GOP Senator Presses Trump Administration Over Deadly Saudi Blockade in Yemen

Sen. Todd Young is holding up a key State Department confirmation until the White House helps ease the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15:  Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee member Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) listens to testimony during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill November 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams testified before the committee about community-level health promotion programs and businesses that offer incentives to employees that practice healthy lifestyles.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee member Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) listens to testimony during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill November 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams testified before the committee about community-level health promotion programs and businesses that offer incentives to employees that practice healthy lifestyles. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

One Republican lawmaker is waging a quiet battle to persuade the Donald Trump administration to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its stranglehold on aid to Yemen, which is facing a spiraling humanitarian crisis with millions of lives threatened by disease and hunger. A Saudi-imposed blockade on fuel and other supplies is the main cause of the man-made catastrophe, aid agencies say, as Riyadh pursues its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, is holding up the confirmation of the State Department’s nominee for legal advisor, former George W. Bush official Jennifer Newstead, until the Trump administration takes steps to force its Saudi ally to ease the blockade and allow more humanitarian aid into Yemen.

“The senator has been pretty clear about what he’d like to see in order to support her nomination,” a congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “The senator is not ready to support a vote on her nomination on the floor.”

The two-and-half-year-old conflict in Yemen is mostly overlooked in Washington, even though the United States aids the Saudi war effort by supplying bombs and refueling fighter jets. But with Newstead’s confirmation in limbo, Young’s focus on the plight of Yemeni civilians has gotten the administration’s attention.

International aid officials said the senator’s lobbying last month helped nudge the White House into persuading the Saudis to partially lift a blockade on United Nations and other humanitarian flights and shipments to Yemen. The conflict and blockade have pushed nearly 7 million in Yemen to the brink of starvation and sparked the largest and fastest-spreading cholera epidemic in history. The deliveries had been cut off on Nov. 6 after a Houthi missile attack on Riyadh airport.

“We’re grateful for the recent steps the administration has taken to press the Saudis to eliminate impediments to the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Yemen,” said the congressional aide. “Thousands if not millions of lives have been saved as a result of initial steps to end the blockade.”

But lawmakers and aid groups are pleading with the administration to renew pressure on the Saudi-led coalition to open up ports to commercial imports to ensure millions of Yemenis don’t lose access to running water, food, and medicine.

“There’s a few additional and very important steps that would save even more lives, and those steps should not be that hard given what we’ve already accomplished,” the aide said.

The dispute comes amid a dramatic turn in the war and heavy fighting in the capital over the weekend. On Monday, Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by his former allies, Houthi rebels, who accused him of betrayal.

In Washington, the political battle leaves the State Department short-handed in a key post. The legal advisor of the State Department occupies a unique position in the U.S. government, overseeing 300 lawyers and legal experts through which all State Department policies must be vetted. And the legal advisor has a high-profile public role, serving as an administration’s senior-most spokesperson on the world stage on issues of international law, including human rights, trade, maritime law, and armed conflict.

The legal advisor is “a really unique role within the entire U.S. government,” said Brian Egan, who served in the role during the last year of former President Barack Obama’s administration.

With Newstead’s confirmation held up, Richard Visek, a career official whom other State Department employees describe to FP as extremely talented and capable, is filling the role in an interim capacity. But a career official can’t substitute for a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed legal advisor, Egan said.

“There’s just a difference between how the legal advisor would be seen in public forum, internationally, in the U.S. government, probably even with the secretary, than how a career person would be seen,” Egan said. “I think that’s just the reality.”

At Newstead’s October confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Young asked her if she regarded Saudi actions to be in violation of international law or the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits providing assistance to a country that is hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid. Young said he would need “clear and unambiguous responses to these questions from you and from the department before we vote on your confirmation on the floor.”

Newstead has significantly clarified her position to address the senator’s concerns in a series of written responses, a former State Department official familiar with the matter told FP. But there are limits to what any nominee or an administration would be willing to concede, especially before joining the State Department and gaining access to all relevant information, the ex-official added.

The State Department declined to comment on whether the Senate was holding up Newstead’s confirmation.

Newstead “will bring tremendous expertise and legal insights to advance the foreign policy interests of the United States,” a spokesperson told FP. “We look forward to the Senate’s action on her nomination.”

Newstead, now a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York, was a key architect of the Bush administration’s controversial Patriot Act, which gave government agencies sweeping surveillance and detention powers in the name of counterterrorism.

Young, a solid conservative who votes with other defense hawks in his party, is perhaps an unlikely champion for the issue, as it involves leveling sharp criticism at an American ally locked in a regional contest for power with an arch-foe of the United States — Iran. Young advocates a tough line on Iran but argues that Washington’s strategic interests are not served by a humanitarian blockade that alienates the civilian population of Yemen and sows instability that can be exploited by Iran and al Qaeda.

International aid groups warn that Saudi actions recently exacerbated that humanitarian crisis. Last month, the Saudis blocked all humanitarian aid — even official U.N. and International Red Cross aid flights — for about a week. Amid an international outcry, the Saudis allowed the humanitarian deliveries to resume to the airport in the capital Sanaa and to two key seaports. But restrictions on commercial shipments remain in place.

Save the Children, Oxfam, CARE, and other relief organizations wrote last week to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other administration officials welcoming that opening, but warned that failure to lift broader restrictions on imports could lead to a “widespread famine” and a “a public health crisis of historic proportions.”

“In the end, for all the people who are going to die in the coming weeks, the cause of death will be the blockade,” said Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy advisor for Oxfam.

Saudi Arabia insists it abides by the laws of war and defends its actions on grounds that it must prevent the smuggling of weapons to its Iranian-backed adversaries. The Saudis have cited incidents over the past two years in which weapons were discovered on small vessels bound for Yemen, but they have yet to provide proof of a pattern of arms smuggling on larger cargo ships carrying food, fuel, or medicine.

“There’s been no evidence presented that shipments of arms have come through aid shipments or even commercial shipments,” said Kristine Beckerle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. The fact that no new new security measures were introduced after the blockade was lifted suggests the embargo was punitive, not about stopping smuggling, Beckerle said.

“If nothing changed, in what way was closing those ports related at all to weapons smuggling?”

The State Department has declined to say whether Saudi Arabia is violating international or U.S. law through its actions.

“The Department is sensitive to concerns about the Saudi government’s compliance with the law of armed conflict,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email to FP. The department added that it is working with Riyadh “to ensure unfettered access for humanitarian assistance and commercial goods,” and U.S. civilian and military experts have held discussions with Saudi military personnel to promote “awareness of their obligations under the law of armed conflict.”

In its public comments, the Trump administration, especially the White House, has refrained from sharp criticism of Saudi Arabia over the humanitarian situation. Instead, it has focused more attention on Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, and particularly Iran’s suspected role in supplying the Houthis with more sophisticated weapons. Iranian proxies fighting in Yemen, the administration argues, are the root cause of the disaster today.

“Yemen is a humanitarian disaster, no doubt,” a senior administration official said. But he added: “The Saudis didn’t create the catastrophe.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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