Congress Poised to Move Forward with Bold Agenda on Yemen

A destroyed school in Yemen (Shutterstock)A destroyed school in Yemen (Shutterstock)

by Kate Kizer

Although the brutal assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi may have begun to recede from the American public consciousness, Washington has clearly not moved on. In fact, the new Democratic majority in the House is poised, in partnership with key Senate leaders, to advance a bold agenda to bring accountability to the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and finally reassert congressional oversight of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

In no place is congressional action more urgent than in Yemen, where approximately half of the population—nearly 14 million people—remain on the brink of starvation due to the war and the ensuing economic collapse in the country. Although congressional pressure caused the Trump administration to finally call for an end to the war last October and cut off U.S. refueling support in November, the United States remains intimately involved in the Saudi- and UAE-led military operations in the country.

The newly minted House Foreign Affairs Committee’s first priority was to follow up on the Senate’s unprecedented passage of the war powers resolution on Yemen last December that positively influenced ceasefire negotiations in Sweden. It did so by marking up Congressmen Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mark Pocan’s (D-WI) (along with 68 bipartisan colleagues) war powers resolution on Yemen. The committee reported the resolution favorably out of committee this week, and there may be a floor vote by the end of February.

Senators Sanders (I-VT), Lee (R-UT), and Murphy (D-CT) have also reintroduced their war powers resolution, setting up another Senate vote to send the legislation to the president’s desk. Should the resolution pass both chambers as it is likely to do, it will set up a confrontation with Trump. He will have to decide whether to listen to the will of Congress in asserting its constitutional authority over matters of war or side with the Saudi and Emirati governments, whose support his administration views as essential to pursuing its primary goal of military confrontation with Iran.

Even if Trump vetoes the war powers resolution, passage in both chambers of Congress will continue to signal much-needed pressure to the Saudi-led coalition that a political solution is the only acceptable resolution to this conflict. It will also indicate that U.S. support for their indefinite military adventurism, which relies on collective punishment of civilians, is not a blank check. Although the December ceasefire and confidence-building agreement made in Stockholm remains precarious, further congressional pressure can have a positive effect in support of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ shuttle diplomacy.

Should Trump decide to ignore the will of Congress, it will also provide the impetus Congress needs to take further action to limit U.S. military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen. A variety of legislative initiatives lie at Congress’ disposal and many have already been initiated.

Congressmen Ted Lieu (D-CA), Ted Yoho (R-FL), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) have introduced a stand-alone bill to permanently prohibit U.S. in-flight refueling to the Saudi-led coalition, thereby preventing the Pentagon from reversing its earlier decision to cut off this support. House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced legislation to punish Saudi Arabia for its murder of Jamal Khashoggi by ending all weapons sales and security cooperation with the country unless high-bar conditions are met. Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN) have reintroduced their Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which is a positive first step towards a comprehensive reformation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and U.S. policy in Yemen, and includes sanctions for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, a permanent end to refueling for the Yemen military coalition, and a nearly two-year suspension of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), an advocate for ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, can and should include many of these provisions in his base text for this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. He should also require a DoD Inspector General investigation into U.S. involvement in torture and other human rights abuses in UAE-run prisons in Yemen, and prevent U.S. complicity in foreign military partners’ human rights abuses by expanding the Department of Defense’s Leahy Law to apply to any advise, assist, accompany, or support activity undertaken by the U.S. military. Similarly, Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, should build on Senator Menendez’s continuing informal hold on further sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE by advancing legislation to permanently ban the sale of such weapons for a period of at least two years.

Following this week’s reporting that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are actively diverting U.S.-sold weapons to al-Qaeda-linked and hardline Salafist militias in Yemen—reportedly in violation of U.S. end-use agreements and in addition to their already documented cooperation with al-Qaeda in the country—it’s clear that Congress must place strong human rights conditions on the U.S. military relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Evidence continues to mount that their activities in Yemen not only violate international and U.S. domestic law, but also undermine U.S. national security interests by destabilizing the region and grossly violating U.S. values in the process.

Such congressional action can finally begin not only to reorient U.S. foreign policy from an ineffective and destructive military-first approach but also help bring the parties to the conflict in Yemen to the negotiating table to the find a political solution on which so many Yemeni lives depend. It’s encouraging that majorities in both chambers of Congress finally appear poised to act with this in mind.

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Kate Kizer

Kate Kizer is the Policy Director at Win Without War. She has nearly a decade of experience working on human rights, democratization, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Kate previously served as the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project and as U.S. Advocacy Officer for Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain. She has also held leadership roles in the private sector and on political campaigns. Kate received her B.A. in Middle Eastern & North African Studies from UCLA and her M.A. in Democracy & Governance from Georgetown University.

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2 Comments

  1. It’s hard to take them seriously when they just rebuked Trump for even talking about getting out of Syria and Afghanistan. Not that I don’t think it’s a good move, just that I’m cynical of people who fight for war one second and claim to be against the war in Yemen the next, but only of course After Trump already stopped refueling and after he pretty much forced them into agreeing to a ceasefire. A move at this time, while it would end the US involvement, might actually prolong the war, if it gives the Houthi encouragement.

    Then of course there is Venezuela and they all seem to be hoping Trump will do more, not less and pushing him towards action. So forgive me if I’m cynical of their true motives. The thought that they just don’t like Trump, is of course the obvious ulterior motive and more logical one at that.

    But I guess better late than never and I’m sure I’m only half right. At least some of these people must be more than just political stooges, looking to score cheap points or at least I would hope so. It would be nice to think this means a shift in foreign policy momentum in congress but forgive me if I don’t hold my breath waiting for congress to tie a presidents hand when it comes to war. They didn’t do a thing to stop Obama or Bush and so far they have only tied Trump’s hands when he’s tried to be diplomatic or when he’s tried to lift sanctions.

  2. Congress must assert its constitutional right to control the purse, not foreign policy. Seems as if the new Congress is by far more concerned with how to control Saudi Arabia, and its “behavior”, then determine US interest in Yemen — if any. Otherwise, it looks more like meddling, not constructive control of funds. And if possible, how can public be spared the refueling story, as there has never been anything to refuel mid-air between Saudi bases and targets in Yemen. If US desires to degrade Saudi relationship even further, this may coincide with Saudi interests as well. Short term satisfaction over prevailing over Trump, and uppity Saudi Arabia, may be wrong in the long run. And I am not sure that Kashoggi murder is the thing to pursue. Let the sleeping dogs lie. Saudi silence may be deceptive, not sign of weakness.

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