Last week, before Michael Cohen and the collapse of U.S.-North Korea talks in Hanoi, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that a House resolution cutting off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen would not have “privileged” status in the Senate, due to unrelated language that had been inserted at the 11th hour.
This means that the measure’s supporters are unable to force a vote and pass it with a simple majority. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) plan to reintroduce a resolution similar to one they sponsored (with Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut) last year, and hopefully it will be voted on this week.
But the delay means that U.S. involvement in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, threatens millions more, and undermines American security and values, will continue.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has previously tried to block efforts at ending American involvement in foreign wars, and it is reasonable, therefore, to suspect that he was behind this latest move. But he’s hardly the first GOP leader to employ such methods. Outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) similarly blocked a vote in the House after the Senate passed the Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution late last year.
Such parliamentary shenanigans shield the Saudi Kingdom from official sanction. They also allow their enablers in Washington to dodge accountability, and enable individual members of Congress to avoid taking a public stand that defies the wishes of a solid majority of their constituents. A poll last November, for example, revealed that 75 percent of Americans oppose U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition in the war and 82 percent believe Congress should reduce or end arms sales.
The public is equally skeptical of the United States’ close ties to Saudi Arabia. The U.S.–Saudi relationship has always conflicted with Americans’ stated commitment to democracy and human rights. Indeed, on numerous occasions Riyadh has demanded that the U.S. government alter its policies to conform with or accommodate blatantly repressive and discriminatory practices, though not often successfully.
The Saudis’ behavior outside the Kingdom has been problematic, too. Going back at least to the mid-1950s, the United States has become involved in various regional disputes to assuage Saudi fears, tip the balance away from one of Riyadh’s rivals, or generally affirm the U.S. government’s commitment to protecting the monarchy from internal or external challengers. Many of these actions ended badly. The ongoing war in Yemen, however, may be the worst of all.
The civil war began during the Arab Spring in 2011. Longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh, an American ally, stepped down under mounting public pressure. His deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, struggled to maintain control. Houthi rebels took control of most of the country during the chaos and forced Hadi into exile.
Sunni Arab states, however, worried that Iran would aid the Houthis and sow additional chaos. These states, led by Saudi Arabia, formed a coalition to conduct airstrikes against the Houthis, backed by the UK, France, and the United States. The coalition claimed the campaign would last a mere few weeks but has continued virtually nonstop since 2015. Over 60,000 people have been killed.
Meanwhile, famine has reached catastrophic levels, leading to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. An estimated 24 million of Yemen’s 28 million people need some form of assistance. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States have all pledged to help, but some aid workers say what they offered was too little, too late. Mohamed Abdi, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said, “While billions are spent on bombs and weapons bringing death and destruction, much less is made available to save lives of Yemeni civilians.”
To be sure, there is plenty of blame to go around. The Houthis have also blocked humanitarian efforts, and even kidnapped humanitarian workers. But U.S. support, including arms and intelligence, has enabled the Saudis to ignore international calls to stop the fighting and enter negotiations to bring about a permanent resolution.
By continuing to sell weapons that the Kingdom employs to perpetrate acts that objective observers characterize as war crimes, the Trump administration has signaled its utter disregard for the sanctity of human life. Instead, the president boasts that U.S. defense contractors’ coffers will be filled with hundreds of billions of dollars. Experts patiently explain the actual amount of money that will flow to U.S. firms is far less, with only a tiny fraction reaching American workers.
There are still other reasons to doubt that the arms sales fueling the war advance U.S. interests Recent reports show the Saudis and Emiratis have violated the terms of past arms agreement by using American-made weapons to buy loyalty from militias in Yemen, including al Qaeda-affiliated groups. The Saudis have tried to cover up using American-made bombs to target civilians, including an attack on a school bus last August that killed 44 children, some as young as six years old. And Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has blatantly lied about his role in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
This pattern of deceit should cause any reasonable person to doubt the Saudis’ claims that their campaign of violence is aimed solely at bringing the Houthis to the negotiating table. But if the Saudis are truly committed to playing the role of hero in this gut-wrenching saga, they must halt the fighting, and make a public plea for the Houthis to do the same. So far, they have refused.
They are confident, it seems, that a few powerful people in Washington have their backs. Moves to block any meaningful pressure have almost certainly encouraged MBS and the rest of the regime to continue along their present course. The legislative legerdemain that we have witnessed will likely result in a continuation of the war, and the needless deaths of thousands, if not millions. And the American people are left to wonder how, exactly, this humanitarian catastrophe serves America’s interests.
Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of the upcoming book, Peace, War and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy (April 2019).