At What Point Will the Administration Admit “American interests” Equal “What the Saudis Want”?

There are a couple of stories this weekend on our undeclared war in Yemen that deserve some close focus.

As I pointed out in the wake of the NYT and Daily Beast stories on drone targeting, the Administration had been successfully distracting attention from Obama’s embrace of signature strikes directed out of John Brennan’s office by focusing on the vetting that goes (or went) into the Kill List.

With that in mind, compare how Greg Miller reports on those issues in this story. A key source or sources for the story are one or more former US official who describe a liberalization of the Kill List.

Targets still have to pose a “direct threat” to U.S. interests, said a former high-ranking U.S. counterterrorism official. “But the elasticity of that has grown over time.”


One of the U.S. objectives in Yemen has been “identifying who those leaders were in those districts that were al-Qaeda and also in charge of the rebellion,” said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in overseeing the campaign before leaving the government. “There was a little liberalization that went on in the kill lists that allowed us to go after them.”


The effort nearly ground to a halt last year amid a political crisis that finally forced Yemen’s leader for three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down. As he fought to cling to power, U.S. officials said they became concerned that he was trying to direct U.S. strikes against his adversaries under the guise of providing locations of supposed terrorist groups.

“There were times when we were intentionally misled, presumably by Saleh, to get rid of people he wanted to get rid of,” said the former U.S. official involved in overseeing the campaign.

Now, as I noted, both the AP and Daily Beast emphasized the importance of Mike Mullen (who left on September 30, the day we killed Anwar al-Awlaki) and James Cartwright (who left on August 3) to Kill List vetting. That was an aeon ago in our war on Yemen, though the discussion of pulling back on targeting because we finally admitted to ourselves that Ali Abdulllah Saleh was playing a double game with us did happen while they were still around. And, for the moment, I can’t think of any other similarly high-ranking people who have left.

Now compare what these former officials said with what current officials are telling Miller (well, ignore Tommy Vietor, because he’s obviously blowing smoke).

“We’re pursuing a focused counterterrorism campaign in Yemen designed to prevent and deter terrorist plots that directly threaten U.S. interests at home and abroad,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “We have not and will not get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort.”

But other U.S. officials said that the administration’s emphasis on threats to interests “abroad” has provided latitude for expanding attacks on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the Yemen affiliate is known.In early May, a U.S. attack killed an operative, Fahd al-Quso, tied to the latest AQAP plot to smuggle explosives-laden underwear onto a flight to the United States. But officials said the campaign is now also aimed at wiping out a layer of lower-ranking operatives through strikes that can be justified because of threats they pose to the mix of U.S. Embassy workers, military trainers, intelligence operatives and contractors scattered across Yemen.
U.S. officials said the pace has accelerated even though there has not been a proliferation in the number of plots, or evidence of a significantly expanded migration of militants to join AQAP.

That is, we seem to have lowered the bar to targeting, based on general threats to US personnel in Yemen, not any increase in operatives joining AQAP for operations targeting the US.

Remember when, in April, I noted that by putting more “trainers” in Yemen, we were effectively providing more Americans that AQAP and insurgents could target? Well, it seems to have worked. And this Reuters story–which I’ll get to in a moment–puts the number of “military advisors” at “several hundred,” which is higher than other estimates I’ve seen.

Curiously, Miller’s story separates his discussion of the approval of signature strikes from the discussion of this expanded targeting. Equally curiously, he chooses to focus on the targeting of Kaid and Nabil al-Dhahab–he calls them members of the “al-Qaeda insurgency” rather than the killing of up to eight civilians in Jaar; that is, he focuses on killings pursuant to a liberalized Kill List rather than signature srtikes. Finally, Miller makes no mention of the centralization of targeting–such as it still exists–within the White House.

Which brings me to the Reuters article. On Twitter (in this tweet and following), Gregory Johnsen refuted a number of points it makes: that Saleh had refused to leave, that protests had ended, that promises for humanitarian funding made by the Friends of Yemen can be taken seriously, and that the US has any kind of strategy in Yemen.

Given those problems, perhaps all of it should be dismissed. But I’m rather interested in the focus on the Houthis and Saudi interests.

The aim, foreign powers say, is to help the Yemeni government stand on its own feet and avoid the country becoming a Somalia-style failed state.

That means not just ousting AQAP from territory it seized last year in southern Yemen but also tackling a separate northern Shi’ite tribal revolt. There is also an urgent need to address other longer-term problems including widespread corruption and growing food and water shortages.

For Yemen and its Saudi neighbors in particular, the northern uprising is seen as at least as much of a concern. Allegations it might in part be backed by Iran have attracted some U.S. attention, but conclusive evidence has proved largely elusive.

Experts say there is little or no sign of AQAP involvement in the northern revolt, with the largely Sunni militant group periodically attacking Shi’ite leaders in some of their bloodiest attacks so far.

Miller’s article makes it clear that the definition of “American interest abroad” has been vastly expanded. The oil-producing regions of the Persian Gulf have been included in our formal definition of US vital interests since 1980. So it is really not even an expansion of definition to include “what Saudi Arabia wants” in our treatment of what national interests might justify US presence (including, Greg Miller confirms what two other sources have already reported, manned planes).

Sure, by placing more targets to be attacked in Yemen, by having the Saudis create another UndieBomb plot (given that–as US officials admit–“there has not been a proliferation in the number of plots,” the Saudis had to provide their own), we have “US interests” to point to to justify entering a war to shore up Yemen’s unpopular government. But at some point, they’re just serving as cover.

29 replies
  1. ondelette says:

    Are you sure?

    Have you been following events in Mali as an example of what kind of shit can hit the fan?

    Do you know what the pledge about humanitarian assistance for Yemen is about? Do you know that 44% of the Yemeni population is at serious food risk? that 1 million children are in GAM? That there are about 5 or 6 different conflicts there and there is really a serious threat that the whole country will, in fact, become like Somalia, whether or not the ham-handed approach the USG is taking is the right one or not? That assessment is shared by other organizations that are totally independent and not aligned with either the USG or the Saudis.

  2. ondelette says:


    Take a look at Nick Kristof’s piece today in the NYT. I’m sure you think it’s radical warmongering, after all, he’s practically yelling for intervention in Sudan. But the reason you should take a look at it is you should put yourself in the shoes of some other people, for once. And then step back and decide — what do you think should be done? You love writing up a storm yelling about war crimes. Right in the Nick Kristof piece there’s a real life war crime detailed plain and simple. Not a broad, vague one that has to be argued with nits and picks and subtle references to opinio juris and customary this and that, a very simple one. Go ahead and pick it out. But hey, monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to spoil the game.

  3. MadDog says:

    Regarding the “several hundred military advisors”, I’m guessing that they include a mix of US military (JSOC and regular military), the Brits, and PMCs.

    With the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, and gradual drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan beginning, all those PMC mercenary companies have likely been scouting around places like Yemen for further employment.

    One of the likely reasons that Erik Prince moved his HQ to Abu Dhabi was to escape scrutiny from US busybodies. A contract from someone like the Saudis to provide trainers and intel cells to Yemen would now fly completely under US busybody radar (i.e. Congress and/or US MSM).

    Given the Saudis’ proclivity in purchasing services rather than doing the work themselves, I wouldn’t be surprised if Erik Prince is scoring some Yemen mercenary petrodollars from them.

  4. Michael Murry says:

    Correction: the term “American interest” means “what the Apartheid Zionist Entity wants and also what the Saudis want.”

  5. emptywheel says:

    @Michael Murry: Actually no. Israel has no interest in Yemen, and their interests in keeping Mubarak in power weren’t enough to rule the day. Furthermore, we have thus far refused to let Israel attack Iran itself, but we have done a lot of horrible things to enable the Saudis to fight Shias in Bahrain and Yemen and elsewhere. In fact, you gotta think about whether the Israelis are really comfortable with us allowing the Saudis to arm the Sunni extremists in Syria–the inevitable Blowback there will be on Israel’s border, upriver from Israel.

    Yes, we do what the Israelis want (though Mitt would cater to them more). But right now, the Saudis are more successful making demands than the Israelis. Of course, the Israelis aren’t propping up our currency, the Saudis are.

  6. scribe says:

    @emptywheel: I was going to say, EW, that the answer to the question posed by the title of this post is something along the lines of “as soon as we admit we’re the Saudis’ bitches because they can set the tune on oil prices [and, as you note, do suport our currency].”

    In other words, we’ll do their bidding but continue to indulge the delusion that we’re sort of in control of the relationship with them. WE lost that battle in 1973.

    Also of note: you must be throwing some shots that are scoring in the WH b/c all of a sudden you’re attracting trolls trying to hijack the thread into a discussion of the Wisdom of Nicholas Kristof and the shit hitting the fan in Mali. Well done, EW.

  7. P J Evans says:

    Someone who’s ‘helping you’ but not in any way that’s actually helpful to you. (Like having a child help you make cookies, or someone who’s giving you suggestions that only make things worse.)

  8. MadDog says:

    @P J Evans: So was it a typo? Did you instead mean Helpy?

    I was googling Hlepy and couldn’t find anything other than somebody’s eastern European name.

  9. P J Evans says:

    Example of hlepiness. More on hlepiness here in several successive comments.

    It’s a really useful term. The GOP’s statements about the economy and how important they think jobs are are hlepy, if you’re not in a job that pays enough to live on.

  10. Robert Johnson says:

    @MadDog: #3

    A Look At The Largest Private Armies In The World

    Business is booming for Private Military Contractors (PMC), who take their military training and offer it to the highest bidder, and business is likely to grow even more.

    Modern-day mercenaries are stationed throughout the world fighting conflicts for governments that are reluctant to use their own troops or where foreign troops are unable or unwilling to go.

  11. Frank33 says:


    Right in the Nick Kristof piece there’s a real life war crime detailed plain and simple. Not a broad, vague one that has to be argued with nits and picks and subtle references to opinio juris and customary this and that, a very simple one.

    What War Crime is a nitty “broad vague one”? The Signature Strikes are obvious war crimes, and terror weapons, as were the early versions V1 and V2’s during 1944 and 1945.

    The continuing military occupations of Irak and Afghanistan are ongoing war crimes. The secrecy of The Long Wars are because the torture, assassinations and lies cannot be justified. This President has blood, and more blood every day on his hands, and he loves it. This man is not a humanitarian. He is a baby killer.

    The US Government has a policy of Whole-of-Government. There is no longer consideration of anything other than how it helps the warmongers continue the wars. If there is profit in Mali or Sudan, then Peter Peterson will start a war there.

    I myself have to worry about my own precarious survival and I do not want ANY of my tax money to go to phony wars cooked up by Samantha Sunstein.

  12. ondelette says:

    @P J Evans and @scribe. Actually neither. Just pointing out that the drive to extract promises of humanitarian aid from the “Friends of Yemen” may be separate from the U.S. and other Saudi interests in Yemen. A 6 relief agency all points went out a couple of days before that drive calling on all potential donor nations about the famine situation looming in Yemen, and urging that whatever else nations had for opinions or motives there that they separate those from their decisions to donate aid and that all parties not interfere with aid from this point onward. That bulletin cited the figures I put up: 44% (10 million) of the population in starvation, 267,000 children in SAM, ~980,000 total in GAM (SAM = severe acute malnutrition, GAM = global acute malnutrition).

    If you are following what is happening in Mali, or more properly, in the Sahel, since right now the region comprises Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia, there are almost 1 million children headed towards GAM, 18 M people at risk, and the interplay between the Tuareg rebels and two other groups, Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Magreb, is causing an exodus straight into the region where there is no food or water. That’s what I was referring to.

    You, scribe, are an idiot if you think I was bringing up some kind of smokescreen. I was telling the other idiot that just because the words ‘Saudi’ and ‘humanitarian aid’ are linked and are linked in time to whatever is going on with political or military aims with the USG in Yemen, doesn’t mean that there isn’t another crisis and the Saudis could not have been approached for aid and could not have donated to it. Sometimes things are complicated.

    I will remind this forum again: 1 million people died in the Horn of Africa last Spring, Summer, and Fall. Look up from counting your drone casualties once in a while. The death toll from global warming is upon us, and it happens simultaneously to your little intrigues. And turning a tin ear to it, or pretending that you can wash your hands of it because you can Noam Chomsky up a causality back in the 1950’s some time or an oil relationship you think might work to make it not your fault, doesn’t excuse the fact that you ignored a lot of dying to chirp about something else. That’s all.

    So maybe the donations were because people were starving. Dumbass. Not everybody would need another motive like you would.

  13. ondelette says:

    @P J Evans:
    Like I said, P J, You’re just plain wrong. You want to cast yourself as a super knowledgeable person who can look down with disdain at someone who tries to point out something to you that you can’t quite grasp using an expression that you define as being like a small child baking cookies? Good luck. People who do shit like that aren’t super knowledgeable, they’re smug and indifferent and not very well attuned to anything at all.

    There are very specific reasons why I chose exactly the specific humanitarian crises I chose from the very first comment I made today. If all you could get out of it was that it wasn’t on topic enough for you to understand what it had to do with your GRAND MISSION of proving the duplicity of the great imperial power and saving the world, then you clearly aren’t very smart. The conflict that Nick Kristof was writing about is so very clearly the reverse of what people here like to blithely jaw about with their superior theories that it makes a very good example of what’s wrong with the thinking here.

    Instead of being a conflict that has an ulterior motive of blood for oil as is so frequently alleged here for just about everything? That’s the surface conflict there. But not the real one — the pastoralists in South Sudan said this would happen — called it by 6 months — if the Misserai’s grazing rights were ignored by the negotiators. So it isn’t about oil, now is it? And you can’t get those things by staring at the Saudi donations or the CIA’s great game plans like tea leaves at the medium’s table.

    Instead of elaborate theories having to be nudged out of this name here connected to that document FOIA’d out there and I think I smell a waterboard over there and lots of arcane gee ain’t I smart look at my theory stuff? The Antonovs dropping bombs for the sole purpose of terrorizing civilians and keeping them from planting is a clear violation of API Article 51(2) and therefore a grave breach.

    But you don’t know that, do you? And you even know where Yida is, do you?

    Go ahead, keep calling others children. You aren’t worth what the world expends to keep feeding you until you start showing some compassion. And you haven’t really done that so far. So shove hlepy. You’ve no right to call anyone a child.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @ondelette: I’m curious. Would you like my response to you hijacking a thread again, using the same methods you always do, to be to 1) once again point out how you’ve misrepresented what I said, ignored what I’ve posted in the past, and based on that make accusations about my intent and/or knowledge? 2) issue another warning? 3) act to keep threads focused on discussion rather than serial disruption?

  15. ondelette says:


    I had no intention of “hijacking the thread”.

    I was commenting on your misbegotten belief that the Saudi’s — “Friends of Yemen”‘s humanitarian aid pledge was somehow nefarious. And as an aside, I wanted your comment on Nick Kristof’s column because in contrast to the machinations to come up with war crimes here, there was a very obvious war crime in it, and I wondered if you could find it.

    It’s a funny thing with some of you bloggers. You’re very careful to claim that you don’t ascribe motives. You saw that when Glenn claimed exactly that on praising Obama’s decision to state his views on gay marriage. But actually you do ascribe motives all the time. But you do it quite badly. Hence your belief that I intended to hijack your thread.

    If you’d responded to me, rationally, to my arguments, and to the fact that you are incorrect on the Saudi humanitarian aid because you didn’t know enough about it, perhaps the effect on the thread might have been different.

    Who knows? I don’t. What really hijacked your thread was a discussion of what kind of lower form of life I was, whether I was a troll — a paid operative of the Obama administration sent to disrupt your peace and quiet and keep you from discussing things for nefarious reasons — or someone with the emotions and intellect of a small child baking cookies.

    Perhaps the assumption that I was a person of normal intelligence and adult emotional integrity might have saved your thread, but your fans don’t appear capable of enduring seeing someone criticize you.

    So do whatever you please. The fact that your column requires ideological purity in the comment section seems to be the majority of your problem.

    For the record, though, if you just follow reliefweb, the service set up by OCHA to collect the output of all the relief organizations daily, you will stay informed of things like the bulletin that went out preceding the “Friends of Yemen” appeal and donation pledges. You’d have not missed the key feature that drones won’t be the most important emergent cause of death in Yemen this summer, supersleuth. It only takes one fatwah to make humanitarian aid for a famine into a purely religious issue called the zakat.

    Keep up the good work. I told you before that I came here because my anonymity became insecure elsewhere. I actually have to worry about that, unlike some people. So I’m never going to be able to stay one hundred percent on topic, or always agree with you, and I am going to say things which I either can not or will not cite to back myself up and on which I will state therefore without proof that I think people here are wrong. And if those people treat me like an idiot, I can and will use that term to refer to them, because if one side of the argument believes that it’s idiotic to think other that their own opinion, why should not the other?

    If all that works out to I can’t be here, it’s your choice.

  16. CTuttle says:

    Marcy, this completely affirms the House of Saud’s insidious sway…

    Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud

    …(T)he pair discussed a range of regional issues, according to Mr. Ban’s spokesperson.

    “The Secretary-General and the King discussed a wide range of regional developments, including Syria, Lebanon and Yemen,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

    “The Secretary-General thanked the King for Saudi Arabia’s support for Yemen’s transition process.”

    The spokesperson added that at their meeting in the city of Jeddah, the Secretary-General also thanked the King for his country’s support for the United Nations, in particular most recently for the UN Centre for Counter Terrorism (UNCCT).

    Mr. Ban arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, and attended the second meeting of the UNCCT’s Advisory Board the following day. The UNCCT was created in September 2010, with the support of the Government of Saudi Arabia, and seeks to support the implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006.

    While in Jeddah, the UN chief also met with other senior Saudi officials.

    In a meeting with the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Ali bin Ibrahim Al-Naimi, the topics of Sustainable Energy for All initiative, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) and Saudi Arabia’s energy strategy were discussed.

    Mr. Ban also met with the Secretary-General of the King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, Faisal Al-Muammar; and he visited the Islamic Development Bank, where he met its Acting President, Birama Sidibe.

  17. ondelette says:


    You apparently believe that it’s all or nothing, one side or the other. Which is about right for a cold warrior like you. Although I don’t post anymore at FDL, because of Jane Hamsher’s lack of respect for security, I do read there. And you, sir, are nothing if not a wonderful little Stalinista Mouthpiece for Russian TV. I haven’t had so many laughs since I stopped having to translate Cultural Revolution texts for class. You’ve some gaul acting like you’re uncovering anything at all.

    The situation in Yemen is very complicated, and there are lots of players. Not only that, there are direct appeals out to multiple players to openly and directly play multiple roles. It’s a necessity if we are going to avoid the sort of massive death that occurred in the Horn last summer. I tried to explain that to Marcy, but all that led to was her deciding to discuss whether or not to ban me.

    You, on the other hand, having at this point a track record over at the other site for dimwittedness on Syria when it comes to understanding a situation where there are lots of different players involved and many humanitarian players calling for space to operate amongst the violent ones, you don’t strike me as having a snowball’s chance in hell of figuring Yemen out.

  18. Frank33 says:

    “Stalinista”… That should be “Stalinist”. But I feel you have ignored me. How about this: You provide unsourced , uncited, claims, and you fail to include links. Similar to the
    Adminiostration, you have a “credibility gap”. Then you fling extravagant insults. This is becoming more frequent. Must be a trend, the failed Administration foreign policy, requires its remaining few defenders to go Full Metal Flame War, against critics.

    Also, your selective moralizing is becoming old.

  19. CTuttle says:

    @ondelette: You, on the other hand, having at this point a track record over at the other site for dimwittedness on Syria when it comes to understanding a situation where there are lots of different players involved and many humanitarian players calling for space to operate amongst the violent ones, you don’t strike me as having a snowball’s chance in hell of figuring Yemen out.

    Oh my…! ;-)

  20. ondelette says:

    @Frank33: I am not defending the Administration, in case you didn’t notice. And I will or will not cite as I see fit, cf. above. The material I stated is all easily available, if you haven’t read it, consider yourself underinformed.

  21. ondelette says:

    @CTuttle: Like I said, I don’t expect you to be able to understand. Start with the murder of Abd-al-Razzaq Jbeiro in Idlib and see if you can figure it out.

  22. ondelette says:

    @CTuttle: BTW, highlighting sentence fragments and trying to change the meaning thereby is known as quoting out of context. Stalinista.

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