by Eric Eikenberry
Soon after a Saudi-led coalition strike on a bus killed 40 children on August 9, a CENTCOM spokesperson stated to Vox, “We may never know if the munition [used] was one that the U.S. sold to them.” This feigned ignorance is particularly fatiguing. CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel professed the same know-nothingness in March when he told Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that CENTCOM cannot track whether coalition missions burning US fuel and firing US munitions are responsible for strikes against civilians.
Congressional offices are expressing a certain weariness of their own with these evasions. On August 14, Warren published a letter to the general asking him to clarify the discrepancy between his sworn testimony and recent reporting from Iona Craig and Shuaib Almosawa in The Intercept. Craig and Almosawa revealed that the United States has, at least once, conducted an assessment of a coalition airstrike that targeted civilians with a U.S.-manufactured precision-guided munition. Warren’s questions are numerous, and their subtext is unmistakable: if you misled me during the hearing, what else have you been misleading Congress about?
Warren’s letter is another sign of escalating tension between Congress and the administration concerning U.S. support for coalition war crimes in Yemen. For now, high-profile legislative challenges and unprecedented anti-war legislation have given way to a barrage of public letters and statements against the conflict, as offices opposed to the intervention seek to build their sizable minorities into majorities. These statements are gaining traction among increasingly conservative, and even hawkish, members of Congress. The administration is meeting this opposition with belligerence and a further emphasis on unconditional U.S. support for the coalition. This tension could soon build to a needed congressional repudiation of U.S. military engagement in Yemen’s civil war, the one action that may finally force coalition members to curtail their civilian targeting and redress violations of international humanitarian law.
Despite Secretary of Defense Mattis’s protestations, members of Congress are treating the United States as if it were a belligerent in Yemen. On the same day that Warren released her letter to Votel, a group of House democrats, including centrist leaders such as Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), published a letter demanding that the Department of Defense conduct a briefing to satisfy their own unanswered questions. Before that, Bob Menendez (D-NJ), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and no dove, announced that he was opposing any sale of precision-guided munitions to the coalition. And before that, a bipartisan collection of SFRC Senators, led by conservative chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and including Todd Young (R-IN), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jerry Moran (R-KS), publicly opposed U.S. support for the coalition’s planned offensive against the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah. These letters, combined with a series of tweets and statements condemning coalition international humanitarian law violations and threatening the introduction of new legislation to curtail U.S. support, make clear that U.S. engagement in Yemen has generated congressional ire like few of America’s shadow interventions over the last 17 years.
In response, officials have been cool to criticism and resistant to transparency, as demonstrated by their reaction to the most recent massacre. The attack didn’t merit mention in the readout of an August 13 phone call between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert chafed at reporters’ questions about potential U.S. complicity before making tepid noises about the coalition investigating its own crimes. Mattis stated that he has “dispatched a three-star general into Riyadh to look into what happened,” as if the lone-sheriff mode of investigation worked in anything other than the television programming of his youth.
Most revealing, however, was the signing statement that President Trump released alongside the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019. Buried within the sprawling, incoherent legislation that funds America’s sprawling, incoherent military bureaucracy was Section 1290, a modest but welcome proposal that survived bipartisan wrangling. The provision would end U.S. refueling support to coalition air raids if Pompeo cannot periodically certify that the coalition is making a good faith effort to engage with the UN-led negotiations and taking steps to ease humanitarian access and minimize civilian casualties.
With a different administration, 1290 would have been the kind of face-saving compromise that gives the president a domestic rationale to tell his Saudi and Emirati allies that it’s time to, at the very least, stop hitting school buses, or the United States will have to withdraw support. Meanwhile, 1290’s generously worded certification requirements and national security waiver would have allowed the administration time and space to extricate itself from the conflict quietly. This administration, however, can’t abide this bit of inter-branch comity, with the president writing that 1290 would encompass “only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief”—in other words, I don’t have to and may not even try.
The trashing of this offered compromise, more than General Votel’s sin of omission, may force Congress’s hand in unpredictable ways. Though some will shrink from confrontation, the administration’s refusal to submit even a certification will push others to back up the rhetorical commitments they’re making now. Having demonstrated that the administration will not accept the moderate option, a resolution to block the next major arms sale to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, or another attempted war powers resolution, could bound over the 51 vote threshold in the Senate. In the House, curtailing U.S. engagement in Yemen’s conflict is low-hanging fruit for a potential democratic majority next January, as party leadership, averse to its left flank’s domestic agenda, may try to mollify progressives with anti-war actions.
At that point, although a presidential veto could save the coalition the fuel and munitions it needs to carry out its air campaign in the short term, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will face the prospect of permanently damaging their standing with Congress if they don’t change their behavior in Yemen. Not even Mohammed bin Salman, in his most intransigent moments, could believe that his alliance with the United States will weather hostile majorities in both chambers of Congress.
To forestall this possibility, General Votel could be open about both the extent of U.S. support to the coalition and the capacity of the United States to track coalition missions. That, however, would mean that the party that refuels, restocks, provides intel for, and monitors air raids bears some responsibility for their outcome, a concept that the administration has not even begun to consider.
Eric Eikenberry is director of policy and advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project, Follow him on Twitter @YemenPeaceNews.