Yemen, political alliances, and the righteousness of nations

I’ve written before about my concerns about Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, including schools and hospitals, and the resulting deaths of men, women, and children.

But perhaps the most worrying thing about this is the involvement of the American and British governments. One form this has taken is that America and Britain are arming the Saudi government. That is not to say that the American and British government are selling (or giving) arms to Saudi Arabia – but they are allowing arms manufacturers to sell arms to the Saudi government, something that they would not be prepared to do for just any government. And this, in itself, virtually amounts to the American and British governments arming Saudi Arabia.

But it goes further than that. The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Obama has also supplied the [Saudi-led] coalition such indispensable assistance as intelligence, in-flight refuelling of aircraft and help in identifying appropriate targets.” Hmmm.

Three months ago, it looked like the UN were going to seriously criticise Saudi actions in Yemen, but then it caved in to pressure to remove the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition from the UN’s list of states and armed groups that violate children’s rights in conflict.

According to Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam,

“In June, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that the U.N. had documented widespread abuses of children’s rights including the recruitment of 762 child soldiers, largely by the Houthis, and the killing of 785 children, mostly as a result of bombardment by the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia promptly insisted that the U.N. remove it from the report’s blacklist and threatened to cut off relations with and funding for the U.N. if it did not comply. Amazingly, and to the U.N.’s great discredit, the threat succeeded.

It is tempting to view the U.N.’s betrayal of Yemeni children exclusively as a failure of the U.N.’s leadership, but this incident is not an anomaly. For over a year, powerful U.N. member states have helped insulate the Saudi-led coalition from culpability and, in so doing, fuelled its righteous outrage at attempts to hold it to account. Since its intervention in Yemen began over 15 months ago, the coalition has found the U.N. a highly convenient venue in which to be absolved of human rights abuses—thanks largely to the enabling of Saudi Arabia’s powerful allies, the U.S. and the U.K.”

In other words, Saudi Arabia was committing war crimes, and the U.S. and U.K. governments were doing what they could to protect Saudi Arabia from being criticised.

Journalist Daniel Larison put it this way:

“The Obama administration and Cameron’s government have not only provided the Saudi-led coalition with the means to pummel and starve Yemen, but they have gone out of their way to make sure that the coalition’s wrongdoing (and their complicity in it) is covered up as much as possible. The Saudis have worked hard to whitewash the coalition’s record, and in this Washington and London (among others) have given them significant help. “

Actions have consequences

Politically speaking, what is happening in Yemen is not actually helpful for the US.  Reuters reports that the Saudis’ bombing campaign has had the effect of greatly strengthening al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.  Meanwhile, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, commented  “If you talk to Yemenis, they will tell you that inside Yemen this is not perceived to be a Saudi bombing campaign, this is a US bombing campaign.  What’s happening is we are helping to radicalize the Yemeni population against the United States.”  Put those two things together, and they spell long-term trouble for America.

But aside from the practical consequences of the Saudi action, there is a more basic issue: the US and the UK seem to be complicit in war crimes. And I do not just say that the US and the UK governments: I think that one could go beyond that and argue that since the US and the UK are both democracies, and since what has been going on in Yemen is no secret, but has been widely reported for several months (though not on newspaper front pages or in TV news bulletins), then it looks like the US and the UK as nations have blood on their hands. And one is reminded of the words of the book of Proverbs (14:34): “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

It’s about alliances

The question is “Why have the US and UK governments been behaving like this?” And the answer is “Because the Saudis are our allies.” For decades, the Saudi regime has kept on the right side of the US and the UK, unlike most other governments in the Arab world. Throughout the Cold War, Saudi Arabia was reliably pro-western. When the US decided to intervene after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, it depended on Saudi cooperation. And of course, without the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, the 2003 invasion of Iraq could not have gone ahead. The US was not about to do anything that would threaten their relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In other words, this is all about political alliances. And political alliances have a habit of having very unhappy side effects. The point is that political alliances are not simply about goodwill and friendship, despite the language that is often used about them. They are about power, and often lead countries to do things that they would never do if it were not for the obligations that alliance brings. Just go back 100 years, and consider World War I. The shooting of one man in Sarajevo led to just about every nation in Europe (and some outside Europe) getting involved in a conflict that led to at least 10 million violent deaths. But it was not so much the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the devastation of much of Europe – it was the political alliances that were in place at the time.

Political alliances and the Bible

Political alliances are, of course, not new. They existed in Old Testament times. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were very much involved in political alliances – alliances which often involved military cooperation in the face of threats from common enemies. However, the forging of these political alliances by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah is rarely seen as a good thing in the Old Testament.

In I Kings 15, we read the unedifying story about how the two Israelite kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were at war with each other. But what was worse was that the king of Judah then made an alliance with the king of Syria, and paid him to attack the kingdom of Israel. In other words, we have an alliance which meant some of God’s own people were paying pagans to attack another group of God’s own people.

“There was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel throughout their reigns. Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and fortified Ramah to prevent anyone from leaving or entering the territory of Asa king of Judah. Asa then took all the silver and gold that was left in the treasuries of the LORD’s temple and of his own palace. He entrusted it to his officials and sent them to Ben-Hadad son of Tabrimmon, the son of Hezion, the king of Aram, who was ruling in Damascus. “Let there be a treaty between me and you,” he said, “as there was between my father and your father. See, I am sending you a gift of silver and gold. Now break your treaty with Baasha king of Israel so he will withdraw from me.” Ben-Hadad agreed with King Asa and sent the commanders of his forces against the towns of Israel. He conquered Ijon, Dan, Abel Beth Maacah and all Kinnereth in addition to Naphtali. “

The prophets warned that these alliances were not something that God wanted them to do, and that the results would be militarily disastrous. Hence we read in Isaiah 30:

“Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the LORD, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge. But Pharaoh’s protection will be to your shame, Egypt’s shade will bring you disgrace.

These alliances often led to actions which were spiritually disastrous. Hence the case of Solomon’s wives, as recorded in I Kings 11.

“King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.”

And why was Solomon marrying all these foreign women? Well, the significant thing is that Solomon wasn’t marrying just any foreign women. He was marrying the daughters of kings. And it all started with Pharaoh’s daughter: I Kings 3:1 “Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter.” This is about political alliances. And the point is that political alliances invariably involve compromises – including compromises of principle.

Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah (22:20-22) calls Judah’s allies her ‘lovers’.

“Go up to Lebanon, and cry out, and lift up your voice in Bashan; cry out from Abarim, for all your lovers are destroyed. I spoke to you in your prosperity, but you said, ‘I will not listen.’ This has been your way from your youth, that you have not obeyed my voice. The wind shall shepherd all your shepherds, and your lovers shall go into captivity; then you will be ashamed and confounded because of all your evil.”

In many modern Bible translations, the word ‘allies’ is used. (Hence, in the NIV, “your lovers are destroyed” becomes “your allies are crushed”) But that misses the point that is brought out in the more literal translations that there is something dubious and illegitimate about these political alliances.

The Bible is unremittingly negative about the political alliances made by the kings of Judah and Israel in the Middle East in ancient times.  That, I believe, should warn us of the dangers of political alliances in the Middle East (and not just in the Middle East) in our own day. For these alliances could result in nations such as the US and the UK having innocent blood on their hands.

UPDATE: When I posted this, I had not seen the exchange between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May in the House of Commons this week, in which Theresa May said (and the linked article in The Independent is worth reading) “Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”

I think that what I wrote above is all the comment that is needed.  But I will add that I was absolutely horrified.

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