Yemen has been devastated by civil war since forces loyal to Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi began clashing with allies of the Houthi rebels, forcing the government into exile and prompting a military intervention by neighboring Saudi Arabia in March 2015. More than 6,800 people have been killed in the conflict since March 2015, and another 35,000 individuals have been injured.
Up until last week, the United States' involvement has remained somewhat indirect — selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which may be using them to commit war crimes, and providing the Saudis with logistical support for their airstrikes (along with using drones to attack suspected terrorist targets in Yemen).
But on Wednesday, that changed. A U.S. Navy destroyer fired Tomahawk missiles directly at three radar sites controlled by the Houthi movement in coastal Yemen.
Did the U.S. just enter into a war with Yemen without anyone noticing?
Not exactly. The airstrikes are being billed by the American government as limited retaliation. Why? In the past week, missiles were fired twice from Houthi-controlled territory at U.S. warships in the Red Sea off the Saudi Arabian peninsula. (A third attempt reportedly occurred on Saturday, after the U.S. airstrikes.)
The U.S. attack comprised "limited self-defense strikes [that] were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation," according to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook.
The U.S. airstrikes mark a significant escalation of America's involvement in the bombing campaign against Yemen. And yet we've heard very little about them in the news — and almost nothing about the Yemeni conflict from our presidential candidates.
Where do the presidential candidates stand on this conflict?
Sadly, it's hard to say, and if the first two presidential debates are any indicator, we're not likely to get the answers, either. We've heard a lot about wall-building and Vladmir Putin, but the circus that this general election has become has left little room for substantive policy debate, leaving voters without much information about broad issues such as foreign policy.
Trump has said a lot of nothing about Yemen.
Trump touched on Yemen briefly on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" in January, but his rambling response left a lot to the imagination:
"I will say this about Iran, they’re looking to go into Saudi Arabia. They want the oil. They want the money. They want a lot of other things having to do ... . They took over Yemen. You look at that border with Yemen, between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. That is one big border, and they’re looking to do a number in Yemen, and I think they want it to go. That’s phase one, to go into Saudi Arabia, and, frankly, the Saudis don’t survive without us. And the question is, at what point do we get involved, and how much will Saudi Arabia pay us to save them?"
We've heard answers like this before from team Trump. Remember when the Republican presidential nominee suggested that the United States should not rush to the aid of our NATO allies unless they "fulfill their obligations to us" financially? In other words, his brief mention of Yemen earlier this year likely doesn't tell voters much at all about where he stands on the conflict.
Hillary Clinton's campaign has also remained mum on the issue.
Trumps' Democratic rival has also remained silent on recent events in Yemen. Leaked emails show Clinton campaign aides celebrating the sale of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia as "good news" earlier this year. But the candidate herself has said almost nothing beyond broad statements that we should "stick with our allies," which presumably includes the Saudis, despite their deadly bombing campaign against Yemen.
Hopefully, we'll hear something at the final presidential debate on Wednesday. But it's not likely.
At the second presidential debate on Oct. 9 — which occurred only one day after the deadliest attack in the Saudi campaign, a series of airstrikes on a funeral in Sanaa, Yemen, that killed more than 140 people — neither candidate was asked anything about Yemen or whether we should continue aiding Saudi Arabia.
The debate moderators have a chance to redeem this on Wednesday in Las Vegas. We'll see if the do — or if we hear more about claims that Clinton is taking drugs before the debates instead.