The people of Yemen are experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet, according to the United Nations. They are devastated by a war that the United States supports. Why is the U.S. involved in a conflict that has left an estimated tens of thousands dead and millions more displaced? Why is the U.S. providing weapons to a coalition that launched an airstrike killing dozens of children? How did Yemen get to this point? Shireen Al-Adeimi has the answers for us, having worked tireless to raise awareness of the civil war in the country she calls home.
CHRIS HAYES: As much as the Obama administration certainly supported the Saudis, and continued to sell weapons to Saudis, and embed American targeters with the Saudis ... American support for this campaign has accelerated even further under Trump.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. Thinking about how much weapons were sold ... there were $110 billion sold under the Obama administration. And Trump made contracts worth $350 billion. So-
CHRIS HAYES: Jesus.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: When we think about why the U.S. is in Yemen, frankly, there's a lot of money to be made.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.
Okay. So, here's a question for this week: What is the worst thing the United States is currently doing? What's the worst thing our country is doing? I think it's a useful question to ask ourselves as citizens. And there's a lot of ways you can answer that question. I think most of us ... because if you're listening to this, and you're in the U.S., and you live in the U.S. ... we tend to think of what the U.S. is doing here.
I think my instinct in that answer ... Normally if you ask me, what's the worst thing that the U.S. government, our government, is doing right now? My instinct would probably be to say that there are still hundreds of children who were taken from their parents, and have not been reunited with them, and are experiencing unthinkable trauma, and the government isn't reuniting them. And that's something that we've covered on the show, and we've covered on the podcast, and that would be probably my first answer.
But that's partly a product of the fact that when we think about what our government does, we are naturally inclined to think about what our government is doing within our borders. Because that's where most of us live, that's where most of us experience life, those are the places and things that are most relatable to us. And the things that our government does outside our borders feel more remote.
Now there are times when what our government is doing outside its borders are absolutely at the front of our politics and the way we think about the country ... the Vietnam War being a very obvious example. The Iraq War, another obvious example. In both those cases, that was the top news story of those times. I remember watching the run-up to the Iraq War as a 23 or 24-year-old, debating about it, protesting it, opposing it, watching it happen, feeling impotent, feeling outrage; and thinking about what my government, our government, our representatives, were doing.
I think it's a product a little bit of the Trump Age that it's harder to think in that way about what's happening outside our borders, because Trump looms so large. But the U.S. government does a lot of stuff outside its borders. And we are still waging wars in roughly eleven different countries, I think, if the total is right. We're doing bombings in Syria, and in Iraq, Somalia, all sorts of places.
There is one place where we are actively facilitating a war that is arguably the most morally bankrupt and indefensible international conflict currently happening. And it's easy for it to slide off the front pages, because it's not U.S. troops that are doing it. We have some small number U.S. service members who are involved in this conflict but largely it's being done through one of our allies, Saudi Arabia. It's the war in Yemen. And it's not in the front of our political discussion for a bunch of reasons.
Yemen is a remote, poor country. Like I said, the U.S. armed services are not deployed there. There aren't a lot of journalists there. It's very hard to get into the country. The war is being waged for reasons that are really hard to scan, unless you know the context and the history of the region. They're being waged by a U.S. ally who also, Saudi Arabia, happens to spend a lot of money lobbying the government of the United States, cozying up to the Trump administration.
And yet, what is happening there is horrifying. And it's horrifying in a way that I think some of the things that happened during the Vietnam War were horrifying, and some of the things that happened during the Iraq War were horrifying. It is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now. And every day, day in and day out, the United States government is facilitating and supporting the continuation of the utter destruction and bombardment of Yemen.
As you're going to hear, the death toll is staggering and incomprehensible. The humanitarian disaster it's precipitated is staggering and incomprehensible. And it is being done because we are both allowing and encouraging it to be done. It is also something that is a hard thing to do cable news about, evening news about, even newspaper articles because without the depth and time of the context of what is happening, it just all kind of scans in and out.
This place, Sana’a, is being sieged and this port you've never heard of has ships being blockaded. And this group of rebels, who you may not be familiar with, are fighting with this group of proxy warriors. And yet, we all in some way are responsible for what's happening there because it is our tax dollars, our representatives, and our government that are helping it happen.
So I wanted to talk about this, a lot. We talked about it on the show when ... you might have seen some news recently about a school bus of children that was bombed, killing dozens of children. It was bombed by Saudi Air Forces. And numerous reports show that the U.S. helps with targeting, with the Saudis. There has been since that a subsequent bombing of civilians, which is just, really just, a small bit of what has been happening in Yemen.
And so the idea of today's episode is to go into this thing that I think is probably the worst thing the U.S. is doing right now, on the world stage, in all the depth and complexity that it merits. And to give you a sense of why we are helping Saudi Arabia wage this war ... who the war is against, why we feel like we have some interest in it, why we are selling arms to the Saudis, why they're bombing the crap out of this country. What is going on? Why is this happening?
And my guest on today's program is a woman who was born in Yemen. Her name is Shireen Al-Adeimi. She's an assistant professor at Michigan State University. She teaches in the education department there, so she's not an international relations scholar but she writes about Yemen and she tweets a lot about Yemen. She has family there. She has a very, very, very invested, active monitor of the conflict as you will hear. She has capacious knowledge of what has brought us to this point.
She writes for "In These Times" where I used to write, back in the day. And she recently co-authored a piece called "Trump Quietly Overrides What Little Civilian Protections Remain in Yemen War." I don't love saying, about a thing that we do ... whether it's on the podcast or on the show ... like, "This is important. You should listen to this." Because you should really show and not tell. But that said, this is important and you should listen to this. You should take the time to listen to what we are doing, and the details of what we're doing. And you should talk to other people about what we're doing. Because it is outrageous. And it's a travesty. And it's being done in our name.
So I thought I would start just with a broad, kind of urgent, question about why it is that Americans in particular should care, should feel invested in what is happening in Yemen.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well that's a really good question, Chris. I think what's really important to realize is that there's a tremendous humanitarian crisis going on in Yemen. There are people starving every single day. Every ten minutes a child dies in Yemen because of starvation or preventable diseases like cholera. And then people, of course, are dying because of the air strikes that are just ongoing, on a daily basis.
But this is done in our name, using our bombs that we've sold to the Saudi Arabians and the Emirates. It's done with our military advising. It is our done with U.S. Army refueling the jets that are bombing civilians and other infrastructure. So this as much America's war as it is Saudi's war. But people really don't really know that ... first of all, that there's a war going on over there; and the extent of U.S. involvement.
And I think once people realize how involved the U.S. has been, unfortunately, in creating the world's worst humanitarian crisis, then hopefully they can feel empowered to do something about it as American citizens.
CHRIS HAYES: When you say "world's most humanitarian crisis," that's not just a subjective determination?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes. 80 percent of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian aid. People are literally starving to death because not only of the war that's going on, but the blockade that comes along with this war.
CHRIS HAYES: You know, one of the things that I think can be hard if you're an American processing news abroad, and particularly in a news environment in which there's not a lot of foreign news ... I remember during Haiti, after the earthquake, people have a conception like, "Well, Haiti's a poor country." And then the earthquake hit and then a lot of bad things happened. Cholera reappeared in Haiti, it had been gone for years and years and years.
Like, describing the difference between "things are bad and people are poor" from desperation, which it seems to me is part of the story of Yemen over the last four and five years.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. Yemen was the Middle East's poorest country, no question about that. But it wasn't falling off the brink like it is right now. There was still infrastructure. Yes, people were poor. But children weren't starving to death because of lack of clean water, or food, or access to health care.
There wasn't cholera. You mentioned cholera. At the height of its outbreak in Haiti, it was about 750,000 people who were infected in Haiti. And in Yemen we have over 1 million people who have been infected. So it's the worst cholera crisis in modern history. And-
CHRIS HAYES: Jesus.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: ... this was brought on directly by this war because you take a country that was already poor and struggling, and you put a coalition together of really the world's superpowers and the richest Arab countries in the region ... and they've been bombarding this country that doesn't even have a way to defend itself against this barrage of international attackers.
And you can imagine what it's done to the people living there. And it really has cut across all economic strata. Doesn't matter if you were wealthy before. Most people are struggling to survive.
CHRIS HAYES: So I first came across you, I think, through your Twitter account because you tweet a lot about the war in Yemen and it's something that I follow pretty closely. Tell me a little bit about yourself. You're a professor at Michigan State University. You're obviously of Yemeni descent. Tell me about your family.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yeah I was born in Yemen, in the south side of the country, in Aden. It's a port city over there. Spent my childhood between Yemen and India before moving to Canada, and then as an adult to the United States. I have extended family members there. I have very fond memories of Yemen. It's the place I call home. For me, it's a very personal thing.
I was a graduate student and I was studying education, and now I'm a professor of education. So this has nothing really to do with my work, right now. But it has to do with my care and my connection to this country that I call home, and family members who are living there and struggling on a daily basis.
And it's really difficult to see the place that you really love be destroyed by the country in which you now call home, and you've been living in. So it's a very difficult position for me to be in and not say anything. So this is how I've been involved in this advocacy for the past three years.
CHRIS HAYES: So let's take people through a bit, how we got here. And I guess the best place to start, I think, would be the Arab Spring, back in 2011. Is that right?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Sure. I think there was a lot of hope in 2011. We saw Egypt get rid of its dictator, and Tunis before that. And there was a lot of hope in that region, and Yemen attempted to have its own Arab Spring. And we had a peaceful revolution. People went out in the streets, all kinds of people who wanted change. President Saleh had been in power for over 33 years. And he was a very wealthy man in the Middle East's poorest country. So there was a lot of corruption.
Many families, including my own, had left Yemen after a civil war. And so people wanted better for their country. And they thought that they could do that through a democratic process. Unfortunately that didn't pan out very well. First of all Saleh refused to resign, and then within a few months the revolution really was hijacked by members of the Islah party who were part of that system that people were protesting against.
They were part of that system that people wanted to change. And instead Islah joined the protestors, and that's what turned the conflict into a violent one. And within months there was an assassination attempt on Saleh, and that's what led him to resign finally by the end of that year. He sought treatment in Saudi Arabia. He ended up transitioning power to his vice president, Hadi, again part of the problem that people were trying to change. He had been his vice president for almost 20 years.
CHRIS HAYES: Just to go back to Saleh. He runs the country for 30 years. He is essentially ... sort of, in the classic, it seems to me ... like the Mubarak mold, right? I mean-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: ... he is a strongman who is also sort of friendly with the Pentagon and American intelligence services, is that fair to say?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes. He was a strong ally of the United States, definitely.
CHRIS HAYES: Strong ally, and the country is ... it's under strongman authoritarian rule but also generally stable, is that a fair thing to say?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: I would say that. There was a civil war in '94. And people never really got over that. But in general it was stable enough.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. So the protestors ... this is part of the Arab Spring, and then we see ... that moment that happens there ... again we're sort of dealing with this now, throughout the region and particular in Syria, right? The kind of ways in which this impulse, this very beautiful I think, solidaristic, non-violent uprising in one of the most freedomless regions in the world ... that people come into the streets and demand change, and the ways in which that call for change is twisted, mutated-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Hijacked.
CHRIS HAYES: Hijacked.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yeah, it was really difficult to see from far away. At the time I was following Egypt very closely, and Tunisia, and all these other countries. And I didn't want to follow Yemen too closely because I was so ... I was invested and I didn't want to be disappointed. You know, what if this doesn't work out? What if violence breaks out? But-
CHRIS HAYES: Do you have this sort of hope in your heart? Do you have that feeling in your chest about ... when you saw what was happening?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: There was so much hope. You said the word "beautiful," and it really was beautiful. We thought, in my generation certainly, we thought things would never change. Saleh would die, somebody else would ... his son, he was grooming his son at the time to take over. And it's just going to go on and on, and on.
But there was so much hope when people went out in the streets. And they would camp on a square that came to be known as "Change Square." And it was non-violent in a country where everybody's armed and it's easy to access weapons.
CHRIS HAYES: It's actually one of the most-armed countries ... when you look at the list-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: ... of guns per capita in the world, the U.S. and Yemen are part ... they're right up at the top.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: I think U.S. is number one. Yemen is number two. And-
CHRIS HAYES: Number two, exactly. So we have that. That's a way that Americans can kind of feel-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Can relate.
CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. We can feel in our hearts like we have a fellowship with the Yemenis.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. But people put their guns down and they were determined to have a peaceful revolution. And I think that's a sad part, that we just ended up getting more of the same. And political parties that saw a way of them to gain the upper hand, and to continue to be in power but under a different guise, ended up hijacking that whole process which was really difficult to see.
CHRIS HAYES: So the party that joins, to your mind sort of cynically joins, the protestors as a means of hijacking the power of the revolution and preserving power for itself ... that party is part of the existing power structure, I guess, is your point?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes, absolutely. They were partners with Saleh for many, many years. He helped ... he created the Islah party. It's the Muslim Brotherhood of Yemen. And they're very powerful and unfortunately the lines between Islah and Al-Qaeda can blur in Yemen, so they're a very dangerous party as well. And now they are, of course, working with the Saudi-led coalition which the United States is a part of, so this is where the confusion begins, or continues.
CHRIS HAYES: So that's the ruling party, which is the sort of Muslim Brotherhood-generated party of Yemen. They end up taking power, more or less, through the person ... of the Vice President of Saleh when he leaves office?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: So they support him. They're not officially in power. But currently, I think, the vice president is a member of that party.
CHRIS HAYES: I follow a lot of the reporting about what was called "AQAP," which is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which had become probably the strongest Al-Qaeda affiliate in the world, based in Yemen and also had been a real target of American attention, particularly American drone strikes and joint-kill operations under the Obama administration.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: Just from an America perspective, that was the way Yemen cropped up in America news.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. Well, I think from the standpoint of Yemenis, it was ... Anybody could feel like they could be targeted at any time. We've seen areas were the drones were just constant. There was constant buzzing, and people would describe not knowing if a bomb was going to be dropped from a drone or not.
Certainly, under Obama, this drone warfare had expanded with the help of Saleh. It's another one of those things where the United States intervenes in another country's affairs, and just ... Things end up getting worse, maybe not for Americans here but of course for the people over there. We've seen children getting killed in those drone strikes. We've seen American citizens getting killed in those drone strikes without due process.
So it's very problematic for the United States to be conducting these assassinations. But it was authorized by Congress, and so I guess it was seen here as legal despite the ramifications it was having on civilians in Yemen.
CHRIS HAYES: It was authorized in the now infamous authorization of 2001, which has been used to sort of-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: To justify.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, to justify it and also to go after groups that didn't even exist when 9/11 happened, which is sort of a remarkable thing when you think about it.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yeah. Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: All right. So you've got that context. Then I will say this. I think I followed Yemen through the prism of two things. I followed Yemen through the prism of American counterterrorism and all of the complications, blow-back, and awfulness, honestly, of civilian deaths there. And then I followed it through the prism of the Arab Spring, and I will confess that I had never heard of the Houthis until, all of a sudden, that changed everything. Where did they com from? Who are they?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Okay. Geographically, Yemen borders Saudi Arabia to the north. This group called the Houthis, they call themselves Ansar Allah. Houthi just is the one family group whose leadership Ansar Allah follow. They border Saudi Arabia, and it was one of Yemen's most impoverished provinces despite its long history and historical importance.
It started off in the '90s as a movement of a group of people saying, "We want better for our country. We want better for ourselves." They were calling out the corruption of Saleh and his party. They were calling out foreign intervention in Yemen, including the United States' interventions in Yemen. They soon became a problem for Saleh, so he dealt with them the way he dealt with South Yemen, where I'm from, where they wanted to secede, so strong men, and he brings out the troops and thought that he could just get rid of the Houthis.
He didn't realize how much of a problem that was going to be for him. So the Houthis and Saleh famously engaged in six different wars, and he wasn't successful. His military campaigns ended up killing the leader of the Houthis, but then his brother took over, and he's the current leader of the group. But that's where they started.
CHRIS HAYES: Just to be clear, there have been a civil war with possible breakaway provinces in the south.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: That's back in '94. That's what pushed your family out.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right.
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CHRIS HAYES: And then there had also been armed conflict with the Houthis in the north.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: In the north.
CHRIS HAYES: This is all under Saleh.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: This is under Saleh. He then tried to recruit the Americans. First of all, he tried to recruit the Saudis because he said, "Hey, these guys are at your border. They should be your problem, too." And the Saudis weren't successful in getting rid of them. The movement just continued to grow. And then he tried to recruit the Americans under the guise of, well, Iran must be helping them, and they must have allegiance to Iran. That wasn't successful either.
So they ended up growing. The movement ended up growing, and they became part of that opposition to Saleh and his party when the revolution happened.
CHRIS HAYES: I see. So there's a little bit of a power vacuum, and then they ... They're a long-standing group. They're a group that there's been civil conflict with before, but obviously power vacuums tend to exacerbate civil conflict, right?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. In late 2014, some people describe what happened as a coup, and some people say, well, there's definitely advancement of the Houthis. They came all the way from Saada, the northern province, to the capital, Sana'a. Saleh, unlike other presidents who were deposed in the Arab Spring, got to remain in the country. He got to keep his wealth. He was immune from any kind of prosecution. These are deals that the Saudi Arabians and Emirates, the Gulf countries had managed to negotiate for him, that as long as he would transition power, he would step down, he-
CHRIS HAYES: That's interesting. And that was sort of ... I remember this being dangled. There's this dangled in front of Assad in Syria a little bit, like, "We'll take care of you. You can go retire to Switzerland," or whatever. He stayed in the country in the case of Saleh, but it was a kind of unique out. That's not really the way it worked at any of the other Arab Spring countries.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: No, no. He wasn't exiled. He wasn't imprisoned. He wasn't killed. He got to remain in Yemen and actually remained very popular in Yemen. And he got to remain in charge, through his son, of the Yemeni military. So you had Hadi, who is this ... Essentially, he's described by Yemenis as a puppet. But he was in this position, this interim position, and Saleh watches the Houthis come over from the north. They don't have access to the military that he does, and he could have easily challenged them, but he doesn't. He lets them take over the city and challenge this law and Hadi's group.
That's what people describe as that coup, and that was the beginning of this partnership, this very strange partnership between the Houthis and Saleh against-
CHRIS HAYES: Wait. Whoa, whoa, whoa.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay. Wait. All right, so-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: You thought this was going to get less confusing.
CHRIS HAYES: No, but ... All right. Help me out here. Okay. Saleh steps down. He gets a sort of cushy golden parachute, stays in the country, has control of the armed forces through his son, who's now running the armed forces, even though he's now gone. This sort of version of the Muslim Brotherhood is running the country now or has control of the government.
As he watches the Houthis actually come down from the north ... Right? They're penetrating in this power vacuum. What you're saying is-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: He lets them. He lets them come over and essentially take over.
CHRIS HAYES: Why?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, I think he was trying to see if this could work in his advantage.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, because he is ... Even if he's got a golden parachute, he's not psyched about not running the country.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: He's not done. He's not done.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. So he's thinking, in this kind of Game of Thrones way, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: I think so. I think that's what happened-
CHRIS HAYES: I see.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: ... because there's no way the Houthis could have been that powerful to enter Sana'a without any challenge, unless Saleh had not posed a challenge for them.
CHRIS HAYES: That's not like some weird conspiracy theory? I'm in no position-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: No, no, no. This is-
CHRIS HAYES: Okay. Yeah. I'm in no position to make ... I'm obviously honest about my lack of knowledge here, so I just want to be ...
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: I'm not weaving any stories here. This is what most analysts have said about ... And this was, in fact, the beginning of the partnership between Saleh and the Houthis, the very open partnership that ended up deteriorating. But we'll talk about that in a bit, I’m sure.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay. So now you've got a civil war. The Houthis are shooting at people, right? They're not marching in the streets.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: There was some chaos but not that much. They ended up putting Hadi under house arrest. They'd come all the way to the capital and there's very little challenge, very little killing and disruption. Within days, they had Hadi under house arrest, and they were saying that, "Hey, your three years are up, and you've done nothing." Apparently they weren't interested in governing, but they were interested in getting things moving. His reaction was to resign.
CHRIS HAYES: I see. So they come down. They say, "We've been waiting ... Basically, we had this interim deal. Saleh steps down; he's still in-country. You're supposed to create a kind of joint government, right, of the different factions in the country."
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: "You're now past the deadline. You haven't done it." In come the Houthis. They take the capital. They just sort of march in the capital.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. They just march in and take it.
CHRIS HAYES: They say, "Dude, time's up. Haven't done it." And he resigns.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: "And you should sit here and do it." And he resigned.
CHRIS HAYES: Now, can I just stop you there? Because the way you're talking about ... I just want to point to something, which is the way you're talking about the Houthis, which is not ... I wouldn't say sympathetic, but is fairly neutral in your description of them ... is very different than the way that the Saudis talk about the Houthis and the way that the US defense security apparatus talks about the Houthis, who they describe as both puppets of the Iranians and also as violent, vile, marauding killers.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, they're described as rebels. When you read or hear them described as rebels, you stop and wonder, well, who did they rebel against? Did they rebel against Saudi Arabia? Well, no. Saudi Arabia is the foreign country trying to invade Yemen, and the US is helping it. So that's number one.
But the Houthis ... Historically, there was a lot of sympathy in Yemen for them before all of this. Of course, sentiments have changed now because they're also accused of committing atrocities against civilians. But this was the history. They were part of that group who Saleh tried to crush, and they ended up ... In many areas in Yemen, people were sympathetic for their case because they were vocalizing what a lot of Yemenis were feeling, which was that there's a lot of corruption in this country and things need to move forward.
As for this ... It's almost taken as fact that they're proxies of Iran, and I think that can't be farther from the truth because, yes, Iran is ... They have a very good relationship with the Iranians, but to classify them as proxies ... I think there's just not any evidence to support that. But the Saudis keep saying that over and over again.
CHRIS HAYES: Are they not being armed by the Iranians?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, it would be very difficult, I think, for the Iranians to arm them, given the land, air, and sea blockade that the Saudi Arabians, with the help of the US Navy, has been imposing on Yemen over the last three and a half years. And where are these arms? There's no credible evidence of these arms being found in Yemen. You won't find Iranian generals in Yemen.
Yes, they support them. If you read Iranian media or see the coverage in Iranian media, you know that there's support there in many other ways, and perhaps there was some training done by Iranians for the Houthis prior to the war.
CHRIS HAYES: What you're saying is it's not like ... So we should be clear, right? Your point about the Iranians and the Houthis, which is the key argument that ... because we're going to get to that about why is the US doing anything here, right?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: That, unlike, say, in Syria, where Qasem Soleimani, who is the top Iranian armed forces guy, is walking around Syria and pointing where the weapons should point, right?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: The Iranians are 100percent full in in Syria, no question. They're there. They're-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Nobody's denying that.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. You're saying that just is not the case in Yemen.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: They're not there. You won't find a single Iranian general or a single Iranian soldier. There's just not that ... This isn't Iran's war. There's no reason for Iran, even for its own benefit, to be in Yemen, like they have in Syria.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, they ... But except for freaking out the Saudis.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, Yemen is the poorest country. They have no resources that they could offer. They weren't even a threat to Saudi Arabia. They were allies of the Saudi Arabians. What happened was, for the first time ... And for Yemenis, this isn't strange at all for Saudi Arabia to be meddling in Yemen's business because they had been doing that for all of our history, our modern history.
In the '60s, when North Yemen was trying to have its own revolution against the imamate at the time, Saudi Arabia invested heavily in trying to quash that revolution. In the '90s, when there was a civil war, they picked a side and were supporting South Yemenis against the north. And so Saudi intervention in Yemen is known, and it's not new.
But this is, I think, just an extreme form of Saudi intervention in Yemen, and it's because for the first time they felt like, well, if the Houthis became powerful in Yemen, then for sure they're not going to be Saudi Arabian allies because one of their platforms was no intervention. So there was no way that the Houthis were going to be sympathetic to Saudi Arabia.
CHRIS HAYES: When the Houthis do come down to Sana'a, this is in 2014, right?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: The Saudis flip.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Oh yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Completely flip, right? And, again, I want to try to fairly ... because obviously you have a certain perspective on this, and I'm just trying to faithfully recount the fact that there are many different perspectives on this. The line from the Saudis and Saudi-sympathetic parts of the American national security apparatus is this is a vital question of territorial integrity for their neighbor, and this represents essentially an Iranian ally on their door but also that they have a custodial interest in the territorial integrity of Yemen, and they can't just let this rebel group take it over.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, yeah. That's the Saudi line. The Saudis didn't do anything about it at first. The new Saudi came to power in January of 2015, King Salman, and he appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman as, at the time, deputy crown prince. He's now crown prince. He also appointed him as defense minister, a role which he still has.
Within two months of that appointment, so in March of 2015, that's when Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen. The rationale, or I think what people have put forward, is that this was Mohammed bin Salman's way of asserting himself, of saying, "Well, here I am." He came out of nowhere. Nobody really knew who he was, how old he was, where he had studied. There wasn't much information about him. He tried to assert himself, and they thought of Yemen as a way to assert himself.
CHRIS HAYES: I see. So Mohammed bin Salman, again the royal family, the Saudi royal family, is remarkably complex and there's all these sort of competitors for the throne. But he gets this key position back in 2015 as the defense minister. He is now essentially seen as the de facto ruler of Saudi.
He came to the US, where he was celebrated in all sorts of bizarre and, I think, deeply perverse ways. Like he has dinner with the Rock. Editorial pages are talking about how wonderful he is, and he's so modern, and he's so great, and he just talks about how much he loves women driving, yadda yadda yadda.
But what you're saying is his first big headline move was that he became the head of the armed forces and, as a way of making his mark, launches the Saudi air war against Yemen.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Absolutely, and he even called it Decisive Storm, implying that this was going to be an in-and-out mission, that this was going to be concluded within a couple weeks, maybe a month at most.
CHRIS HAYES: So the Saudis start bombing the country of Yemen from the air.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: What happens?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: A lot of destruction. Very quickly, they disabled the air force. So the Houthis now find themselves in a situation where they're working with Saleh openly now. Saleh regains control, is back in the spotlight, and together with the Houthis, they form this alliance and they start fighting the Saudis off with whatever means that they had.
CHRIS HAYES: So now you've got Saleh back with the Houthis, and they're fighting the Saudis.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes. He was back, and because, like I said before, he had retained significant control over the armed forces-
CHRIS HAYES: Of course.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: ... he provides that control to the Houthis. And the Houthis manage to recruit a lot of people as well. They start working together against the Saudis and against Hadi, who by now had fled to Saudi Arabia.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay. So now you've got ... And the US ... This is under the Obama administration. The US is essentially giving the Saudis the green light for this.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: The United States did not hesitate to provide guidance for the targeting, to really become partners in the coalition right away.
CHRIS HAYES: The US argument is basically the Houthis are bad and the Saudis are our friends. They also, I think, make this argument, at least under the Obama administration, that if we help them with their targeting and we're in the ... If we're coalition partners, we can exercise restraint on the Saudi air war, which will lead to less civilian deaths and less carpet bombing.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, we're dealing with over 50,000 people dead from airstrikes, and so-
CHRIS HAYES: 50,000?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: 50,000. You've been hearing the 10,000 figure, which has now been updated since January of 2016. Most recent reports put the number at at least 50,000 people. So if that's restraint, if that's mitigating civilian deaths, then I'd be scared to imagine what it would be if that's not the case. And so that's what the US has been saying. I think that's very problematic because, at the end of the day, here is Saudi Arabia really trying to force itself to have input in the affairs of a sovereign country, Yemen, which never posed a threat to Saudi Arabia, by the way, or the United States.
CHRIS HAYES: The latter is really, I think, important here. In the case of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as destructive and awful as the implementation of Obama-error counterterrorism policy was with respect to Yemen, there were people in Yemen who were actively trying to plot attacks against the United States.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes, and-
CHRIS HAYES: In this case, there's just no American self-defense interest.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: No, and in fact ... And this is something that people don't hesitate to acknowledge. The Houthis were very successful at getting rid of Al-Qaeda in the-
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Of course.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: ... Arabian Peninsula and Northern Yemen. They're sworn enemies of Al-Qaeda, and they had been very successful at getting rid of them from northern Yemen. You see the Al-Qaeda in South Yemen right now, which is under the control of the Saudi-led coalition. There's really no Al-Qaeda in northern Yemen, where the Houthis control. So if that was even the issue, then ... Al-Qaeda posed a bigger threat to Yemenis than it did to the United States-
CHRIS HAYES: Of course.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: ... or any other country. So, of course, Yemenis have a huge vested interest to get rid of them themselves. And now we've seen them being empowered.
CHRIS HAYES: So we get in the years, in the final few years, of the Obama administration, this extremely horrible stalemate kicks into gear, right?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: Between 2014 and 2016, mounting civilian casualties, continued bombardment, Houthis still holding big chunks of the country, Houthis themselves committing, according to international third party observers, human rights abuses, civilian deaths, et cetera.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. There doesn't seem to be a way out. The Saudis still control the same amount of territory that they controlled in 2015, late 2015. They control most of south Yemen, which again, they share that territory with Al Qaeda and ISIS and whatnot, and about 20percent of the population lives in those areas where the Saudis control and the Houthis control over a smaller area of the country, but 80percent of the population lives there. This alliance between the Houthis and Saleh deteriorated famously last year with Saleh's death in fact, but there's still no change in who controls what.
CHRIS HAYES: And so Saleh dies, Houthis are still there, the Saudis are bombing and then my sense is that as much as the Obama Administration certainly supported the Saudis and continued to sell weapons to Saudis and embed American targeters with the Saudis, that American support for this campaign has accelerated even further under Trump.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. Thinking about how much weapons were sold, they were 110 billion dollars sold under the Obama Administration and Trump made a contract worth 350 billion dollars.
CHRIS HAYES: Jesus.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: So when we think about why the U.S. is in Yemen, frankly there's a lot of money to be made. Why is Canada selling weapons to the Saudis? Why is the UK selling weapons to the Saudis? There's a lot of money to be made. Saudis don't manufacture their own weapons. They rely on all of these weapons deals.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. The Saudis have no ... The Saudis have tons-
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: They have a ton of money-
CHRIS HAYES: Of money and no domestic defense industry.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Absolutely. And when Mohammad bin Salman came to meet Trump, Trump very childishly, foolishly pulled up a sixth grade looking poster with contracts from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and all these other defense companies and was listing all the contracts that he has with Saudi Arabia. And I think he was being essentially very transparent about why this relationship with Saudi Arabia exists, "Well they've made us very rich." And in addition to the weapons sales, all these contracts, these defense contracts that the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia. So they train their soldiers, they maintain and update their aircraft and vehicles. We have U.S. Special Forces on the ground at the Yemen/Saudi Arabia border. We have mid air refueling Saudi jets, which ... without which of course they can't be in the air for very long to conduct their bombing campaigns and all of these are worth money. The army had posted an article detailing what the contracts were and I think it's worth something like 23 million dollars a month that they get in addition to the sales of weapons. So there's a lot of money to be made from this war and I think that's the reason why the U.S. is in Yemen, unfortunately.
CHRIS HAYES: You've seen the tactics of the Saudis, you mentioned a blockade earlier. What is the blockade? Because it seems to me that as bad as the air war is and it's horrible, that they then move to a different set of tactics around a blockade, which are where you start to see the most ... That's the thing that inaugurates what you called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Exactly. So they've shut down all the airports. I think there's just a couple of airports left and people have to travel great distances and put themselves in great danger to get to those airports. So most people can't travel out of the country. They control the waters and the land and so people can't come in and out of the country without Saudi permission. This is why western journalists have had a really hard time getting into the country and then some of them have smuggled themselves into the country in order to report from within. But Saudi Arabia controls what comes in and what goes out of the country. There's no commercial trade right now, but the aid that comes in through the country through ... most of which comes through the port of Hudaydah. They, in November of last year, blocked that port and so they have this blockade that they enforce and sometimes they enforce it fully causing a much more death and destruction.
CHRIS HAYES: It's the only way that like food and medical supplies and other vital things for getting into Yemen at this port is that it ...
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: 70-80percent of the food and aid comes in through that port and-
CHRIS HAYES: And the Saudis shut that port down.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: They shut that port down and currently they wage an offensive at that port city. Somehow aid and medicine is still trickling in, but there is nowhere near what people need and that's why you have people starving to death. In 2016 and 2017 alone, 113,000 children starved to death or died of malnutrition ... or preventable diseases like cholera or even a simple viral infection or a bacterial infection could kill a child because-
CHRIS HAYES: That's just the number of children?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: That's just the number of children in just two years out of the three and a half, and this is according to Save the Children and other organizations ... humanitarian organizations that are there.
CHRIS HAYES: So we're doing that as Americans?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: We are causing this. There was a CBS report about the blockade back in November and not once did they mention that this is happening because the U.S. is helping the Saudi Arabians do it.
CHRIS HAYES: If we said ... I mean I guess the question is, if this is so important to the Saudis, what if we said, "No. We're not gonna help you." Wouldn't they just do it anyway?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, how could they without our weapons, without our intelligence, without our mid air refueling, without our assistance with the targeting, without our military advisors in their country and in Yemen? How could they wage this war without the incredible assistance that the U.S. has been giving them?
CHRIS HAYES: What is the status ... I mean you have the Houthis and you have the Saudi coalition. What is the status of the ostensible Yemeni government?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: The Yemeni government ... This is a UN recognized Hadi government. I think the UN recognizes them and maybe Saudi Arabia and that's it.
CHRIS HAYES: But they are essentially ... The UN recognized and Saudi recognized government is on the side of the Saudis. I mean ostensibly they are saying, "We are fighting the Houthis for our own country," ostensibly.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes. Yes. That's the biggest reason why I think many people have not seen this intervention as just an occupation. But ministers within Hadi's government have to seek permission from the Saudis and the Emirates when they wanna get anything done in the country. They themselves, some of them have described that this looks like occupation. We can't do anything without permission. And in case this wasn't twisted enough, so Hadi himself cannot stay in Yemen for longer than a week. He makes official visits maybe once every six months, once every year, and he stays off shore because his life is in danger, even in areas that the Saudis and ostensibly his government control.
CHRIS HAYES: So the ruler ... the ostensible ruler of the country does not stay in the country?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Does not stay in the country. He stays in Saudi Arabian hotels and issues official statements through Facebook, and so he has no credibility. Nobody in the country season as a legitimate president, including the people in south Yemen who've essentially formed their own government. So you've got the Hadi government, you've got the Houthi-Saleh alliance in the north and now you have a third government that's endorsed by the United Arab Emirates and they're based in the south. They're partners with the Saudi led coalition, but you have now this tension between Saudi Arabia supporting the Hadi government and the UAE supporting supposedly this other government in the south.
CHRIS HAYES: So ... I mean what it sounds to me is that the people of Yemen and the children of Yemen and the families of Yemen have been caught in this kind of battle of great powers, with the U.S. providing both the money and the weapons necessary to maintain what has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yeah. I mean it wasn't looking good for Yemen in 2011 and 2012 and 2014 even, but no civil war could have caused this much damage. No civil war could have caused the death of 113,000 children in just two years or so much damage to the infrastructure. Schools are closed, 45percent of hospitals are not functioning. Those that are functioning are barely hanging on. People die because they don't have ... they can't have access to kidney dialysis or ... In fact, the person, the doctor who had introduced the Red Cross to Yemen died because of ... he couldn't leave the country for treatment. It wouldn't have gotten this bad without foreign intervention in Yemen and unfortunately people are now caught between a rock and hard place. Really, there's nowhere to go, there's no out. The United States keep supporting the Saudis despite one atrocity after another, and we're talking like really a lot of damage to civilian life. Just today, there was a bomb attack on a family who was displaced from Hudaydah and 31 members of the same family were killed, 22 of whom were children and a couple of weeks ago there was an attack on a bus full of schoolchildren.
CHRIS HAYES: What was crazy to me about the school bus, I mean aside from just the sheer, utter horror and moral deprivation of murdering children, was that usually if ... The U.S. obviously over the course of the last 17 years in bombing campaigns throughout the region, the U.S. has bombed civilians and what it generally says is, "We're gonna conduct an investigation." And sometimes they say, "Yeah, we got that we ... That was a mistake and we accidentally did this.", and in some cases pay some small reparations. The Saudis were just ... didn't even pretend…
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: No.
CHRIS HAYES: To be sorry about it. I mean the Saudi official statement about bombing a school bus full of children expresses no remorse, pledges no real oversight or anything.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, they said that they did in fact target the people in the bus.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, right. "We meant to do it,” was their argument. Yeah.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yeah. And that the people in the bus were launching missiles at Saudi Arabia and then he eventually said that whoever launches missiles, the Saudi Arabia will "Get what they deserve." And so while the people-
CHRIS HAYES: But it was a school bus.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: On the bus were children. They were wearing UNICEF backpacks. They were coming from a ... the end of summer school and they waited for the bus to enter a busy market and they bombed it right then and there killing 44 kids and 10 other people. And so you have Saudi Arabia saying, "Yep, we did it and we meant to do it." And I think that's a result of just them being ... operating with impunity over the last three and a half years. They killed 140 people at a funeral a couple of years ago. There was no investigation. They investigated themselves and absolved themselves of all crimes. They kill people at funerals and at weddings and at schools and hospitals. People are afraid to go to hospitals because of double tap bombings and they continue to operate like that with impunity and with support from the international community.
CHRIS HAYES: If someone came to me from another country and said the following like, "What do Americans think about X? I would say, "Well tell me which Americans, that's 330 million people." Basically they are these incredibly fractured country where no one really kind of agrees on anything and people have all sorts of different views and I can't possibly begin to tell you what "American public opinion" is on anything. So I recognize the ridiculousness of the question of being like, "Well, what do the people in Yemen think about this?" But I guess if you can sort of give the contours of maybe the different kind of factions or feelings about what is happening there.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well there's no question some people support the Saudi led intervention. They think that the Houthis are a big problem and that the Saudi led intervention will lead to a society without Houthis. Other people are vehemently against any kind of foreign intervention, whether or not they support the Houthis. So they might say, "Well yeah, we're against the Houthis. They're criminals as well, but we don't support the Saudi led intervention or any intervention in our country." And then you have the people who have been supporting the Houthis and perhaps those numbers have grown as well, given the resistance that we see in the country. And so there are various factions, but I think people would agree that there needs to be an independent investigation into the crimes that are going on and not have Saudi Arabia or any other party that's part of this coalition to investigate itself. It's just preposterous to think that we would allow criminals or people accused of crimes to investigate themselves, and that's what we see in Yemen over and over again. But I think most people just want the war to end. They want to resume their daily lives. People like us living abroad, we wanna go back and help rebuild maybe, but there's just so much destruction and it just doesn't seem to be an end in sight I think given how much support the Saudis receive from other countries, including the United States.
CHRIS HAYES: We covered the strike of the school bus on the air and I talked to someone that I know who said, "I'm gonna go to my congressperson's office tomorrow, this is so outrageous” because I think a lot of people don't know what's going on. If people are listening to this and saying, "I don't want American money and American military aid to continue to facilitate this kind of carnage." What should they do?
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, you're absolutely right. I think people unfortunately don't know about this even though it's been happening for so long but once they know, they wanna do something about it. And I hope that this is what people would feel empowered to do after listening to this. Certainly Congress has ... Certain members in Congress have attempted to put an end to us involvement in the war. They've invoked War Powers Resolution twice, once in the Senate, once in the House and the Senate was cosponsored by Bernie Sanders. The Yemenis the that I've spoken to are really hopeful that this would end through legal means, that congress would say, "We are ..." Congress by the way, has already acknowledged back in September of last year or December, that the U.S. is at war in Yemen without congressional approval. So okay, that was step number one. Step number two is to invoke the War Powers Resolution and to end all U.S. involvement in Yemen and I think that would end the war eventually.
Again, the Saudis rely on the U.S. every step of the way and if people could take time out of their day to just call their congressperson or their senator and say, "Hey, we want you to support resolutions and bills in congress that would end U.S. participation in the war." This is not a call for intervention. That should be easy for American citizens. We're not ... Yemenis don't want Americans to come help them, to come save them. Yemenis want Americans frankly, to stop bombing them, to stop helping Saudi Arabia bomb them, and That's really what I hope that people would feel empowered to do.
CHRIS HAYES: Shireen Al-Adeimi is an assistant professor at Michigan State University. She teaches in the education school there. You can follow her on Twitter, which is how I found her at Shireen, @shireen818. She was born in Yemen as you heard. She tweets a lot about the conflict there in a really accessible and morally urgent way and it's a really great honor that you took some time Shireen, to talk to me. Thank you.
SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Thank you so much for having me.
CHRIS HAYES: As always, you can tweet us your feedback on the show. Tweet us at #WITHpod, #WITHpod, W-I-T-H-P-O-D, or email us firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to hear what you think about the show. "Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.