Senators Demand Answers From Trump Team on Yemen

Administration officials defended their position, but lawmakers weren’t happy with their answers.

A Yemeni child looks out on buildings damaged in an airstrike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez on March 18. (Ahmad Al-Basha)
A Yemeni child looks out on buildings damaged in an airstrike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez on March 18. (Ahmad Al-Basha)

Senators on Tuesday accused the Trump administration of handing a blank check to Saudi Arabia in its 3-year-old war in Yemen despite a stalemate on the battlefield and a spiraling humanitarian crisis.

Grilling top officials from the State Department, Defense Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed frustration that the administration could not articulate a clear strategy, use its influence with Riyadh to safeguard civilians, or promote a diplomatic settlement.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the committee, said the Trump administration’s approach to Yemen was marked by an “alarming absence of strategy.”

“If your son was shooting off his pistol in the backyard and doing it indiscriminately and endangering the neighbors, would you give him more bullets or less?” asked Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican Kentucky senator. “Our strategy is to give [the Saudis] more bombs, not less.”

David Satterfield, the State Department’s acting Middle East envoy, and Robert Karem, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for international security, argued the administration helped minimize civilian casualties by sharing intelligence and logistical support with the Saudis and pressuring them to allow in humanitarian supplies.

“We will do all in our power to assure humanitarian and commercial needs are met in Yemen so that this crisis, from its humanitarian standpoint, can be alleviated to the maximum extent possible,” Satterfield said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) questioned whether the Pentagon could confidently say its efforts have reduced civilian casualties, given that it is not able to provide numbers to back up that claim.

“The proof is in the results, and we don’t know whether the results are there or not,” he said. “This is the U.S. reputation on the line, and we expect you to know if you report something. If you can’t report it, fine. But don’t make statements that you can’t back up.”

Four times, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) asked Satterfield if U.S. support for the coalition was conditional on it not attacking Yemen’s ports, which are key to delivering assistance. Four times, Satterfield dodged the answer, in a heated exchange.

“Senator, you are posing, with all due respect, a hypothetical. We would have to see the circumstances in order to give a response to that question,” Satterfield said.

“So it’s not conditional,” Young said.

Between March 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition launched its campaign, and March of this year, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out 16,847 air raids, or an average of 15 airstrikes a day, according to the Yemen Data Project. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights assessed that Saudi-led airstrikes were responsible for 61 percent of the civilian death toll since the start of the conflict.

Administration officials at the hearing painted the conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its regional archrival, Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels who control much of the western part of the country, including its capital, Sanaa.

“Yemen has become a testbed for Iran’s malign activities,” Karem said. He cited the 13 ballistic and other long-range missiles the Houthis launched at Riyadh in the past month as one example. The United States believes Iran supplied the Houthis with the missiles.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee, acknowledged the threat faced by Saudi Arabia and its allies from Iranian-backed Houthi rebels but said he had concerns about how the Gulf coalition was carrying out its military campaign.

“Of course, Saudi Arabia is a longtime U.S. partner, but partners must be candid with each other,” Corker said, adding that he has raised his concerns about the air war with Saudi officials, including the crown prince.

International aid agencies say the humanitarian situation in Yemen is deteriorating by the day and that the United States should use its influence with Saudi Arabia to ease the crisis. Aid groups that do work in Yemen say more than 8 million people on the brink of famine, more than a million people have contracted cholera, and more than 1,300 cases of diphtheria have been reported.

With lawmakers losing patience, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering a bipartisan bill that aims to check the administration’s unfettered support for the Saudi-led campaign and exert pressure on Riyadh to ease the humanitarian crisis and find a diplomatic solution. The bill requires the State Department to regularly certify that Saudi Arabia is taking steps to end the Yemen civil war, alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and demonstrate it is reducing the risk of civilian casualties in its bombing campaign.

“Right now, the status quo is there is no legal requirement for the administration to engage Congress on Yemen,” says a Democratic Senate aide involved with the bill.

The committee has yet to formally debate and vote on the bill, but it could come up for discussion this month, aides say. The bill, sponsored by Young and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), has won an endorsement from additional senators, including Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).

But it’s unclear if the bill will win majority support on the committee. Some Democrats — and aid groups — would like to see tougher language to keep the pressure on the Saudis, while Republicans are wary of any action that ties the hands of the administration or possibly undercuts the Saudi-led coalition’s contest with Iranian proxies.

“With a couple of small changes, [the bill] could be game-changing in a positive way,” says Scott Paul, a Yemen expert with Oxfam.

Seven aid groups — including Oxfam, Save the Children, and Mercy Corps — wrote a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee members urging them to strengthen the bill by forcing the State Department to report on “detailed and independently verifiable” issues, according to the document, which was obtained by Foreign Policy.

The signatories argue the bill should focus on steps to lift the blockade on key ports for shipments of humanitarian and commercial goods; eliminate processes that are stalling shipments; open commercial air travel to Sanaa; and take concrete steps to broker a political settlement in coordination with the United Nations.

Last month, lawmakers debated another bill that would have completely halted U.S. military support for the Saudi campaign. The bill failed in the senate but received 44 votes in support and forced the White House to undertake a concerted lobbying effort to defeat it.

If the administration doesn’t make a coherent case to Congress about its strategy, such a bill could garner even more support the next time around, Menendez said during the hearing.

“Absent a compelling articulation of how continued U.S. military support to the coalition is leveraging movement towards a political track to negotiate an end to the war, it is reasonable to expect that the next vote on U.S. military support may have a different outcome,” he said.

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

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