By Jeb Boone and Sean McElwee
This article is a joint production of Data For Progress and Fellow Travelers Blog, drawing on data from Data For Progress’s What The Hell Happened project. The project conducted nationwide polls in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2018 midterms to explain the dynamics that drove the election. Among the topics polled was support for American involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and the results point to a clear path forward for left wing leadership in Congress to lead on this crucial foreign policy issue.
Horrific images of dead children and maimed, lifeless bodies from Yemen scroll past American eyes on a daily basis and, according to new polling data, Americans are becoming more and more aware that their own government is playing a key role in doling out destruction in Yemen.
And they want the US to end its role in that war.
From the last week of October through election day, 2018, YouGov Blue and Data for Progress fielded a nationally representative survey of American voters and included an item on America’s support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which was weighted to be representative of 2018 voters. The item stated:
“The United States is currently providing military equipment and logistical support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the civil war in Yemen. Would you support or oppose ending US involvement in the conflict?”
Respondents strongly favored ending America’s role in this conflict. Among all respondents, 51 percent supported ending assistance, compared with just 19 percent who opposed ending assistance. The following plot includes strongly or somewhat support, neither support nor oppose, strongly or somewhat oppose and don’t know among 2018 voters. Among respondents who responded with an opinion (excluding “don’t knows”), 58 percent support ending US support for intervention and 22 percent oppose it.
The rest of the plots and analysis will exclude respondents who don’t know, for simplicity.
Across demographic subsets in the data, it is difficult to find a group that favored continuing America’s role in the conflict. Outright majorities across age groups supported ending America’s role in Yemen. Majorities of Democrats and Independents supported ending the intervention, and more Republicans supported than opposed ending America’s intervention, albeit with a sizeable group in the middle unsure of what course America should pursue. (More Republicans reported “neither support nor oppose” than reported somewhat or strongly opposing an end to the intervention). Outright majorities of respondents across racial groups supported an end to America’s role in the intervention, as well.
Perhaps surprisingly, opposition to the US role in the conflict united generations of American voters. By a margin of 35 points, those in the 18-29 bracket overwhelmingly supported an end to America’s role in Yemen rather than opposed an end. Nearly identically, by a margin of 34 points, those over the age of sixty-five did as well. Among the 18-29 age bracket, just as many respondents were unsure of what America should do as were opposed (22 percent in each).
Among Democrats, 64 percent supported ending intervention and 19 percent opposed, among Independents 60 percent supported and 25 percent opposed. Even among Republicans, 48 percent supported ending intervention and only 24 percent were opposed, despite Trump’s strong support for intervention.
Across the full sample, a majority of voters of color supported ending America’s role in Saudi Arabia’s intervention, including majorities of Black, Latino, and other race respondents, as well as an outright majority of “non-white” respondents. Fully 57 percent of white respondents, 53 percent of Black respondents, 58 percent of Latino respondents, and 57 percent of other-race respondents outright supported ending the intervention. In an era of American foreign policy broadly characterized with wars that begin on popular footing, including America’s interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, this level of opposition to an intervention may be a unique failure of Presidential communication in the modern era.
The survey ran from the end of October through election day on November 6, 2018, which was after the Jamal Khashoggi murder, but before some Republicans criticized Trump and Democrats ramped up their opposition to the war. In the run-up to the election, respondents were unlikely to receive much information about the conflict at all amidst scattered media attention and a multitude of, ahem, trumped-up distractions designed to prevent scrutiny of the very policies at hand.
To this date, American government efforts to reduce violence in Yemen have been both anemic and contradictory. Under pressure from activists, the US stopped its long-running practice of refueling Saudi aircraft during bombings sorties into Yemen last month, but intelligence support and weapons sales that enable Saudi violence in Yemen continue.
Congress has an opportunity this week to radically reduce the role the US plays in the ongoing slaughter in Yemen. On Wednesday, the Senate will vote on SJ Res 54, a bill that would require President Trump to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities” in Yemen within 30 days. The bill includes an exception allowing American forces directly involved in fighting Al Qaeda in Yemen to continue their mission, but if the bill were to become law, American military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen would cease.
The bill passed a key procedural hurdle last week with flying colors, advancing to the floor on a 63-37 vote. Based on that result, sponsors of the bill are optimistic of its passage in Senate, but the Trump administration is fighting back. The White House sent CIA Director Gina Haspel to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to brief Senators and try to persuade Republicans who voted to move the bill out of committee to vote no in the roll call.
A senior staffer for a Senate Democrat supporting SJ Res 54 explained the bill as a step forward for both Yemen and the US. “The war in Yemen is a disaster from every angle. It’s bad for the people of Yemen, it’s bad for the region and it’s bad for America’s national security,” said the senior Democratic Senate staffer.
Yemeni journalists and activists echoed that sentiment strongly. The people most involved on the ground in ending the violence say that ending US support for the war is an imperative step to achieving peace.
“US support for the Saudi war effort serves literally none of America’s interests, despite arguments to the contrary. Until Congress can act, it should press the White House to use its leverage and bring an immediate halt to the war,” said Shuaib Almosawa, a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a.
“Despite US intel & military involvement, Saudi and American military incompetence has often veered into blatantly criminal conduct,” said Haykal Bafana, a lawyer and activist based in Yemen.
Yemeni government officials and members of Ansar Allah, otherwise known as the Houthi rebels, are meeting in Sweden for peace talks this week that the UN hopes will be a major step in ending the war.
Observers are optimistic that the peace talks will succeed after 50 wounded Yemenis aligned with the Houthi rebels were flown to Oman for treatment, seemingly signifying Saudi Arabia’s willingness to negotiate in good faith with the Houthis.
A source familiar with the talks told Al Jazeera that the UN is seeking to introduce a set of confidence-building measures, including a ceasefire in Hodeidah and an end to the Saudi and United Arab Emirates air strikes across the country.
A resounding rebuke from Washington for the Saudi-led war could be instrumental in convincing the Gulf coalition that the conflict should come to a close.
“If I meet with these members of Congress, I would tell them that they represent the conscience of the American people. I would ask them to express their humanitarian values and reject the genocide of a people – people who are targeted only because they are poor and their adversaries are rich,” said Jamal Amer, a prominent Yemeni journalist who is on his way to cover the peace talks in Sweden.
Appetite among Democrats for action against the Saudi-led war is likely to increase in the new Congress. New, more left-wing members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, along with longtime peace advocates like Ro Khanna and SJ Res 54’s lead sponsor Senator Bernie Sanders, are pushing to make peacemaking a more prominent plank in the Democratic Party platform.
With polling showing widespread support for pro-peace policies, especially within the party’s base, this peacemaking coalition has the potential to reshape what has long been a lax approach in Congress to confronting America’s role in enabling horrific violence.
“Educating people about what we’re doing and where can help make peacemaking a more prominent policy position for Democrats. We’re beginning to show that decisions for peace and against war can deliver votes,” said the senior staffer.
For Yemeni citizens, time is of the essence.
“When entire villages are eating leaves from trees and 22 million people depend on aid to survive, that should tell us something about how dire the humanitarian crisis is,” said Almosawa. “A virtual famine is taking place, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. The US Congress needs to act now.”
Both Yemeni citizens and American voters seem to be in agreement – US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen should stop. Members of Congress have a chance to both honor their constituents’ wishes and strike a blow for the people bearing the brunt of Saudi brutality by supporting SJ Res 54 and demanding that America end its involvement in the Kingdom’s war in Yemen.
Jeb Boone lived and worked between Sana’a and Atlanta from 2008 to 2011 where he covered Yemen as a freelance journalist. He is an Atlanta-based tech worker and activist with the Metro Atlanta Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Sean McElwee is co-founder of Data For Progress.