Supporting a Deadly Quagmire in Yemen

Bottom Line Up Front

  • As U.S-supported Saudi air strikes continue to kill Yemeni civilians, a bill to end that support remains stuck in the Senate.
  • In April, President Trump vetoed a different bill passed by both chambers aimed at ending U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, something Trump declared Congressional overreach.
  • The Trump administration remains highly reluctant to pressure Riyadh, even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and their war crimes in Yemen.
  • Authoritarian regimes pay attention to how Washington operates in the Middle East and interpret this as a ‘green light’ to pursue heavy-handed approaches to counterterrorism in their own countries.

The transactional approach to foreign policy that has come to define the Trump administration is evident in Washington’s relationship with Riyadh. For the U.S., the relationship with Saudi Arabia is based primarily upon three issues: arms sales, countering Iran, and maintaining oil supplies and low prices while trying to eliminate Iranian oil exports. Of primary concern to the administration is that Riyadh continues to spend billions of dollars on U.S. arms and weapons. There is little concern about how those weapons are used. The U.S. has long been the world’s largest arms dealer and has a history of selling weapons to despots and democracies alike. The U.S. continues to sell arms, weapons, and munitions to Saudi Arabia despite numerous human rights abuses and atrocities in Yemen. The administration argues that the war is crucial to rolling back Iranian influence, even though the war has achieved the exact opposite outcome to date.

In April, for the first time since the War Powers Act was passed in 1973, both houses of Congress passed a War Powers resolution that called for the end of U.S. support for the Saudi- and U.A.E.-led war in Yemen. President Trump then vetoed the bill, saying it was ‘an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.’ Congressional and international pressure to curtail American support for the war in Yemen has been mounting for several years, with the U.N. saying such support was essentially aiding and abetting war crimes. The issue became even more acute after the blatant murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which showed the increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. administration, as opposed to many in Congress and the intelligence community, publicly sided with the Saudi royal family.

Trump’s veto of the War Powers Resolution is not the end of U.S. Congressional efforts to bring accountability to Riyadh for both the war in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi. In a time of hyper-partisanship and political dysfunction, the two issues have achieved broad bipartisan support. A bill currently stuck in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is sponsored by Democratic Senator Menendez and Republican Senators Graham, Young, and Collins. The bill calls for an end to all arms transfers to Saudi Arabia until that country stops its bombing campaign. It also calls for a full investigation into the murder of Khashoggi and mandates additional sanctions on anyone found culpable. The chairman of the committee, Senator Risch, has not yet allowed the bill to come up for a committee vote, however.

As that bill remains stalled, the war in Yemen, a war enabled by U.S. weapons and logistical and intelligence support, continues unabated – and Yemenis continue to die. The U.S. has argued that its intelligence support is vital to keeping the level of collateral damage from being much higher, a claim repeated after every high-profile strike that kills and maims innocent civilians, including children attending school and patients in hospitals. This reality, juxtaposed to the rhetoric of human rights traditionally associated with American presidents, highlights a hypocrisy not lost on allies and adversaries alike. Authoritarian regimes pay close attention to how Washington operates in the Middle East and interpret this as a ‘green light’ to pursue heavy-handed and draconian approaches to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in their own countries.

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