Report

Senate Summons Pompeo and Mattis Over Saudi Arabia

Lawmakers are pushing to overrule the Trump administration and end U.S. involvement in the devastating Yemeni civil war.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 16. (Leah Millis/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 16. (Leah Millis/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have been summoned to brief the U.S. Senate on Wednesday as lawmakers grow increasingly worried about the Trump administration’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia amid its involvement in the devastating war in Yemen and the murder of a U.S.-based journalist last month.

A bipartisan group of senators have been pushing to end U.S. support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen with a vote that could come as soon as Wednesday. The Saudi-led intervention—a coalition of Arab states that includes the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, and Senegal—has been marked by the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the destruction of infrastructure that has propelled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with some 14 million people in Yemen teetering on the brink of famine.

The Defense and State Departments confirmed Mattis will brief the senators alongside Pompeo on Wednesday. The briefing, scheduled for Wednesday morning, will be in a classified setting.

A briefing with both the secretaries of state and defense before the full Senate is rare, according to congressional staff with knowledge of the plan, and reflects growing tensions between the White House and Capitol Hill over the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is one of Washington’s most important allies in the Middle East and, in the eyes of top administration officials, critical to their strategy of cracking down on Iran and boosting counterterrorism efforts in the region.

But the war in Yemen and Riyadh’s role in the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month—an attack that may directly implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—have infuriated both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

U.S. President Donald Trump, in a statement released on Nov. 20, disputed reports that the U.S. intelligence community concluded the crown prince directed his government to murder Khashoggi. “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event–maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said, defending his administration’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted in response.

On Wednesday, Mattis and Pompeo are expected to try to persuade lawmakers not to clamp down on U.S. support for the coalition in Yemen, which it sees as an important proxy fight against Iran and terrorist groups. But they face an uphill battle, and according to three Senate aides, a vote to end U.S. support for the war on Yemen could come as soon as Wednesday afternoon.

“The administration is increasingly concerned that there are enough to votes to pass it,” said one Senate aide familiar with deliberations.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, Republican Sen. Mike Lee, and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy have pushed the resolution, which invokes the 1973 War Powers Act defining Congress’s role in a president’s decision to carry out military actions abroad. The resolution now has 16 co-sponsors.

The Senate narrowly shot down the same version of this resolution in March, which lost by a vote of 55 to 44.

Some prominent lawmakers have spoken out against the resolution, including Republican Sens. James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham, who have argued that Congress should not straitjacket the administration’s ability to deploy the U.S. military and that the War Powers Resolution does not apply to intelligence assistance and arms sales.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced the United States would end refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition’s aircraft engaged in the war and called for all sides to cease hostilities, but the measures didn’t go far enough to satisfy critics.

Now, the Trump administration is throwing its support behind internationally brokered peace efforts led by United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths. Talks are set to begin between the coalition-backed government and Houthi rebels in Sweden in December. “One of our top things we’re focusing on is supporting the work that Martin Griffiths is doing,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in a press briefing on Tuesday. “He has a process in place, we believe that he is making progress.”

Nearly four years into the conflict, Yemen’s access to commercial goods and humanitarian supplies has dwindled due to fighting, destruction of roads and supply lines, and blockades and bureaucracy that restrict shipments into the country’s ports. An estimated 85,000 children under 5 may have died from starvation since the start of the war, according to a report released by charity group Save the Children this month.

“For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are starving to death—and it’s entirely preventable,” Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s country director in Yemen, said in a statement.

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

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