Manufacturing Dissent: Opposition to the war in Yemen in the face of Media Silence


Protesters are pictured holding signs in the SEC on Apr. 25, 2022. Chloe Courtney Bohl / The Tufts Daily
Protesters are pictured holding signs in the SEC on Apr. 25, 2022. Chloe Courtney Bohl / The Tufts Daily

By Brian Garvey

The US-Saudi war in Yemen entered its 8th year this past March. Despite the United Nations declaring it the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and some 400,000 civilians killed in the conflict, its victims and its perpetrators have remained largely absent from the headlines. This lack of coverage in the media makes the job of peace and antiwar activists twice as difficult. Before public opposition to a war can be channeled into effective advocacy, basic awareness of the war needs to be raised. Public education is always a key component in advocacy and activism, but with knowledge of the war in Yemen at such a low level the numbers needed to force policy change have been difficult to muster. In response Massachusetts Peace Action and allies are getting creative, picking our battles, and building support one activist and organization at a time.

First the problem must be examined. What accounts for the lack of coverage on the war in Yemen? While it isn’t unusual for foreign policy stories to be featured less prominently, that certainly isn’t always the case. The war in Ukraine is the biggest global media story of 2022 so far. So why are the victims of the war in Ukraine worthy of airtime while the victims of the war in Yemen are not?

The concept of worthy and unworthy victims is best explained in 1988’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. The authors posit that, “worthy victims will be featured prominently and dramatically, that they will be humanized, and that their victimization will receive the detail and context in story construction that will generate reader interest and sympathetic emotion. In contrast, unworthy victims will merit only slight detail, minimal humanization, and little context that will excite and enrage.” Part of a proposed propaganda model of the mainstream press, this concept is unfortunately alive and well. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made daily front page headlines in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and wall to wall, detailed, and sympathetic coverage on cable news. The war in Yemen, in contrast, has received very little attention.

Herman and Chomsky used several comparative case studies to show the hypocrisy of the Western media. The killings of civilians in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge were covered heavily while the atrocities committed in East Timor by Indonesia, a US ally, were not. The assassination and torture of religious figures in Latin America by US supported right wing death squads received very little attention, even when the victims were American nuns. In contrast the murder of a Catholic priest in communist Poland was extensively reported. The persecution of Kurdish minorities in the 1990’s by Turkey and Iraq were treated very differently by the US media, unsurprising considering Turkey is a member of NATO and Iraq was a leading antagonist.

Today’s glaring examples of unfair and unbalanced reporting are Yemen and Ukraine. The cases clearly show that humanization and repetition in reporting still matter a great deal in formulating public opinion. Detailed and emotional accounts of the suffering of the Ukrainian people have results. They are seen in the form of blue and yellow flags on highway overpasses, social media profiles, and the colors of corporate logos. Mainstream media still has the power to make people care and they exercise that power in service of the political and corporate establishment. But when the suffering conflicts with the interests of the political and corporate establishment the mainstream press is silent. As a result, the people simply don’t know. They don’t see photographs of the stick thin children of Yemen on the front page every day. They don’t hear that a Yemeni child is dying every 75 seconds. And they don’t know it’s American bombs creating this genocide.

The use of that term is worth a closer look. On April 12th President Biden used the term genocide to describe Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Despite the systematic starvation of the Yemeni people for years no significant US official has used the word genocide to describe Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. Biden’s Special Envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking even had the nerve to completely deny the existence of a blockade on Yemen, despite three-quarters of the population, an estimated 23.4 million people, being in need of lifesaving humanitarian aid, largely due to that blockade. How’s that for disinformation?

The current usage of the word genocide, which the United Nations defines as a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, is in keeping with the  propaganda model. Herman and Chomsky defined genocide as “an invidious word that officials apply readily to cases of victimization in (or committed by) enemy states, but rarely if ever to similar or worse cases of victimization by the United States itself or allied regimes.” When white, Christian, Ukrainians are killed by Russian bombs it’s genocide. When brown, Muslim, Yemenis are killed by American bombs, it’s not. 

The complete focus of the US government on the war in Ukraine is also having an effect on Yemen, as the wars are connected by economics. Sanctions on Russian oil have put a strain on the global supply, causing the US and its allies to look for offsets from the Middle East. Even before Russia’s late February invasion officials from the Biden Administration traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss a “collaborative approach to managing potential market pressures stemming from a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.” They also assured the Kingdom that “the United States is doing everything possible to support the territorial defense of both countries.” Conflict in Eastern Europe has given leverage to Mohammed Bin Salman and Mohammad Bin Zayed, de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE respectively. As a result “a war Biden promised to end is a war whose escalation he has materially abetted,” writes author Spencer Ackerman.

The war in Ukraine also puts a strain on the global food market. This is creating increased pressure on a country already facing the world’s most extreme food insecurity.  “Imports from Ukraine account for 31 percent of the wheat arriving in Yemen in the past three months – prices are suddenly seven times higher than they were in 2015,” according to the UN’s World Food Programme. “These harrowing figures confirm that we are on a countdown to catastrophe in Yemen and we are almost out of time to avoid it,” said David Beasley, the Executive Director of the WFP and former GOP Governor of South Carolina. 

Despite these obstacles to peace in Yemen, or even a broad basic understanding that there’s a war there that needs to be stopped, there is some positive recent news. Support is building for a new War Powers Resolution that if enacted would put a stop to US facilitation and halt the war. On February 7th Representatives Peter DeFazio and Pramila Jayapal announced their intention to reintroduce a WPR that will force a vote in Congress. In support of the initiative, 70 progressive organizations, including Peace Action, released a letter urging cosponsorship. With narrow margins in both chambers of Congress every member of the Democratic Party, all of whom voted for such a resolution during President Trump’s tenure, is needed to pass the bill. Two possible defectors are right here in Massachusetts. Representatives Seth Moulton and Stephen Lynch were one of only 11 members of the Democratic Party to vote against an initiative last September uses the same language as the forthcoming WPR, outlawing the US facilitation that keeps the Saudi Royal Air Force in the air, bombing Yemen.

Pressure from the opposition to the war in Yemen does seem to be having an effect. The long-time puppet leader of Yemen in exile (supported by Saudi Arabia and the US), President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been ousted and replaced with a Presidential Leadership Council. This is a major political shakeup. We are now in the middle of a truce between the warring parties in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition and Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthis). This truce, which has the potential of extending for another month, has brought the first pause in airstrikes since 2015, some fuel shipments into the port of Hodeidah, and limited flights into Sanaa airport.

Unfortunately, questions remain. The Yemen War Powers Resolution, which activists hoped would be introduced by late March, has been postponed as the US Congress has focused its attention on the Russo-Ukrainian War. The ouster of President Hadi is a meaningful change, but will the new Presidential Leadership Council seek an end to the war or stiffen resolve in an attempt to win? The recent shipments of food and fuel into Yemen, while welcome, are not nearly sufficient to address the need. The UN’s humanitarian team for Yemen recently said they need $4.3 billion dollars, mostly in the form of food and medicine, to address deteriorating conditions there. The source for that aid is unknown. Compare that figure to the $33 billion in aid to Ukraine, much of it in the form of lethal weaponry, that the US Congress is likely to approve in the coming weeks.

When the goal is to weaken an adversary of the United States like Russia, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently admitted on his trip to the Eastern Europe, the source of funds is limitless. Money is much more difficult to come by when little more than a tenth is needed to feed victims in Yemen, even harder to find when the victims are under attack from a US client kingdom in Saudi Arabia. The former comes with the added benefit of enriching defense contractors while the latter does not.

In their announcement of a forthcoming Yemen WPR Reps DeFazio and Jayapal stated that in its first year the Biden Administration, “provided over $1 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia, and the US continues to provide logistical support that is essential to the Saudi air force’s deadly bombings.” A large majority, nearly two-thirds of the sum, was spent on “$650 million in Raytheon air-to-air missiles,” produced by the Waltham, Massachusetts based arms manufacturer. This is particularly noteworthy considering that the current Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin served on Raytheon’s Board of Directors from 2016 until joining the Biden Administration. In response to questions from Senator Elizabeth Warren during his confirmation hearing, General Austin committed to recuse himself from any decisions involving Raytheon for 4 years. That the leader of the US Pentagon was not involved in decisions to sell almost ?  of a billion dollars to Saudi Arabia, a US ally accused of extensive war crimes, strains credulity. The public is to believe that the $800,000 to $1.7 million that Austin received on the way out the Raytheon door has no bearing on these decisions. Plausible deniability and a thin veneer of separation allows that revolving door between “defense” contractors and the Pentagon, revolving.

But resistance to the war industry is growing. Massachusetts’ own Raytheon Antiwar Campaign has found dozens of kindred organizations all across the country and joined with them to form a new coalition, the War Industry Resisters Network. That network is making its own media and recently collaborated on a week of action around Tax Day that generated over 30 events, protesting war companies, the financial institutions that back them, and members of Congress who take their money. In Boston the Raytheon Antiwar Campaign and allies marched through the Financial District, visiting some of the institutions that own the biggest weapons makers and polluters on the planet. Student groups are rising again to oppose war profiteers recruiting on their campuses.

The antiwar movement in America has much to contend with. The relative silence of the mainstream media about US wars, and proxy wars like Yemen, is one of the most difficult to solve. In 1988’s Manufacturing Consent Herman and Chomsky suggested creativity and a “do-it-yourself” approach as solutions, particularly the use of public-access programs and nonprofit radio and television stations. In 2022 activists have many more tools in our kit. The internet and social media, virtually unknown in 1988, provides us with endless opportunities to connect and inform. There’s no doubt, bringing the brutal war in Yemen and the indefensible US-Saudi-UAE alliance into the public consciousness, and then ending both, are arduous tasks. But peace activists will make use of every available avenue to do so for one simple reason: we have no other choice.

Brian Garvey is Assistant Director of Massachusetts Peace Action. He is also an active member of the Raytheon Antiwar Campaign.