Acts of Empire: Barack Obama, the Destruction of Libya, and 21st-Century Slave Markets

During his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Barack Obama proclaimed that “only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.” In 2017, six years after the US-led NATO intervention in Libya, a CNN video exposed exactly what the US empire means when they talk about a just peace, as Obama had. In Tripoli, the Libyan capital, the CNN video revealed a 21st-century open-air slave market, where human beings were being bought and sold for as little as 400 dollars.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was the political leader of Libya from the overthrow of the post-colonial monarchy in 1969 until the NATO intervention in 2011. Evaluations differ as to Gaddafi’s role in opposing foreign imperialism. For the purposes of understanding the consequences of US imperialism in Libya, a few important historical facts are important to mention: the US and Europe opposed Gaddafi since he established Libya as an independent post-colonial state. Gaddafi earned the ire of the US and Europe by nationalizing the oil industry, confiscating the property of former Italian colonists, and stridently supporting Palestine. Libya suffered under US sanctions and diplomatic isolation from 1981 until 2003.

Gaddafi with Egyptian President Gamal Nasser in 1969

However, while Gaddafi was consistent in rhetorically opposing US and European imperialism, at the time of his government’s overthrow, he was, in the words of Horace Campbell, “playing footsie with the west”. Following the Iraq war, the Libyan government agreed to give up its chemical weapons and shut down its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and had been meeting with the EU and British government, even making overtures to the IMF and World Bank to encourage Western investment in Libya.

While Gaddafi was willing to work with US- and European-dominated institutions, he was a lifelong advocate of political unity between Arab and African nations. At the time of his overthrow, Gaddafi was promoting a renewed sense of African unity, working to strengthen the African Union, and proposing a new common African currency, backed by billions of dollars in reserves held by the Libyan government. Libya was also leading other North African nations in opposing AFRICOM, the US military command in Africa formed in 2008.

Established in the waning days of the Bush administration, AFRICOM was a major piece of the Obama imperial foreign policy, which sought to move troops out of the Middle East towards areas of increasing inter-imperialist competition with Russia and China, particularly in Southeast Asia and North Africa. The refusal of most North African governments to host US troops forced the AFRICOM headquarters to be opened in Germany. While opposing the deployment of US troops on African soil, the Gaddafi-helmed government had welcomed Chinese investment and personnel in Libya, precisely at the moment when US competition with China over influence in North Africa was heating up. By 2011, one-tenth of Libya’s oil was going to China, and 75 Chinese companies were doing 18 billion dollars worth of  business in Libya, mostly in oil and infrastructure, involving 36,000 Chinese laborers. Even though the Libyan government was willing to engage in economic and diplomatic negotiation with the US and EU, ultimately the Gaddafi government was standing in the way of the expansion of US imperialism in North Africa and doing business with its competitor.

In February 2011, the Arab Spring protest movement that began the previous year in Tunisia exploded in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, with a variety of political and social forces moving quickly from protest to armed conflict. This conflict gave Europe (particularly the UK and France) and the US the opportunity to overthrow the Gaddafi government by allying with the rebels and unleashing a seven-month NATO bombing campaign. The motley assortment of rebels included ex-government and military officials, forces loyal to the long deposed monarchy, and members of al-Qaeda. The NATO intervention allied with and unleashed terrifying violence against Libya’s minority Black population: in the town of al-Bayda, 50 sub-Saharan African migrants were burned alive. Approximately 40,000 residents of Tawergha, a historically Black town founded by former slaves, were forced to flee their homes.

The wreckage of a school bombed by NATO in August 2011 

By October of 2011, aided by ever-present NATO bombs and a supply of the best weapons the US could make, the rebels, organized as the National Transitional Council (NTC), had captured Tripoli. Before any Libyan could cast a single vote, the new government signed a military agreement with AFRICOM.

The overall toll of the conflict that led to the overthrow of Gaddafi was devastating. In addition to the lynching, torture, and forced expulsion of Black Libyans, the NATO campaign killed tens of thousands. The British government bragged that the bombing campaign had killed 35,000, and other investigators put the toll at 50,000. Bookending the operation was the extrajudicial murder of Gaddafi: after his capture by NTC forces, he was sodomized with a bayonet before being executed without so much as a trial. When then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was told about this war crime, she noxiously commented: “We came, we saw, he died.”

Since that time, Libya has not had a stable government, with various militias and foreign-backed groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS elements, fighting for influence and control of oil revenue. Journalist Patrick Cockburn has called this the ‘Somaliansation of Libya.’ Writing in 2014, Cockburn described the situation:

Without the rest of the world paying much attention, a civil war has been raging in western Libya since 13 July between the Libya Dawn coalition of militias, originally based in Misrata, and another militia group centered on Zintan. A largely separate civil war between the forces of retired General Khalifa Haftar and the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries is being fought out in Benghazi. Government has collapsed.

General Haftar is a telling example of the kinds of people the US/NATO intervention wound up putting in power. Haftar has connections with the C.I.A. going back decades and was among the anti-Gaddafi rebels backed by NATO. Now a warlord, Haftar has imposed Saudi-style repressive laws governing the movement of women in the wide swaths of eastern Libya that he controls. There, women under 60-years-old are banned from driving, and all women are banned from leaving the country without the presence of a male guardian.

A 2018 AFRICOM briefing lists 34 military outpost in Africa.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the horror of contemporary Libya more than the situation of migrants and refugees. Tens of thousands of African migrants (including many internally displaced Libyans), fleeing conflicts, climate change, and political and religious persecution, travel through Libya trying to seek refuge in Europe. According to a 2020 Amnesty International report, in their trek through Libya these migrants face “prolonged arbitrary detention and other unlawful deprivation of liberty, torture and other ill-treatment, unlawful killings, rape and other sexual violence, forced labour and exploitation at the hands of state and non-state actors in a climate of near-total impunity.”

The noble-sounding words of Barack Obama ring hollow in the face of the cruel reality of 21st-century slave markets. Migrants fleeing droughts and US-caused civil wars can now be sexually assaulted, tortured, or kidnapped and sold as slaves to the highest bidder on the streets of Tripoli. Anytime the rulers of the US promise peace, we should remind ourselves of what they did in Libya, overthrowing Gaddafi and arming and supporting vicious reactionaries willing to sign oil deals with US companies and allow the presence of AFRICOM. The catastrophe brought to Libya by US imperialism is a monumental crime, and a profound reason to resist and dismantle this empire.

Sources: Horace Campbell, Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya: Lessons for Africa in the Forging of African Unity (2013); Patrick Cockburn, The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East (2016); Amnesty International, Libya: ‘Between Life and Death’: Refugees and Migrants Trapped in Libya’s Cycle of Abuse; Black Alliance for Peace; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; CounterPunch; Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting; The Grayzone; The Guardian; Jacobin; Middle East Research and Information Project; Modern Ghana; NBC News; The Real News.


Acts of Empire: When US Cruise Missiles Destroyed a Sudanese Pharmaceutical Plant

The rubble of al-Shifa, from a 2005 picture

On August 28, 1998, a submarine in the Red Sea launched thirteen cruise missiles into a building in Khartoum, Sudan. Describing the destruction, the security guard on duty, Amin Muhamod, told a reporter: “The walls just disappeared. One moment I was lying down, listening to the sound of planes. The next, everything was smoke and fire. I didn’t know there were such weapons.” The building that Amin Muhamod was guarding was the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, one of only three pharmaceutical plants in Sudan at the time. Al-Shifa is the Arabic word for health. The missile strike was directly ordered by then US president Bill Clinton. 

Long before the missile strike, long before the al-Shifa plant was constructed, the US empire declared itself the ultimate arbiter of events in the Middle East and North Africa. The empire has put this principle in practice from the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian president Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 to the 2020 regime of sanctions, occupations, drone bombings, proxy wars, and puppet governments. No matter the cost in lives or the trampling on the sovereignty of the people, the US has sought to ensure its control over the smooth flow of oil and strategic trade routes in the region.

Despite major cultural and political differences, the leaderships of both US political parties have been committed to the principle of US military and political dominance over the Middle East and North Africa, as can be seen in the continued deployment of US troops and ships, numerous deadly military interventions, and the continued propping up of brutally repressive pro-US governments, particularly the Saudi monarchy. Bill Clinton, elected as a ‘forward looking’ Democrat, was no different in this regard. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Clinton believed in maintaining US imperial dominance through multilateral bodies like NATO and the United Nations where possible, but was fundamentally committed to the maintenance and expansion of the US empire even in the absence of international support. 

Throughout the 1980’s, the US armed, trained, and supported anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan, some of whom would go on to form the al-Qaeda network associated with Osama bin Laden. In 1998, decades of American meddling blew back in spectacular fashion when al-Qaeda associates detonated truck bombs outside of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, the vast majority Kenyan civilians. The destruction at the embassies and tragic loss of African lives didn’t provoke a rethinking of US intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, nor did the US attempt to pursue the perpetrators through international legal means, as called for by a unanimous UN resolution at the time. Instead, Bill Clinton unleashed a new round of terrorism on Sudan. 

With typical imperial arrogance, the US named its response ‘Operation Infinite Reach,’ launching cruise missiles at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and destroying the al-Shifa plant in Khartoum. At the time, US officials claimed that the plant was potentially financially linked to bin Laden and possibly producing materials that could be used to produce chemical weapons. None of this was true. Military historian and retired US army colonel Andrew Bacevich succinctly summarizes the whole operation:

Tomahawks [missiles] demolished the Al-Shifa plant, killing a night watchman and badly injuring a bystander. Yet a subsequent investigation conducted by American scientists cast serious doubts on U.S. claims of the plant being used for nefarious purposes. One thing only appeared certain: The wrecked facility was never going to produce the badly needed antibiotics and antimalarial drugs for which it had been designed.

While then Secretary of State Madeline Albright described the bombing as “the war of the future” and, seemingly without irony, denounced those “who believe that taking down innocent persons is some form of political expression,” it was immediately apparent that al-Shifa was simply a much-needed pharmaceutical factory. The first TV crews on the scene noted the ground covered with Aspirin pills, and it was quickly revealed that the owner of al-Shifa had no financial connections to bin Laden.

In 1999, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist James Risen revealed in the New York Times that at the time of the bombing, the US did not know who owned al-Shifa, and the supposed evidence of chemical weapons manufacturing was a single soil sample taken by the C.I.A. near al-Shifa, on land with a different owner, that had high levels of a substance used in the production of nerve gas. They had no evidence of financial ties between the al-Shifa plant and al-Qaeda because there was none. They had no evidence of anything other than pharmaceuticals being produced because there was nothing other than pharmaceuticals being produced. The British ambassador to Sudan was even present at a ceremony celebrating the plant’s opening. Risen reported that State Department officials had expressed doubt about the bin Laden connection before the bombing, and a State Department report being prepared after the bombing that would have exposed the lies was scuttled by Albright and never released. 

Medicine bottles in the rubble of al-Shifa

At the time of the bombing, al-Shifa was one of only three pharmaceutical plants in Sudan, which was in the midst of a civil war and under sanctions that restricted the importation of medicine. Al-Shifa was the only Sudanese pharmaceutical plant producing medicines that treated tuberculosis. It was the country’s major source of antimalarial drugs, and the only Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that produced veterinary drugs combating parasites in animals (Sudan was then and remains today a majority agrarian country). There is no official record of the death toll due to the halt in the production of crucial medicines. The United States prevented attempts by the UN to investigate the resulting death toll. The German Ambassador to Sudan suggested that tens of thousands of people died as a result of the strike. 

Whether Clinton and his top aides knew that al-Shifa was a pharmaceutical plant and ignored it or whether they were using shoddy intelligence to score political points (Clinton was in the midst of a scandal involving an extra-marital affair), in destroying the plant, the US acted with an astounding level of recklessness and cruelty, condemning a generation of Sudanese people to suffer and die from horrific and preventable diseases. Dr. Idris Eltayeb, then the chair of the al-Shifa board, compared the bombing to 9/11, saying that the missile attack on al-Shifa “was just as much an act of terrorism as at the Twin Towers—the only difference is we know who did it. I feel very sad about the loss of life there, but in terms of numbers, and the relative cost to a poor country, this was worse.”

Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016); William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World World 2 (1995); Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007); The Guardian; Jacobin; The New York Times; Slate; United Kingdom Parliament; United Nations


Acts of Empire: Bombs, War, and Occupation. US Empire and the Destruction of Iraq

2003: The US empire unleashes ‘shock and awe’ on Baghdad.

On March 19, 2003, Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, was rocked with thunderous explosions as Tomahawk cruise missiles launched by the US army rained down death and destruction on the oil-rich country. This was the beginning of the illegal invasion of Iraq, launched by the Bush Administration to “free its people” from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and bestow them with the gift of democracy.

The subsequent war and US occupation of Iraq brought sheer devastation and human suffering, killing 1 million Iraqis and displacing 3.7 million within the first 4 years. What was touted as a quick “twenty-first century” war fought with “smart” weapons has turned out to be an overdrawn nightmare for the whole region, destroying hundreds of thousands of human lives, dismantling basic political institutions and social infrastructure, and turning entire cities into rubble and smoke. Deployment of thousands of tons of munitions and fatal chemicals by the US has yielded environmental devastation, saturating the air, soil, and water with lead and mercury, which continue to gag, maim, and kill Iraqis. The horrors of the United States’ merciless destruction of Iraq over the past three decades from the Gulf War and sanctions to the invasion and occupation belong to some of the most vicious recent episodes of US imperialism’s blood-soaked track record.

In a much-remembered battle of 2004, the US-led coalition forces besieged the Iraqi town of Fallujah, an insurgents’ stronghold, and razed much of the city through intense shelling and airstrikes. They then bulldozed all the rubble to the banks of the Euphrates River, the city’s source of drinking water. While the US national media zealously cheered the marines’ heroism, hundreds of Iraqis were massacred, forcibly denied medical treatment, and bombarded with white phosphorus, an inflammable weapon that melts the human flesh down to the bone — all in gross violation of international law. The US military denied its use of white phosphorus on Iraqi civilians as a chemical weapon of war before being forced to admit it due to media exposure. An epidemic of birth defects erupted in Fallujah after the battle, as metals such as depleted uranium accumulate in the body tissue of those who are exposed to it and distort fetal development. According to Christopher Busby, the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, Fallujah displays “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population every studied.”

Indeed, all across Iraq, US bombings and the extensive use of depleted uranium have led to a dramatic spike in cancer (particularly among children), brain tumors, high rates of infant mortality, and an increase in miscarriages. Hundreds of babies are now born with severe congenital deformities — with one eye or two heads, paralysis, tumors, and grotesquely malformed bones which make impossible or extremely painful the functioning of bare life. These are some of the fruits of American empire’s world-historical fight for freedom and democracy. For many generations to come, the bodies of Iraqis will continue to bear witness to the viciousness of the US’s imperialist venture in Iraq.

Home to one of the earliest civilizations, Iraq has been subject to imperial conquest for most of its recent history. After the First World War, German and Ottoman colonies were divided up among the victors and Iraq was “awarded” to Britain, which suppressed popular revolts against its rule through air bombings. A puppet ruler was installed who gave away a huge concession for exploiting Iraq’s oil to the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) operated by Western oil companies (their profits from Iraq amounted to $322.9 million in 1963 alone).

In July 1958, the British-backed anti-communist monarchical regime was overthrown by the Free Officers’ Movement led by Abdel Karim Qasim, whose nationalist stance elicited threats of invasion from US and Britain. Qasim was overthrown in a coup led by the Ba’ath Party with help from the CIA, which paved the way for Saddam Hussein’s rise to power. In 1972, the IPC was nationalized; high oil revenues were invested in welfare expenditures, infrastructural projects, and improved living standards. In 1979, Hussein effectively became the leader of Iraq and continued to pursue a massive military build-up. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 transformed the balance of power in the whole region, ousting the US client regime of the Shah that was vital to US military dominance over the Persian Gulf. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 allowed US imperialism to recover its increasingly precarious hold over the region.

1983: Friendly meeting between Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld.

The US and its allies fully supported Iraq’s war against Iran (1980-1988), supplying Saddam Hussein with loans, helicopters, and chemical weapons to gas thousands of Kurds and Iranians. When the war ended, Hussein was left with a fledgling economy and expected Western powers and their client gulf states to help with Iraq’s reconstruction for his services against Iran. This help did not arrive, and so Hussein invaded Kuwait to seize control of its oil production, which provided just the pretext for the US to expand its military hold over Iraq. The US shot down all attempts at a diplomatic solution, admitting in fact that for US’s own strategic interests in the region, a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait would be a “nightmare scenario.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no restraint now on US’s relentless pursuit of global hegemony — for which direct control over Western Asian oil was necessary.

The result was the disastrous Gulf War (1990-1991), precursor to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. A US-led aerial bombing campaign, the most brutal since Vietnam, dropped 84,200 tons of bombs in 43 days of war, frequently in heavily populated residential areas and other harmless sites, while the US military consistently lied to the public about its bombing raids being “surgical strikes” aimed at purely military targets. More than 15,000 Iraqi civilians died directly due to allied bombing and between 100,000 and 200,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed — thousands set on fire with incendiary napalm bombs never broadcast on US televisions and thousands buried alive as US tanks equipped with bulldozers rolled over trenches holding ill-fed and ill-equipped Iraqi soldiers. Moreover, the US-led alliance carried out a systematic and deliberate destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, targeting water and sanitation facilities, communication and electricity generation. In the characteristic American tradition of historical amnesia and fake news, the US today shamelessly blames Iraqis for the ongoing social crisis, denying its own role in the criminal ravaging of the country.

The genocidal sanctions slapped onto Iraq after the war for the subsequent thirteen years (1990-2003) ensured the impossibility of post-war reconstruction, strangling and massively shrinking Iraq’s economy. Under the sanctions, Iraq was barred from exploiting its oil reserves. The US prevented the import of items needed to restore medical facilities, water supply, electric power, and sanitation. Children perished from exposure to depleted uranium, deployed by the US for the first time during the Gulf War, as medical treatment supplies were blocked from entering Iraq. A 1997 UNICEF report placed the overall toll from the sanctions to be at 1.2 million human lives, prompting even the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, to resign in protest against the sanctions, which he termed deliberate “genocide.”

In 1996, when asked if killing half a million Iraqi children through economic sanctions was worthwhile, the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied: “we think the price is worth it.”

Thus, the decision to occupy Iraq had been in the making for many years before 9/11, which the Bush administration bizarrely linked to Saddam Hussein. While the real motives for the war have to do with Iraq’s vast oil reserves and establishing US hegemony in the Middle East, a massive fear-mongering propaganda campaign was orchestrated to sell the war to the American public as one for the protection of Iraqis and Americans from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. On multiple occasions, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell brazenly and falsely declared to the public that the CIA knew of Iraqi sites storing chemical and biological weapons. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by Joe Biden, whipped up complete lies about Saddam Hussein’s links with Al-Qaeda and pushed for war.

A whole web of lies churned out by the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon was willingly amplified and recycled by the American media. The most privatized war in US history up until that point, the Iraq war sent more than a hundred billion dollars of taxpayer money into the coffers of private contractors in charge of maintenance, training, mercenary, and other operations. Further, the state took the opportunity offered by post-9/11 jingoistic hysteria to implement an unprecedented expansion of mass-surveillance, particularly targeting Arab and Muslim communities, and propelled racist war-mongering and Islamophobia.

Within Iraq, US-led forces toppled the central Iraqi government within the first three weeks. By actively exacerbating divisions between Shiites and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, the US succeeded in prompting a civil war that has ravaged the country and balkanized the region. The US occupiers disbanded the existing Iraqi army and police and banned senior ruling party Ba’ath members from employment, leading to mass insurgencies that quickly got out of US control and directly created ISIS. The American scheme to exercise its hold over Iraq — aided by its client states in the Middle East — has led to tremendous destabilization in the vast region stretching from South Asia to North Africa, spawning fundamentalist terrorist groups, creating the conditions for regional proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and paving the way for the US’s permanent military presence in the region. In the process, thousands upon thousands of people have been uprooted from their homes, creating a catastrophic refugee crisis. US troops have also paid a heavy price: more than 5,000 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 17 years, and an even greater number of American veterans — more than 8,000 — have committed suicide during this time.

The post-invasion regime the US installed consisted of Iraqi exiles flown into Iraq on the heels of the US-led invasion. This new government was to be built on a neoliberal agenda in defiance of popular resistance against privatization. State management of oil and gas was to be replaced with an open door for multinational corporations to exploit Iraq’s resources, which would ensure that profits from oil exports lead to no public investment in the reconstruction and well-being of the popular classes, but instead enrich the Iraqi elite and multinational companies.

2020: Iraqi protest against continued occupation by US troops.

Iraqis continue to resist the sustained efforts by foreign players to keep the people of Iraq from exercising sovereignty over their natural resources and their economy. While the Trump administration promised to bring the troops home, several thousand American troops are still stationed in Iraq, and the US continues its efforts to grab as much Iraqi oil as possible.

The neo-conservative clique in George W. Bush’s administration played an important role in prompting the invasion of Iraq, but the war in Iraq must not be reduced to the policy decisions of one presidential administration. Instead, it needs to be seen in light of the broader history of American empire, which has resorted to more and more brutal means of asserting its hegemony in recent decades amidst the general conditions of neoliberal global financialization as a response to economic stagnation since the 1970s, declining US hegemony, and a renewed global scramble for control over natural resources. Particularly since the Second World War, American empire, like the preceding colonial empires, has sought to ward off every attempt by peripheral countries to pursue autonomous development or to even secure a better deal for themselves under imperialist domination, keeping them firmly locked into dependence. Imperialist wars of destruction de-industrialize and de-develop; they uproot people, dismantle social infrastructure, and preclude subject states from exercising political and economic sovereignty and pursuing policies oriented to the well-being of popular classes; and they empower regional comprador classes that pursue austerity under the decree of international financial institutions, producing poverty and unemployment. These are indeed some of the ways in which Iraqis continue to endure enormous suffering engendered directly or indirectly by US imperialist wrath.


John Bellamy Foster, Naked Imperialism: The U.S. Pursuit of Global Dominance (2006); Gabriel Kolko, Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1980 (1988); Greg Muttitt, Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (2012);; Climate and Capitalism; The Guardian; Institute for Policy Studies; Monthly Review; National Post; New York Times; Research Unit for Political Economy; Viewpoint Magazine


Acts of Empire: Yemen’s Hell on Earth- Made in the USA

Destroyed house in the south of Sana’a, December 2015

In May 2020, UNICEF reported: “Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people – some 80 per cent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children. Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, the country has become a living hell for the country’s children.” This hell on earth has been caused by a deadly and devastating bombing campaign and the resulting destruction of civilian infrastructure. The political and military leadership of this heinous war has come from Saudi Arabia, but the war on Yemen would not be possible without arms and political support from the United States.

Yemen is a country on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula with a history of human habitation going as far back as 5000 BCE. Yemen was divided into a northern and southern region by various colonial powers, including the Ottoman and British empires, and emerged from colonialism as two sovereign states until their unification in 1990. Yemen was an early target of the so-called war on terror: US special forces landed in Yemen in 2002, and since then the US has carried out at least 336 drone strikes in Yemen. In 2011, the Obama administration authorized a drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen. His 16-year-old son was killed the next month in a drone strike while seeking out information on his father.

The Saudi-US war on Yemen began in 2015, after northern Yemeni rebels known as the Houthis seized the capital city of Sana’a. While the internal and external power relations within Yemen are complicated, it’s clear that from day one that the Saudi war had nothing to do with ensuring democracy in Yemen or the interests of the Yemeni people. Instead, the devastation unleashed on Yemen is about ensuring that the Saudi monarchy (a leading US ally and exporter of oil) can maintain its hegemonic role in the region against perceived threats from Iran. For the US empire, the war on Yemen is crucial to preserving the hegemony of the Saudi regime and maintaining access to the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb strait (where 6.2 million barrels of oil pass through each day), particularly as China built its first overseas military base across the strait in Djibouti in 2016. 

Since 2015, Yemen has been blockaded by air, water, and land. The blockade, in conjunction with the aerial bombardment, is responsible for the humanitarian disaster unleashed on the Yemeni people. The raw number of deaths in Yemen is staggering: over 100,000 people have been killed in the bombings themselves. At least another 100,000 people have starved to death. The destruction of infrastructure has been so complete that Yemen suffers from the worst cholera outbreak in modern times (cholera is caused by human feces contaminating drinking water). In addition to cholera, the people of Yemen suffer from polio, H1N1, and dengue fever, and are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of the lack of sanitation and medical facilities.

Before the blockade and bombing, Yemen was considered the poorest country in the region. It is now on track to become the poorest country in the whole world by 2022. The war has been particularly cruel to the children of Yemen: 2 million children under 5 are malnourished, and an estimated 12 million are in need of humanitarian relief. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the stunning brutality towards the children of Yemen than the August 9, 2018 school bus bombing: 40 boys between the ages of 6 and 11 were massacred when a Saudi warplane dropped a US-made bomb on their school bus. 

While ostensibly carried out by a coalition headed by the Saudi monarchy, the devastation and destruction of Yemen, the slaughter of children, and the return of long-eradicated diseases would not be possible without the political and military support of the United States. After carrying out hundreds of drone strikes in Yemen, the Obama administration politically and militarily supported the Saudi bombing campaign and blockade from its initiation in 2015 all the way through the end of Obama’s tenure (without ever seeking authorization from the US Congress), even as it became clear that the intervention was a murderous disaster. A full year and half into the war, Obama facilitated a $115 billion dollar arms and training deal to Saudi Arabia.

2018 protest against the war on Yemen. The Lockheed Martin bomb to was used in the bombing of the school bus.

From 2015 until 2018, the US went so far as to refuel Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) planes in mid-air, directly facilitating the criminal bombing campaign. The Trump government did not end that program until they were forced to make some cosmetic changes in the wake of the brutal murder and dismemberment of Jamel Kashoogi by Saudi assassins (and after Saudi Arabia developed mid-air refueling technology on its own). Trump himself, while occasionally claiming to oppose permanent war, facilitated and boasted about his own $110 billion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia and vetoed a 2019 War Powers Act resolution to end US support for the war on Yemen. For all the personality differences between Obama and Trump, they have both steadfastly participated in the devastation in Yemen and in ensuring the steady flow of arms to the Saudi monarchy that uses them to dismember children. 

A Yemeni child standing in the rubble of destroyed buildings in the southwestern city of Lahj, 2018.

For decades, the US empire has staked a claim to the Middle East and North Africa, maintaining its global dominance through control of the strategically crucial trade routes and oil production. In the wake of the devastation and strategic failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the US has turned to a strategy of militarily supporting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel in a desperate attempt to remain hegemonic in the Middle East and prevent Russia and Iran from gaining more influence. The simple fact is, whatever policy divergences the US and the Saudi-led coalition might have, they are waging this murderous war together, in service of continued US dominance of the region. While the Saudis are carrying out the slaughter, the US is training and equipping their troops, assisting with targeting, maintaining the aircraft, and even assisting the ground war with special forces on the border. In its desperate attempt to maintain global hegemony and keep control of a strategically important region, the US empire has created a living hell for the people of Yemen. 

During two radically different presidential administrations, the US empire has made everyone who lives in the United States complicit with the towering crimes committed in Yemen: from the devastation of a cholera outbreak; to the bombing of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, school buses, and coronavirus quarantine sites; to the mass displacement of millions of people; to the starvation of hundreds of thousands. These outrageous atrocities will continue to be perpetrated on the people of Yemen, and on people all around the world, until people in the US refuse to be complicit with, resist, and stop the US war machine. 

Sources: Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2013); Shireen Al-Adeimi:; United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); World Health Organization (WHO); Al Jazeera; In These Times; Reuters; The Bureau of Investigative Journalists; The Guardian; The Intercept.

In Yemen with a population of 30 million:

  • 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line
  • 20 million people are food insecure
  • 10 million people are on the verge of starvation 
  • 17.8 million lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation 
  • 3.65 million people have been displaced
  • 70 hospitals and health facilities have been bombed 
  • 1,500 schools have been damaged or destroyed 

(Statistics current as of September, 2020)


Acts of Empire: The 2009 US Military Coup in Honduras and its Disastrous Effects

Graffiti against the coup in Tegucigalpa, 2009

In 2017 and 2018, US President Donald Trump and his allies on Fox news and other reactionary media whipped up a racist and jingoistic campaign of demonization and fear-mongering about groups of Central American migrants traveling together towards the US border. While Trump, whipping up his voter base before the congressional elections, spread outrageous conspiracies, the reality was much simpler: thousands of individuals and families fleeing political repression, deadly crime waves, and ecological crises in Central America decided it was safer to travel together in large groups, rather than take the risky and potentially deadly journey alone. This migrant exodus, colloquially referred to as the migrant caravan, had members from various countries in Central America, but the largest proportion came from Honduras. While the roots of Honduran poverty and US imperialism in Honduras go back more than a century, much of the current crisis driving migration has its origin in the 2009 coup, which would not have been possible without the United States.

As of 2018 statistics, Honduras is a country of approximately 9.5 million people, with 48.6% of the population living under the poverty line, extreme rates of income inequality, and one of the highest murder rates in the world. Since the early twentieth century, US military and commercial interests have dominated the country; the expression “banana republic” was coined to describe countries like Hondorus, where the government served as little more than an extension of the United Fruit Company and other US commercial interests. To support US-friendly governments, the American military intervened in Honduras on seven separate occasions between 1903-1925. This period of constant intervention cemented the ruling alliance between the commercial and landholding elite of Hondorun society and US Imperialism that has dominated Honduras through today.

While coffee and palm have replaced the banana industry, the basic “banana republic” structure remained in place throughout the twentieth century and into the early 2000’s, resulting in high rates of poverty, increasing emmigration, and an economy increasingly based on remittances from Hondoruans in the US. When Manuel Zelaya was elected president in 2006, he was very much part of that elite, being the son of a wealthy businessman and having had interests in the logging and timber industries. As president, however, Zelaya upset the traditional ruling class and its US backers by pushing an agenda of mild reform; the Zelaya government lowered interest rates, increased subsidies to small farmers, and expanded public education. Alongside those domestic reforms, the Zelaya government made a symbolic move away from US domination by joining the ALBA alliance of Latin American countries founded by Cuba and Venezuela under the leadership of Hugo Chavez.

Although the proposed reforms were limited in scope, they were enough to upset the elite and trigger a coup d’etat against Zelaya. On June 18, 2009, Zelaya was deposed by the military. They disarmed the guards outside of his home, arrested him in his pajamas, put him on a military helicopter, and eventually flew him to Costa Rica. Officially, Zelaya was accused of having defied a Supreme Court order, but the the judicial and military coup plotters denied any due process, didn’t let Zelaya defend himself before the National Congress, and justified the coup by presenting a forged resignation letter and appointing the right-wing politician Roberto Micheletti as president.

The coup was met with international condemnation and protests in the streets. The coup government instituted a weeks-long curfew, suspended constitutional protections, and shut down TV stations. A Jesuit-run radio station was pulled off the air at gunpoint, and the ambassadors from Nicarauga, Cuba, and Venezuela were detained and beaten by the Hondorunan military. Protests against the coup were violently repressed. On July 5, 2009, Zelaya attempted to return to the country; his plane was prevented from landing, and one of his supporters—a 19-year-old—was shot in the head by security forces. In the intervening days, union leaders, campesino organizers, and members of opposition parties were assassinated.

While carried out by the Hondouran military, the coup had deep roots in the United States and wouldn’t have been possible without US backing. The removal of a democratically elected president by the military, a textbook coup, is supposed to trigger a suspension of US military and foreign policy aid. In the case of Honduras, the Obama administration refused to do so, despite admitting that it was a coup.

In the days immediately following the coup, Obama himself said: “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there,” and the US embassy in Honduras (as revealed by WikiLeaks) cabled that “there is no doubt” that the events of June 28 “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.” The State Department, then headed by Hillary Clinton, refused to declare a coup, backed the repressive government, and endorsed the widely discredited elections that were held under the coup regime. They even pressured international institutions to resume issuing loans and ensuring that US corporations had access to cheap natural materials and could continue building export processing zones, unfettered by reform or protest. The role of Hillary Clinton was particularly odious; in the first edition of her memoir, Hard Choices, she openly mentions that her goal was to prevent the return of Zelaya to power, a sentence she removed from the paperback edition when she was preparing to run for President in 2016.

In addition to the State Department’s support for the coup, there is the possibility that elements within the US military knew about and potentially even participated in the removal of Zelaya. There are longstanding and historic ties between the Hondoruan and US military, beyond the repeated interventions of the early twenitieth century. Hondorus served as a staging ground for the 1954 US intervention in Guatemala and US support for the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980’s, and the military plane that brought Zelaya out of the country refueled at a joint Honduras-US military base. Most damningly, four of the six military officials who carried out the coup were trained at the notorious US military School of the Americas (SOA). Now called the The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the SOA is notorious for having trained the enforcers of many vicious far-right US backed regimes in Latin America.

Speaking about the connection between the SOA and the Hondoruan coup, Father Roy Bourgois, the founder of protest group School of the Americas Watch, has said: 

“Well, first of all, we’re not surprised, you know, that there’s a connection to the School of the Americas, now called WHINSEC. This school is well known in Latin America as a school of coups, a school of dictators, a school of torture. There is a direct connection, which we expected. The two main players in this coup in Honduras that ousted President Zelaya are two generals, well-known graduates of the school: General Romero Vasquez, who’s the commander-in-chief, the head of the military, not only a graduate, a two-time graduate; and, of course, also General Luis Suazo, a graduate of the school in 1996, who’s the head of the air force. This school is well known in Latin America, again, as a school of coups. Whenever there is a massacre, cases of torture, human rights abuses, we have been able to document a direct connection to this school. This school has trained over 60,000 soldiers from fifteen countries in Latin America in combat skills, all paid for, I must say, by the US taxpayers.”

The decade following the coup has seen even further immiseration of the Hondoruan people. Poverty rates increased as US corporations set up low-wage sweat-shops called maquilas, displaced small landholders for palm plantations, and increased environmental devastation with massive hydroelectric dams, revealing the true motivations behind the coup—to make sure that Honduras was “Open for Business,” as the coup government declared. The government has made this clear by continuing to privatize government services and natural resources and slash wages and benefits. The privatization of services, crumbling of the public sector, and low-wage jobs all contributed to a rise in the informal economy and sky high murder rates—in 2012, Honduras averaged 20 murders per day.

2018 protests against US backed President Juan Orlando Hernandez

The Hondoruan people have mounted courageous resistance to these outrageous conditions, staging militant protests to current president Juan Orlando Hernandez and his re-election. Hernandez’s re-election was widely considered fraudulent, as the vote count was stopped multiple times, each time leading to an increase in votes for Hernandez. Protests against the fraudulent election were met with violent repression, including the murder of protesters and the disappearance and torture of protest leaders. The Hernandez government has overseen what Univision calls a “Pandora’s box of corruption” and has known links to narco-trafficking. Hernandez’s own brother has been indicted for drug trafficking.

Berta Zúñiga Cáceres (the daughter of Berta Cáceres) speaking at a 2016 rally

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the climate of repression better than the murder of Berta Cáceres. An internationally recognized Indigenous environmental activist, Cáceres was leading a years-long struggle against a hydro-electric dam and was murdered by representatives hired by the electric company. Prior to her death, Cáceres was known as a fierce representative of the resilience of the Honduran people, particularly women and Indigenous militants, and in her death became a symbol of the climate of impunity brought by the coup. Before her assassination, Cáceres said:

“We’re coming out of a coup that we can’t put behind us. We can’t reverse it. It just kept going. And after, there was the issue of the elections. The same Hillary Clinton, in her book, Hard Choices, practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of North Americans in our country. The return of the president, Mel Zelaya, became a secondary issue. There were going to be elections in Honduras. And here, she, Clinton, recognized that they didn’t permit Mel Zelaya’s return to the presidency. There were going to be elections. And the international community—officials, the government, the grand majority—accepted this, even though we warned this was going to be very dangerous and that it would permit a barbarity, not only in Honduras but in the rest of the continent. And we’ve been witnesses to this.”


Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America (1971); Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night (2018); Nina Lakhani, Who Killed Berta Cáceres (2020);; Democracy Now; The Guardian; The Intercept; Jacobin; New York Times; Univision