- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The U.S. Senate on Tuesday narrowly defeated a measure that would have blocked the sale of over $500 million worth of precision-guided munition kits to Saudi Arabia, paving the way for a deal intended to help the country in its war with Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The stronger-than-expected opposition to the sale comes as the 2-year-old war in Yemen exacerbates an already dire humanitarian situation in the country. Saudi-led strikes are blamed for creating a humanitarian disaster, with over 120,00 cholera cases in recent weeks and 18 million of Yemen’s 27 million inhabitants in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF.
While the 53 to 46 vote on the measure, introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R.-Ky.), skewed mostly along partisan lines, several Republican senators broke ranks, including Mike Lee (Utah), Todd Young (Ind.), and Dan Heller (Nev.).
Other co-sponsors included Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) They’d previously tried and failed to block a $1.1 billion sale of Abrams tanks to the kingdom last year, mustering only 27 votes.
Initially negotiated under the Obama administration but never approved by Congress, the munitions sale is part of the much bigger, $110 billion package of military equipment president Trump recently pledged to send the kingdom during his visit there last month.
Despite the defeat, several human rights and arms control groups celebrated the visibility and votes the issue has gained since the Senate last took up the issue.
Tuesday’s vote “sends an overwhelmingly clear message that it’s not going to be business as usual between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia,” Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch told Foreign Policy.
In a statement released after the vote, Murphy said that “A bipartisan coalition of senators just sent a major message to the Saudis,” that Washington is not in lockstep with Riyadh when it comes to the war in Yemen. The Saudi Arabian government and many U.S. defense officials say Iran is supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and portray the Saudi-led intervention there as a way to keep Tehran’s regional ambitions in check.
“Today’s vote total would’ve been unthinkable not long ago,” Murphy said, “but Congress is finally taking notice that Saudi Arabia is using U.S. munitions to deliberately hit civilian targets inside Yemen.”
One of the Republicans who opposed the sale, Todd Young, said before the vote that “it is a false choice to suggest we have to choose between opposing Iran and helping the millions of suffering people in Yemen.”
The war in Yemen has killed over 10,000 people and witnessed multiple incidents of civilian casualties that international observers have blamed on both sides. But the airstrikes by American-made Saudi jets — and using mostly American-made bombs — have hit schools, medical facilities, markets, and in one instance a wedding party that killed over 100 people. The United States has provided other assistance in the form of intelligence and refueling for Saudi aircraft on bombing missions.
The Obama administration curtailed some U.S. assistance late last year in response to several incidents that produced civilian casualties.
One former Pentagon official who worked with American allies in the Middle East recently told FP that the the Saudi effort in Yemen was “incompetently run” and “tragic,” adding that leaders at the Pentagon were concerned that the Saudis had gotten themselves into a war they were unable to exit.
Just before the vote, Paul took part in a heated debate with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) over the U.S.-Saudi alliance. “They are not a reliable ally,” Paul said. “They are the greatest purveyor of hatred for Christianity and Judaism in the world … we should not be selling arms to Saudi Arabia.”
Corker blamed the debate on the partisan divide in the country. “There are some, not all, who are using this to get a piece of the Trump administration’s hide,” he responded. “I would hope that we would rise above that and realize that Saudi Arabia, with their flaws, has been a reliable ally.”
Photo Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images