continued to kill civilians elsewhere in drone strikes). 

The real question is, will the next administration have any desire to chart a new course? 

When push comes to shove, most Americans just don’t care about foreign policy, until it ends up as blowback in the form of a catastrophe on American soil. So we can expect little focus on it during the 2020 campaign, except insofar as Trump’s impulsivity undermines American diplomacy. 

Still, it’s worth asking whether Democratic presidential contenders can wean their party’s own penchant for destructive indifference in Yemen and elsewhere. Perhaps fealty to the simple principle to first do no harm would be a good place to start.

JONATHAN WEILER is a teaching professor UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.

NEXT WEEK: COURTNEY NAPIER a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins.

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