David Jamieson

David Jamieson

Scotland’s Bombs Over Yemen

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Scotland’s bombs are landing in the Middle East again. But this isn’t a case of history repeating. This time, the west is on the retreat. Where do Scots wish to stand, asks David Jamieson?

This article is a version of the regular Sunday Sermon. You can find all our free podcasts at Conter Radio.

On 5 January 2016, a little over eight years ago, a missile, partly constructed in Kelso in Scotland, slammed into the Sanaa chamber of commerce in Yemen’s capital city. There were, according to witnesses, no Houthi forces in the area, but dozens of civilian employees in the building. From the rubble, investigators identified pieces of a laser guided weapon, fired by the Saudis but using targeting technology from the quiet borders town.

This isn’t a story of death by commerce – we can’t hide behind the ‘merchants of death’ label. The destruction of Yemen, and the killing of hundreds of thousands of her people, has been British policy for many years.

The Saudi Arabian bombardment of Yemen from March 2015 was so closely entangled with British armament, training, technical and diplomatic support that some have dubbed it the ‘Anglo-Saudi’ war on Yemen. 6,300 British contractors were stationed in the Saudi war machine, as were more than 80 RAF staff. Liaison officers operated from the Saudi command centre, which chose targets in Yemen: among the wrecked schools, hospitals and the Sanaa chamber of commerce.

This went on for so many years, with such destructive consequences. And yet it seldom graced our television screens or newspapers. I doubt one in a hundred Scots knew just how implicated little Kelso was in the crimes in downtown Sanaa. I doubt very many more know the same Paveway laser guided bomb system – developed in Fife – has been used in Gaza.

Glenrothes – where Raytheon operates one of its most important plants has more to come for Yemen, with the renewed US-UK assault on that country. The UK Defence Journal – the arms industry magazine – hailed the plant’s new version of the Paveway weapon as “the bomb used to blast Houthi targets in Yemen”.

Not for the first time, Scotland enjoys a curiously global reach in this age of war. It will not be the last time either, and our civic and political leadership are determined to keep harrying foreign lands, in campaigns our people hear little about.

Scotland’s chicken-hawk-in-chief Stewart McDonald MP – always demanding wars he will never fight in – is gunning for Yemen. He is presented with a problem though. The SNP party line on Gaza is support for ceasefire, and the Houthi blockade of the Red Sea is a response to the carnage in the Palestinian enclave.

How to prove simultaneous loyalty to party and foreign policy establishment? By just talking nonsense: “I support a ceasefire in Gaza. I’ve called for it publicly, I voted for it in parliament and would do so again. But the Houthis are not attacking international shipping out of solidarity with Palestinians or to advance a ceasefire in Gaza. Do not conflate the two.”

This is a bizarre claim. It’s not contentious that Gaza is the immediate context for the Houthi embargo. Every mainstream news carrier, from the BBC to CNN, has made this apparently dangerous conflation.

But we should happily concede that the Houthis are political actors, who make complex calculations and judgements about their strategies. The Iran-backed ‘axis of resistance’ is not an alliance of noble savagery, or a chorus singing ‘Something Inside So Strong’.

It’s precisely the constriction of realism – the fact that state and non-state actors alike must balance their interests in every moment – that makes the Houthi’s actions so startling. They came to power in Sanaa, let us remember, as consequence – perhaps the last remaining artefact since the retreat of democracy in Tunisia – of the Arab Spring. The failures of the largest revolutionary movement of our times mean it has been forgotten quickly. But the mole of history has its ways. As a provisional hypothesis, we can propose that the Houthis fear a confrontation with the west in the Red Sea (and we know their Iranian sponsors do, given the reticence of Hezbollah in Lebanon). But they also need the support of the millions who have poured onto the streets of Yemen’s cities in solidarity.

What requires no speculation, is that the current historical juncture is throwing up some novel developments in international affairs. In this category we can place South Africa’s presentation to the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of violating the Genocide Convention.

There will be those who protest that the move is calculate to help a suffering ANC government in an election year, by recalling the heroic past of the anti-apartheid struggle. But as with the Houthis, this observation only shifts the locus of examination to the popular level. Why would working class people react positively to the move, and what does it suggest that governments are appealing for the sympathies of their populations at this point in history?

One could ask the same about other governments. The President of Namibia issued this statement in the wake of Germany’s defense of Israel against the genocide charges: “Namibia rejects Germany’s Support of the Genocidal Intent of the Racist Israeli State against Innocent Civilians in Gaza.

“On Namibian soil, Germany committed the first genocide of the 20th century in 1904-1908, in which tens of thousands of innocent Namibians died in the most inhumane and brutal conditions.”

Words like these, in a time of heightened tensions, gesture to the shifting balance of power in the world system. Months ago, the west was lecturing the ‘global south’ for refusing to cut ties with Russia. Now, western governments are in the stocks, taking pelters.

This is why I’m reluctant to accept the ‘nothing ever changes’ version of Middle East political commentary. Yes, the US just bombed Baghdad again, and that makes a pessimistic claim for cyclical history sound appealing. But the 2003 Iraq War was part of a ‘Project for a New American Century’. Today, we are witnessing war without a project. The US wants to pivot away from the region, but finds it cannot.

Historical pessimism has been the language of a certain type of huffy ‘decolonial’ politics, particularly on the US left. But its traditional home is the right. It’s not a surprise that against a world of disconcerting change, and the threat it implies to traditional order, they reach for the comfort of alleged stasis.

Here’s a call, from UnHerd political editor Tom McTague,  for Britain to embrace it’s new fight in Yemen: “…the cyclical nature of our national life did not start spinning with Tony Blair. It was 1839 when the East India Company first took Aden in today’s Yemen as a British base to protect shipping from the pirates then operating in the Red Sea, disrupting our trade to India. Sometimes you have to wonder whether anything ever changes.

“…here we are again, out of Europe and using our military power against the tribes of Yemen to protect our commercial interests…”

This sort of thing sounds convincing, until you realise that none of the categories fit. Britain isn’t establishing an empire with this bombing, but protecting the flanks of a US master beset by problems. And these aren’t arrant ‘Tribes’, but a gigantic para-state entity governing the lives of millions.

The rest of the article contains a lot of bellicosity about British military tradition and our genetic need to “project power”. But what I find interesting, is the scarcity of Tory MPs talking in these terms. Even David Cameron – he of the disastrous Libyan adventure – sounds cautious.

The West still has an overwhelming preponderance of military, economic and political power. It moves across the world like a vast glacier, holding down societies beneath. But it is begging to melt, and Scots need to decide where we stand.

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