Senate Advances Resolution to End U.S. Support for Saudi-Led War in Yemen

At stake is which branch of the U.S. government is authorized to wage war.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Lara Seligman
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks to reporters following a closed-door briefing on Saudi Arabia at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 28. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks to reporters following a closed-door briefing on Saudi Arabia at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 28. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

In a sharp rebuke of the Trump administration, the Senate voted on Wednesday to advance a resolution demanding an end to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s coalition in the Yemen conflict, despite an extraordinary effort by top administration officials to convince lawmakers to quash it.

The resolution passed its first hurdle by a vote of 63 to 37. The wide margin reflects broad concern about the American role in the war and a growing anger among lawmakers over the Trump administration’s continuing support for Saudi Arabia following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The vote set up what could be an unprecedented legal showdown between the White House and Congress over war powers.

Senators voted on the measure just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivered a rare classified briefing for the entire upper chamber. The two men argued that U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is critical to countering terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula and curtailing Iran’s regional influence. Iran backs the Houthi rebels while a coalition of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, support the Yemeni government.

“This conflict isn’t optional for Saudi Arabia, and abandoning it puts American interests at risk, too,” Pompeo said in the briefing, according to his prepared remarks released to reporters. “What would happen if the U.S. withdrew from the Yemen effort? Guess what: The war wouldn’t end,” he said.

But the briefing appears to have backfired. Both Democratic and Republican senators said afterward that the arguments seemed weak. Others fumed over the White House decision to block CIA Director Gina Haspel from briefing the Senate on the Khashoggi killing. Haspel has reportedly heard a recording of Khashoggi’s murder committed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last month. The “Haspel no-show really pissed people off,” one Senate aide told Foreign Policy. Many were exasperated over President Donald Trump’s refusal to declare whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the de facto ruler of the kingdom—personally directed Khashoggi’s murder, following reports that the CIA concluded he ordered the hit. Pompeo told reporters after the closed-door briefing Wednesday: “There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told FP on Wednesday that there was a “lack of balance” in the administration’s approach to Saudi Arabia. “As much as I respect them, there was no attempt to try to realign that” in the classified briefing, he said.

The broader debate between the White House and Capitol Hill centers on the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a law passed during the Vietnam War, meant to carve out Congress’s role in authorizing military actions abroad. The initiative approved on Wednesday, championed by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), invokes the War Powers Resolution to impose a withdrawal of the U.S. military from the Yemen conflict.

But there’s still a debate over whether the War Powers Resolution is even constitutional. This vote could bring that debate to a head—and heighten the disagreements in Washington over the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Even if we pass it, the administration likely will turn right around and say ‘well war powers is not constitutional so we’re not bound by this,’” Corker told FP.

In advance of the vote, the White House released a statement saying the president would veto the resolution if passed. According to the statement, the fundamental premise of the resolution is “flawed” because U.S. forces aren’t fighting in Yemen—they are merely providing support to the Saudi-led coalition.

The mechanics of the vote itself are complicated, layered in arcane Senate rules. The Wednesday vote greenlighted discharging the resolution for a Senate-wide vote. The second vote, to advance the resolution to a final vote, is expected to take place as early as next week, congressional staffers told FP. If passed, senators would have the opportunity to tack on amendments to the resolution before a final version is voted on. In the week ahead, Congressional staffers told FP they expect the White House to lean heavily on certain lawmakers to withdraw their support the resolution.

Pompeo, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Tuesday, charged that “Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on” after Khashoggi’s murder should not prod the United States to degrade its alliance with Saudi Arabia in the fight against terrorists and Iran.

But humanitarian groups that have long criticized the Trump administration over its Yemen policy saw Wednesday’s vote as a victory. “This result sends a strong message today: The U.S. public does not want to be complicit in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis any longer,” said Scott Paul of Oxfam.

As the drama plays out in Washington, Yemen is mired in catastrophe, with millions facing famine and relying on dwindling supply lines for humanitarian aid. Yemen’s three-year conflict is considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. More than three-quarters of its population, or 22.2 million people, require aid, and some 14 million face starvation, according to the United Nations. More than half the population does not have access to drinking water, and the conflict has fueled the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. According to UNICEF, at least one child in Yemen dies every 10 minutes from illness and starvation.

Aid workers and local physicians are struggling to help the population. The ongoing blockade of the port city of Hodeidah, where between 70 and 80 percent of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian imports enter the country, has denied civilians access to medicine, fuel, food, and other essential items. The conflict has also devastated infrastructure, and half of all health facilities are shut or not working properly.

Last month, Mattis and Pompeo called for a cease-fire within 30 days. While a pause in the violence has so far been elusive, Mattis indicated last week that U.N.-brokered peace talks between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran-backed Houthis were slated for early December in Sweden.

Earlier this month, the U.S. ended refueling support to coalition aircraft engaged in the war, one of the most contentious aspects of U.S. involvement in the conflict. Until then, the U.S. Air Force had provided roughly 20 percent of the aerial refueling needs of the coalition.

However, this step was not enough to quell the critics on Capitol Hill. Over the course of the three-year war, the U.S. government—beginning with the Obama administration—has also provided the Arab coalition with logistical support, aerial targeting assistance, intelligence information, and U.S.-made weapons such as precision-guided munitions. A bomb dropped by the Saudi coalition on a school bus that killed 40 children in August, for example, was supplied by the United States and made by Lockheed Martin.

A new poll conducted by the International Rescue Committee and YouGov shows the American public is also growing weary of the violence. Seventy-five percent of people surveyed said they opposed U.S. military support to the coalition’s efforts in Yemen, with 82 percent of respondents agreeing that Congress must vote to end or decrease arms sales.

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

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman