2018 U.S. Midterm Elections

‘There Is an American Imprint on Every Single Civilian Death Inside Yemen’

Sen. Chris Murphy believes that Jamal Khashoggi’s killing could sway Congress to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war.

Sen. Chris Murphy speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 3, 2017. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Sen. Chris Murphy speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 3, 2017. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen has been a flashpoint for some vocal members of Congress since the fighting began more than three years ago. But until now, lawmakers have not been able to rally sufficient support to end U.S. involvement in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of Yemeni lives and led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, believes the tide is finally turning. Shortly after the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6, Murphy, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee, plans to reintroduce legislation that would end all U.S. support—in the form of aerial refueling, targeting assistance, and intelligence information sharing—to Saudi forces. Though the legislation was tabled when it was first introduced in March, Murphy believes the mood in the Senate has changed because of the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and greater awareness of the increasingly catastrophic conditions on the ground in Yemen. What follows are excerpts from his conversation with Foreign Policy.

Foreign Policy: What impact has Khashoggi’s killing had on how Congress and the public view America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Chris Murphy: The Khashoggi case is earth-shattering. There were a lot of members of Congress who were giving Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman the benefit of the doubt on Yemen, and I think those same members of Congress are now changing their minds.

The war in Yemen and the Khashoggi case are connected in one very important way. The Saudis have been telling us that they were not intentionally bombing civilian targets inside Yemen. We trusted Mohammad bin Salman. We trusted the Saudis. Now, when they’ve spent two weeks lying through their teeth about what happened to Khashoggi, it has started to draw real questions from members as to whether the Saudis were telling us the truth about what is happening inside Yemen.

FP: How much responsibility does the United States bear for the humanitarian disaster in Yemen?

CM: I think there is an American imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen. We sell them the bombs, we help them with the targeting, we fuel their planes in mid-air, and we give them moral cover. So I don’t think there is any way around complete American culpability for the humanitarian nightmare that is happening there.

We also have made no meaningful effort at all to try to find a path to peace. The Trump administration has been totally AWOL on the political process. They have outsourced it to the U.N., and there is no sign that the U.N. is making any progress. It stands to reason the Saudis will never move until the United States commands them to move.

So, yes, I think we are very much responsible for every terrible thing that’s happened inside Yemen today. I’m not saying if we pulled our military support, peace would blossom, but the first step to getting the parties to the table is for the Saudis to feel like they don’t have a blank check from the United States.

FP: Secretary of Defense James Mattis says the support we provide to the Saudi-led war helps them reduce the number of civilian casualties. What is your response?

CM: It’s just BS. The Saudis are hitting civilian targets on purpose. They are blatantly ignoring the no-strike lists that we give them. Mattis works for Donald Trump, he has to espouse the position of this administration, and this administration’s position is “never question the Saudis about anything.” I worry that there are financial ties between the Trumps and the Saudi royal family. I don’t think that the civil servants who work on this problem every day see it the same way that Trump and his cabinet do.

At some point, you have to actually believe what you see. The number of civilian targets that are being hit are increasing, not decreasing, and the coalition is admitting to hitting civilian targets.

FP: Mattis and Pompeo recently called for a cease-fire in Yemen. Are you encouraged by what looks like a renewed effort by the administration to end the violence?

CM: I think the administration is feeling some political heat here. But again for there to be a cease-fire and a real political process the secretary of state and the secretary of defense have to really put some work into this. They can’t just make a public statement and hope that it happens.

It doesn’t help that we can’t talk to the Iranians, who have a big role to play here. When this administration refuses to have any dialogue with Iran, despite the fact that they seem to be gleefully excited about talking to North Korea, it makes it hard to solve big problems in the Middle East.

FP: It looks like the midterm elections could increase the number of Democrats in Congress. What impact would this have on the U.S.-Saudi relationship?

CM: Let’s take arms sales for a second. In a Democrat-controlled Congress, you could actually get a debate on arms sales to Saudi Arabia to the House floor. Control of the House is really meaningful if you are trying to put a check on the president when it comes to selling Saudi Arabia the bombs they are using to kill people in Yemen.

Regardless of what happens after this election, I think there is now a pretty good bipartisan coalition in the House to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen. The war, the humanitarian crisis, has gotten worse. The civilian targeting has gotten worse, and the Saudis’ behavior has gotten worse.

FP: How much leverage does the United States actually have to end the war?

CM: I think we have tremendous leverage. The Saudis can’t conduct a bombing campaign without the United States. It is a fiction to suggest that if we don’t sell them the precision-guided missiles, they will just go buy them from the Russians. That’s not how it works: Russian munitions don’t work on Saudi systems. It would take them years if not a decade to transition their military toward Russian-based offensive weapons.

I think that what’s just as important as the logistical support is the moral cover. By having the United States integrated into this campaign, the Saudis are very much immune from international criticism. I think it will be much harder for them to stand up to international criticism if the United States pulls out because of the war crimes that are likely being committed.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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