by Kate Kizer and William D. Hartung
Yemen is in the midst of one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in modern times, and the United States and its allies in Saudi Arabia bear a large part of the responsibility. A resolution put forward by a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) aims to change that. If successful, it would finally end the role of U.S. personnel in enabling the Saudi war effort in Yemen unless authorized by Congress. The bipartisan initiative has put fear in the hearts of the House leadership, so much so that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is reportedly seeking to use an extraordinary, undemocratic maneuver to deny the measure a vote. Proponents of the resolution from both sides of the aisle are pushing back against Ryan’s underhanded move. The fate of the resolution will be decided in the next few days.
The U.S. role in the Saudi war effort is far from incidental. Without U.S. help with aerial refueling, the Royal Saudi Air Force could not maintain the scope and pace of its current bombing campaign in Yemen, which the United Nations has cited as the largest source of direct civilian casualties in the war. Just last month Amnesty International presented strong evidence that a U.S.-made bomb had killed 16 civilians, including seven children, in a strike on a civilian neighborhood in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. This follows on dozens of Saudi coalition strikes that have hit hospitals, marketplaces, and even a funeral, many of which have used U.S. weapons and likely U.S. jet fuel.
Aircraft from the Saudi led coalition have also targeted vital civilian infrastructure, including water and sewage treatment plants, roads, and port facilities. These attacks, along with a naval blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, have been the primary drivers of a crisis that has brought Yemen to the brink of famine. Meanwhile, a cholera outbreak has infected over 700,00 people, a number that will soon make it the world’s largest outbreak of the disease. The situation is so dire that UNICEF reports that every 10 minutes a Yemeni child dies from preventable causes. Both Saudi Arabia and the Houthi-led coalition it is fighting in Yemen have been singled out by a recent UN report for their responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of children in the conflict. The need to end the war, and the suffering is has caused, could not be more urgent. And ending the U.S. military role in the conflict is essential to ending the war.
Even as the Trump administration has doubled down on its support for the Saudi royal family and its ill-considered intervention in Yemen, a movement is growing in Congress to end U.S. involvement in the war. In addition to the co-sponsors of the legislation up for consideration this week, leading advocates of curbing U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen have included Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Sen. Dean Heller (D-NV), Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).
Congressional opposition to the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war in Yemen has increased dramatically in the past 18 months. Last spring, an effort by Rep. John Conyers to prohibit U.S. sales of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia garnered 40 Republican supporters and came within a handful of votes of passing in the House. Last fall, an initiative to block a sale of tanks to Saudi Arabia garnered 27 votes, a significant step forward considering that a year earlier it would have been unthinkable that a sale to Riyadh would draw significant opposition, much less a congressional vote. And this year, nearly half the Senate voted to block a sale of guided bombs to the Saudi regime.
As congressional opposition and civilian casualties mounted last year, the Obama administration began to rethink its role in the war, culminating in a decision late last year to suspend a sale of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia as a sign of displeasure with the Saudi coalition’s continued targeting of civilians.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump seems to have no reservations about backing his newfound friends in the Saudi regime to the hilt, beginning with a decision to unconditionally move ahead with the bomb sale that President Obama had put on hold, and continuing with a pledge to sell Riyadh up to $110 billion in weaponry in the years to come. As noted above, an unprecedented number of senators voted to block the bomb deal. Though much of the $110 billion pledge appears to be smoke and mirrors, the Trump administration has considered stepping up support for the disastrous Saudi-led intervention even more, despite the humanitarian consequences.
A strong vote in favor of the Khanna/Pocan/Massie/Jones bill would signal to the Saudi regime and its coalition partners that U.S. support for their devastating intervention in Yemen is not a blank check, and that political opposition to the U.S. role in supporting that war is accelerating. Such a signal should push Riyadh and Trump’s national security team to finally accept the reality that there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict. Only an end to the bombing and the blockade, combined with inclusive peace talks and engagement with all parties to the war, can bring lasting peace and security to that beleaguered nation.
William D. Hartung is the Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Photo: Protest against arms sales to Saudi Arabia, London, July 2016 (Campaign Against the Arms Trade via Flickr).