Since the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, one thing has become clear: under Donald Trump, the US is not on the cusp of realigning its relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, that hasn’t stopped Congress from putting its own marker down on the matter, providing some with hope that change, albeit slow, is coming. For observers of the war in Yemen and the US-Saudi alliance, Congress’ newly asserted voice is both a long time coming and still surprising — it is the culmination of dogged oversight work on Yemen by a handful of members of Congress; pressure from the American public, NGOs, and the international community; and an expression of exasperation over the Trump administration’s handling of the murder of Khashoggi. For the people of Yemen, it’s both a hopeful sign and a long overdue step.
Indeed, last week, 63 Senators (all 49 Democrats and 14 Republicans) voted to rebuke Trump’s Saudi policy. Specifically, the Senate voted on a measure sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to ensure debate on withdrawing US military involvement in the brutal and relentless Saudi and UAE-led intervention in Yemen. This week, the Senate is again expected to take up — and pass — this bill (S.J.Res.54). Though immediate next steps for Yemen and US foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia are unclear, the vote is likely a sign of things to come.
WHY THE US SUPPORTS THE SAUDI-LED COALITION
For three years, the United States has supported the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, but the roots of that support go back decades. Since the end of World War II, the United States and Saudi Arabia have been aligned, in part, based on a bargain whereby the United States provided Saudi Arabia external security guarantees in exchange for stable oil prices. Despite its dubious and perhaps even harmful value to US interests — especially in 2018 – the arrangement has long guided the national security establishment’s thinking. It was a key reason that in 2015 the Obama administration backed Saudi Arabia’s newly anointed Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS, in his decision to intervene in Yemen’s civil war in order to reinstall a Saudi-friendly Yemeni ruler. Since then, the US has provided the coalition essential military assistance in the form of aerial refueling, intelligence sharing, and target selection. While by the end of his administration, Obama was attempting to condition support to the coalition, Donald Trump’s election and the administration’s immediate courtship of Saudi Arabia ended any pretense that support would be in doubt. Even as the coalition’s bombings of civilians and blockade have made the humanitarian situation in Yemen increasingly dire, Donald Trump’s administration has seldom flinched.
CONGRESS’ ROLE IN THE CONFLICT
Congress was slow to respond to the executive branch’s unilateral action in Yemen. Still, even in the early days of the coalition’s intervention, some Members took steps to sound the alarm. In the Senate, notably in 2016 and 2017, Senators Chris Murphy and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) twice attempted to end US offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, coming very close the second time. Then in March of 2018, Senators Sanders, Lee, and Murphy teamed up for the first time to force a vote to end all US military support under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which provides Congress the power to remove unauthorized US forces from hostilities within 30 days of a resolutions’ passage. At the time, 44 Senators (39 Democrats and 5 Republicans) took a significant step in voting against ending debate. Sponsors of the bill made clear that they would try again.
The House of Representatives has also contributed to raising the profile of the conflict. After unrelenting pressure by a core group of Representatives, led by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) as well as several Republicans, ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition has unquestionably become the House Democratic Caucus’ position, such that we should expect to see action early in 2019 when Democrats take the majority. In fact, the House has shown consistent bipartisan interest in ending unauthorized US military support in Yemen, but outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan has blocked any meaningful legislation from being voted on on the House floor.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YEMEN AND THE US-SAUDI ALLIANCE
Make no mistake, the Senate’s overwhelming support for the Sanders-Lee-Murphy legislation is cause to believe that change may be on the horizon, as is signaling by powerful Senate and House Republican appropriators that they are willing to cut off or suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. There is growing international outrage over MBS’s brazen disregard for human rights, international norms, and the sanctity of human life. Trump’s unyielding support has also raised important questions about what the president and his allies stand to financially gain by protecting MBS. Congressional action is, of course, important but insufficient to stop Yemenis’ continued suffering, with much of the population facing famine, disease, and death from the warring parties’ crossfire. Yet as the basis for the US-Saudi alliance grows weaker, we should expect Congress to step in in ways it has been unwilling to in the past. Gradually, with the new Congress and as the 2020 election season ramps up, this could lead to a real shift in US policy toward Saudi Arabia.
Erica Fein is the advocacy director at Win Without War, a diverse network of national organizations working for progressive foreign policy in America. You can follow Erica on Twitter @enfein.