The United States Senate took a significant step in withdrawing U.S. military support for the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen and advanced debate on a war powers resolution by a vote of 63-37.
The vote discharged the resolution on withdrawing U.S. military support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was a key obstacle when Senators Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee attempted to bring this resolution up for debate about eight months ago.
“Let me thank all of the people at the grassroots level throughout our country, who helped us today with a major vote on the path toward ending U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen,” Sanders said after the vote.
Sanders also declared, “For the first time, the U.S. Senate voted to advance a resolution withdrawing U.S. armed forces from an unauthorized and unconstitutional war.”
“The situation in Yemen now is the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. Eighty-five thousand children have already starved to death and millions more are on the brink of starvation.”
“All of which was caused by Saudi intervention in the civil war in Yemen,” Sanders added. “Instead of being part of the killing in Yemen, we have got to do everything we can to bring peace to that country and humanitarian aid so that we stop this horrific humanitarian disaster.”
A clear catalyst for the vote was the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by men with ties to the Saudi government. The Saudi citizen and American resident was tortured and killed inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was then dismembered with a bone saw.
Remarkably, eleven Republican senators voted for the motion, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker, who back in March was livid that Sanders and Lee would force the Senate to debate whether the U.S. should be militarily involved with Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis attempted to persuade senators to vote against the war powers resolution by holding a classified briefing for senators on the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that belittled senators for their concerns about Saudi Arabia’s role in murdering Khashoggi and the government’s war crimes in Yemen.
“The Trump administration’s effort to rebuild the Saudi Arabia relationship isn’t popular in the salons of Washington, where politicians of both parties have long used the Kingdom’s human rights recird to call for the alliance’s downgrading,” Pompeo suggested.
Pompeo continued, “The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on, but degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies.”
Senator Chris Murphy, who has been a vocal supporter of efforts to end U.S. support, dismantled several arguments in Pompeo’s op-ed.
Pompeo believes the U.S. cannot withdraw its support without emboldening Iran and giving the country an opportunity to seize greater control in the region.
“That exhibits a third grade understanding of the Middle East,” Murphy said. “The Middle East is not a zero sum game between the Saudis and the Iranians. Every time [we] do something that is potentially disadvantageous to the Saudis, it doesn’t result in an equal-sized benefit to the Iranians.”
As he pointed out, the civil war has made al Qaida and Islamic State militants stronger in Yemen.
The Trump administration says negotiations next month between the Saudis and Houthis would be hurt if the resolution is passed.
Murphy contended passing the resolution would show the Saudis that support is not “unconditional.” It would also show the Houthis that there is “some line on war crimes that they cross that is too far,” which will help the Houthis see the U.S. as a country that can broker an end to the war.
Pompeo, as well as the Defense Department, consistently claim the humanitarian catastrophe would be worse if the U.S. was not a participant in the war.
“How could it be worse? How is that a justification? 85,000 children under the age of five have died of starvation and disease. 22 million people in the country, three-quarters of the population, cannot live without humanitarian assistance. The world’s worst cholera epidemic in the history of the world is happening right now inside that country,” Murphy stated.
“Why? Because the Saudis have been deliberately hitting the water treatment facilities. I’m not making this up. I’m not making this up. They’ve been targeting the water treatment facilities, so you can’t get clean water, so people get cholera.”
To Pompeo’s argument that it would hurt the U.S. in its fight against al Qaida and ISIS in the Middle East, Murphy was very clear that there is an exception in the war powers resolution. It does not remove authority from Trump.
“The administration and the prior administration, the Obama administration, have expanded the 9/11 AUMF to cover ISIS as well. So nothing in this resolution hurts our ability to go after al Qaida and ISIS inside Yemen. All of those operations can continue even if this were to pass and become law,” Murphy insisted.
Murphy emphasized how al Qaida has grown in strength and the Islamic State now has a foothold in Yemen that it did not have prior to the war.
“They are stronger today than they were three years ago, because once again, like we did in Iraq for ten years, like we’re doing in Syria, we are giving just enough help to the Saudis to keep the civil war going without actually ever being willing to give enough force so as to be dispositive on the ground.”
“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Murphy declared. “In the vacuum that is created by that civil war, especially in the vast, ungovernable portions of Yemen, al Qaida takes advantage. ISIS continues to grow.”
On one hand, the faction of senators that helped advance the war powers resolution could be seen as responsible for prolonging U.S. military involvement and allowing the immense humanitarian catastrophe to persist with no decisive action. Imagine if they had stood strongly against the war in Yemen back in March. But without their votes, the Senate would not be closer to a momentous vote that could ultimately force U.S. military withdrawal.
In March, Senator Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, was a leader of this bipartisan group, which maintained the resolution from Sanders and Lee needed to be marked up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He thought it would fail to achieve its intended objective simply because Trump would issue a veto.
The administration also takes the stance that the U.S. is not engaged in “active hostilities,” even though the U.S. military helps the Saudis with intelligence used to identify targets for bombing. Young suggested the administration would simply disregard the resolution.
Young advocated for having Pompeo certify that Saudi Arabia was taking “urgent steps” to end the war. If Pompeo could not make these certification, mid-air refueling of Saudi aircraft by the U.S. military would be discontinued. This policy measure was included in the national defense bill that was signed into law.
As Young said on the Senate floor, Pompeo’s certifications contradicted what has unfolded in Yemen, and yet the U.S. military did not stop refueling when it became clear Saudi Arabia was not taking “urgent steps” to end the conflict. So, Young changed his position.
“With 14 million people on the verge of starvation in Yemen and things getting worse by the day, there’s no time to lose,” Young declared. “I believe the Senate must speak clearly that we expect all parties—all parties to the civil war—to come urgently to the negotiating table to end the civil war.” He added, “There’s no way we’re going to make any real or sustainable progress in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis unless we end the civil war.”
Along with Khashoggi’s murder, and the administration’s response to it, the unconditional support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal attacks in Yemen—against schools, hospitals, water treatment plants, and other infrastructure, as well as the spreading famine—likely moved senators to take a rare stand.
There are no votes currently scheduled, but in order for the resolution to pass in the Senate, it has to come up for a vote through a motion to proceed with a vote on the resolution. It could then be voted on by the full Senate.
Regardless of what happens next, the 63-37 vote represented an incredible departure from business as usual in the Senate.
Activists have spent the last few years trying to force elected officials to exercise oversight over the war in Yemen. Every attempt failed, with politicians funded by the defense industry choosing to ensure the carnage was prolonged. It now seems politics have shifted dramatically, and the backlash to Saudi Arabia may have ignited a chain of events that could lead to a turn toward peace.