by William D. Hartung
Congressional opposition to U.S. support for the brutal Saudi/UAE war in Yemen has been growing in the past few years. It has underpinned the work of a network of peace, human rights, and humanitarian aid groups who are moved to end what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The war has killed thousands of civilians through air strikes and put millions at risk of famine.
This spring, bipartisan majorities of both houses of Congress voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, only to see their action vetoed by the Trump administration, which has warmly embraced the Saudi regime despite its severe human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war. And in 2018, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, placed a hold on a sale of precision guided bombs to Riyadh because of its indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, including hospitals, weddings, funerals, a school bus, and water treatment plants.
Diplomats with knowledge of the issue have noted that these congressional actions have helped push Saudi Arabia and its allies to the peace table, so far with uncertain results. But it is an indication of the power of congressional involvement nonetheless.
This week, the Trump administration declared the moral equivalent of a war on Congress when it was revealed that it was planning to move forward on the sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE under an emergency provision of the Arms Export Control Act that would prevent the opportunity for a congressional vote of disapproval on the deal. But as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), a longtime opponent of the U.S. sale of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen war, has noted, “there is no new emergency reason to sell bombs to Saudi Arabia to drop in Yemen…The Saudis have been dropping bombs on civilians, so if there is an emergency, it’s a humanitarian emergency caused by the bombs we sell the Saudis.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asserted that the emergency declaration is a response to what the administration claims is a heightened threat from Iran. But members of Congress briefed on the alleged Iranian threat have accused the administration of manipulating intelligence to provoke a military confrontation, in an echo of what the Bush administration did in the run-up to its disastrous invasion of Iraq. On Friday, Pompeo officially announced his intention to invoke the AECA provision to cover “22 pending arms transfers to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia totaling approximately $8.1 billion to deter Iranian aggression and build partner self-defense capacity.”
Furthermore, while the Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi/UAE coalition in Yemen receive some support from Iran, they are not proxies of Tehran. They have been fighting on and off for decades based on their own political and economic grievances, and in a number of instances they have taken actions that Iran had counseled against. In short, selling weapons that will foster further slaughter in Yemen to counter Iran is both unjustified and immoral. And as Sen. Murphy has pointed out, if Trump is allowed to use a false emergency over Iran to circumvent Congress, “Congress will never be able to object to an arms sale again.”
The emergency declaration is of a piece with the Trump administration’s uncritical embrace of the Saudi regime and its reckless leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump’s first foreign visit as president was to Saudi Arabia, and he used the occasion to trumpet the “jobs, jobs, jobs” that he claimed would be generated by his alleged $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom. Never mind that U.S. sales to Saudi Arabia in Trump’s first year in office were only one-tenth that amount, or that the jobs created by Saudi sales are in the tens of thousands at most, not the hundreds of thousands claimed by the president. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story, particularly one that lets Trump posture as a master dealmaker committed to the needs of working Americans?
The problem with Trump’s arms sales policy towards Saudi Arabia isn’t how much he’s been selling, but the nature of the deals. Early in his term he reversed an Obama administration suspension of a deal for precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, and now he is trying to push through another sale by undermining the right of Congress to scrutinize such sales.
Sen. Menendez has pledged to use “legislative and other means to nullify these and any planned ongoing sales.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has called the emergency maneuver “a big mistake,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has said he would “not do business with Saudi Arabia until we have a better reckoning” of the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Congressional opponents are mulling the best way to block the deal, and time is of the essence.
One option would be to push legislation to block the transfer, sale, or authorization for license of bombs and other offensive weapons to the Saudi regime. Crucially, such a measure would stop bomb sales already in the pipeline. The time to act is now.