Workers Vanguard No. 1145
30 November 2018
Squabble over Khashoggi Murder
Down With U.S./Saudi War on Yemen!
More than three and a half years of unrelenting war by Saudi Arabia aided by the U.S., British and French imperialists have turned Yemen into a slaughterhouse and the world’s most horrific scene of mass starvation and disease. Along with a bombing campaign, a naval blockade enforced with the help of U.S. warships has largely sealed off aid to Yemen, worsening the human toll in a country heavily reliant on food, fuel and other imports. An estimated 56,000 people have been killed while some 14 million—half the country’s population—teeter on the brink of starvation. With the collapse of health care and basic sanitation, including clean water, one of the largest cholera outbreaks in history has raged uncontrollably. At least one million people have contracted the disease; more than 2,500 have died from it. According to UNICEF, a child dies in Yemen every ten minutes due to malnutrition and disease.
In March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition launched the bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen with key support provided by the Obama administration, including precision weaponry, in-flight fueling of warplanes and satellite intel. The assault began after the Houthi movement, which is based on the Zaidi Shia minority, seized control of the capital, Sana’a, and other parts of the country. As expectations in Riyadh and Washington of early victory proved hollow, the coalition increasingly massacred civilians and sought to destroy the economy.
To starve the Houthis into submission, airstrikes have been aimed at food production and transportation facilities. Roads, bridges, electric grids, seaports, airports and water supply facilities have been destroyed. Helicopters and warships have blasted hundreds of fishing boats in the Red Sea, killing more than 150 fishermen. Thousands have died in precision airstrikes against civilian targets: homes, weddings, funerals, marketplaces, hospitals and schools, including one for the blind. Scores of cars and buses have been bombed. Forty-four children and ten adults died in one attack on a school bus.
Prior to 2015, Marxists took no side in the conflict between the Houthis and their tribal and religious rivals. However, from the start of the U.S.-backed Saudi war, workers in the U.S. and internationally have had a side: with the Houthis and their allies against the Saudi-led coalition and its proxies. This position does not lessen our Marxist political opposition to all forms of religious reaction and bourgeois nationalism. But we stress that it is U.S. imperialism that is the enemy of working people throughout the world. A setback for the Saudi-led coalition would redound not only against this deeply reactionary, theocratic state but also against U.S. imperialist designs in the region.
The Khashoggi Affair
With world attention focused on the barbaric Saudi monarchy, Donald Trump has steadfastly refused to follow the example of Obama, who, when Riyadh’s torture and killing of dissidents became too conspicuous, would gently admonish the Saudis about the importance of “human rights” while continuing to arm them to the teeth. Since the October 2 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Trump has maintained his unabashed support of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, citing among other things his recent help in lowering oil prices. As evidence leaked by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan made clear, Khashoggi, a journalist critical of bin Salman, was murdered by Saudi security forces in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. While Trump trotted out a litany of excuses to deflect blame from the royal family, the CIA slapped at the White House by categorically declaring the obvious: bin Salman was guilty of ordering the murder. Trump slapped back: Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.
Khashoggi was a longtime member of the Saudi elite and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and other reactionary Islamist forces. As a young man in the 1980s, he made a pilgrimage of sorts, at Osama bin Laden’s invitation, to Afghanistan. There he was photographed brandishing an assault rifle as he cheered the CIA-backed mujahedin cutthroats fighting the liberating forces of the Soviet Red Army. Khashoggi later forged close ties with members of the Saudi royalty, notably the former head of the bloodsoaked intelligence services, for whom he served as “media adviser.”
In more recent years, he butted heads with bin Salman, including by coming out for a negotiated end to the quagmire in Yemen. Khashoggi was also making pals with Erdogan at a time of intensifying regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. To bin Salman, Khashoggi’s tepid opposition was a betrayal as well as a threat to his campaign to cultivate an image as a reformer. Khashoggi, fearing arrest, had for the past year lived outside Washington, D.C., writing columns for the Washington Post.
Democrats in Washington have had a field day criticizing Trump for his rapport with the Saudi royal family. This is pure cynicism. The partnership between Washington and Riyadh has been reaffirmed by every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt negotiated the 1945 U.S.-Saudi accord with King Ibn Saud. That agreement guaranteed U.S. protection of the Saudi monarchy in return for access to the country’s oil fields. The largest in the long history of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia—over $115 billion—was concluded under Obama. For well over a year after the outbreak of the Yemen war, the Obama administration supplied Riyadh with anti-personnel cluster bombs, and after a brief hiatus resumed sales.
Last March, when bin Salman visited the U.S. after announcing an easing of restrictions on women driving, the supposed “reformer” was embraced by a full gamut of politicians and celebrities, from Donald Trump and Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey. Following that visit, the arrest of Saudi women’s rights activists provoked little more in Washington than a collective yawn. A number of the 18 activists arrested this year have reportedly been tortured with electric shocks and whippings.
Now Congressional Democrats, and several Republicans, are calling for a halt to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia as they press for an end to the Yemen war. This position reflects concerns in sections of the U.S. ruling class that by further pursuing an unwinnable war in Yemen, the Saudis are undercutting their ability to act as a linchpin, along with Israel, for U.S. interests in the Near East. As he did during his presidential bid, imperialist running dog Bernie Sanders has called for ending the war; his campaign indicated that the rationale was to free up warplanes and troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to join U.S. forces fighting ISIS in Syria.
Military depredations are part of the normal workings of imperialism. As we wrote in “Down With Saudi-led War in Yemen!” (WV No. 1070, 12 June 2015), “Every time one of its tentacles is weakened or cut off, every time a blow is struck against the American imperialist monster and its local agents and allies, working people and oppressed around the world benefit, not least in the U.S. itself.” That also applies when ISIS lands blows against the U.S. and its proxies in Syria. We demand: All U.S. forces and bases out of the Near East and Afghanistan now!
The same imperialists who slaughter and wreak havoc across the globe are in an extended war against the workers and the oppressed at home in the search for ever-greater profits. Workers have seen their wages slashed and benefits gutted. Black people, forcibly segregated at the bottom of society, continue to be gunned down by the killer cops. The disillusionment and anger of working people in the U.S. must be turned into class struggle against the capitalist rulers at home. Our aim is to build the workers party that will intervene into such struggle to win the multiracial proletariat to the program of socialist revolution to destroy the imperialist beast from within.
Imperialist Merchants of Death
While the war in Yemen is led by the Saudis, the country’s devastation is very much an American product. Years before the Saudis started their air assault, Yemen had been transformed by the Obama administration into a killing field for U.S. Special Forces and a firing range for drone attacks. In the name of combating the local Al Qaeda franchise, scores of Yemeni civilians were targeted for assassination, as were several U.S. citizens, such as Anwar al-Awlaki.
What makes Yemen so important for the imperialists and the Gulf monarchies is its strategic position on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen sits on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. If blocked, this choke point, through which some 3.8 million barrels of oil pass each day, would cut off all shipping between the Suez and points east.
Since early in the current war, U.S. and British military officials have worked in the command and control center in Riyadh that directs Saudi airstrikes. Britain, like the U.S., has supplied Saudi Arabia with billions’ worth of fighter jets and other military hardware. British Royal Air Force personnel are helping to train Saudi crews. France, in addition to supplying weapons to the Saudis and other Gulf states, has sent special forces to fight alongside troops from the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. And U.S. Green Berets are at the Saudi-Yemen border. (The U.S. announced the suspension of aerial refueling of Saudi warplanes following Khashoggi’s murder.)
The background to the war is the arch rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran over influence in the region. Washington fully backs the Saudis, who play a critical role in financially sustaining U.S. client states in the area, such as Egypt and Jordan, and propping up other oil-rich Gulf kingdoms and emirates. Although U.S. reliance on Saudi oil has declined considerably in recent years with the increased fracking on American soil, Washington wants to retain control over the flow of Gulf oil to the rest of the world.
The Saudis and their allies present the war as a fight against Iran. Iran’s clerical bourgeois regime is based on Shia Islam, while the Saudi monarchy is rooted in the extreme, Wahhabi variant of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism, whose social strictures are similar to those of the reactionaries of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. At the outset of the war, there was no evidence to justify the accusation that Iran was arming and financing the Houthis. But one result of the Saudi onslaught has been to drive them into the arms of Tehran.
Saudi Arabia took on special importance for the U.S. rulers after the 1979 “Islamic revolution” that brought Iran’s reactionary clerical regime to power amid a social upheaval against the despised, U.S.-backed Shah. Iran’s proletariat had the potential to seize power in struggle against both the monarchists and the reactionary Islamist forces. But it was betrayed by its leftist leaders who threw their support to the Ayatollah Khomeini. We were unique on the left internationally in calling for “Down with the Shah! No support to the mullahs! Workers to power!” The new regime of the mullahs moved rapidly to enslave women in the veil and unleash murderous repression of workers, leftists, national minorities and others.
The sectarian divide across the region was greatly enflamed by the U.S. overthrow of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. With the establishment in Baghdad of a Shia-dominated regime, the Saudi theocracy appointed itself guardian of the Sunni Arab peoples against the Shia theocracy in Iran. Not least among the Saudi rulers’ concerns is that their country’s major oil fields are in its majority-Shia Eastern Province. There and elsewhere in the country thousands of foreign workers live in virtual indentured servitude.
In 2011, the Saudis suppressed Shia protests in neighboring Bahrain, where domination of the Shia majority by a Sunni royal family is a vestige of British colonialism. That same year saw the first of a series of large protests in Eastern Province. One of the protest leaders, Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, was executed in 2016, an act that Khashoggi hailed. Half a dozen other activists were recently convicted of participating in the protests and are threatened with beheading.
Regional Rivalries and Imperialist Machinations
Regional rivalries explain how Turkey is playing the Khashoggi killing. Exposing the murder of the journalist certainly has nothing to do with defending the press on the part of Erdogan, whose normal response to media and political critics at home is mass incarceration. In slowly leaking the evidence and keeping the story on the front pages, the Turkish government is trying to pressure Washington and Riyadh into granting political concessions.
What Erdogan wants from Washington is no secret. First, he has demanded since 2016 that the U.S. extradite his former ally, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of fomenting a coup attempt that year (see “Turkey’s Failed Coup: Both Sides Bad for Workers—Down With the State of Emergency!” WV No. 1093, 29 July 2016). Secondly, Erdogan has long insisted that Washington distance itself from the Kurdish forces in Syria, who have served as ground troops in the U.S. war against ISIS. With regard to the Saudis, Erdogan is angling to knock bin Salman down a notch or two, and maybe get the U.S. to push for his removal from power. According to the Guardian (12 November), the royal court in Riyadh was furious when Turkey rejected a Saudi offer of “significant” financial compensation if it dropped the Khashoggi affair.
Following the murder, Erdogan declared that only Turkey “can lead the Muslim world.” Turkey and Saudi Arabia have long jockeyed for dominant influence in the Near East. Tensions between the two have heightened enormously since June 2017, when bin Salman was named heir to the throne. Erdogan had supported the Saudi war in Yemen, denouncing “Iran and the terrorist groups” there. However, when several countries led by Saudi Arabia imposed an embargo on Qatar last year because of its ties with Iran, Turkey reinforced its military base in Qatar and joined Iran in breaking the economic blockade. The new crown prince in turn denounced Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil,” along with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Bin Salman’s embargo backfired, as Qatar strengthened its ties with Tehran.
The regional interests of Turkey’s capitalist rulers require them to tread a fine line between Iran and the coalition of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia directed against Tehran. The Trump administration recently made good on its pledge to restore punishing sanctions on Iran, having withdrawn earlier this year from the nuclear deal struck by the Obama White House. In contrast, Turkey has repeatedly supported Iran’s “right to enrich,” i.e., to further develop its nuclear capacity. Heavily dependent on gas and oil imports from Iran, Ankara has pledged to defy the sanctions, as it did the earlier round. While Tehran claims that its nuclear program is purely for energy purposes, U.S. bellicosity underlines that Iran needs nukes as a means to defend its sovereignty. Down with all imperialist sanctions against Iran!
Toward a Socialist Future
From Yemen to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, imperialist intervention and machinations have brought ever more misery and devastation, strengthening retrograde tribal and religious forces and fueling sectarian conflicts and pogroms. The region’s bourgeois rulers are dependent on one or more of the U.S., European and Japanese imperialist powers, whether or not the imperialists currently consider them enemies or allies/flunkeys. All of these regimes brutally repress the toiling masses.
Overcoming backwardness and casting off the imperialist yoke requires the working class, leading the oppressed masses, to overturn the capitalist order through socialist revolution. There are powerful proletarian concentrations in the region, from the Turkish auto plants to the Iranian oil fields and Egyptian textile mills. An end to capitalist rule will open the door to liberating all—women, Kurds and other oppressed nations and minorities, the urban and rural poor. Only in a socialist federation of the Near East will there be a full and equal place for all the myriad peoples of the region. To open the way to a socialist future, proletarian revolutions in these countries must necessarily be combined with the fight for workers rule in the U.S. and other advanced capitalist countries.
What must be done is to build revolutionary workers parties that can intervene into class and social struggles and lead the working class and its allies to victory, as the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky did in 1917 in Russia. This is the understanding that guides the International Communist League as we fight to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution.