Trump’s Yemen Veto Could Still Cost Saudis

Democratic lawmaker mulls sanctioning Saudis tied to the humanitarian blockade on the war-torn country.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Lara Seligman
Supporters of Yemen's Houthi rebels attend a rally  in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 26. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Yemen's Houthi rebels attend a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 26. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Undeterred by a presidential veto, Democratic lawmakers are exploring new ways to end U.S. military involvement in the Yemen conflict following a months-long battle between Capitol Hill and the White House over how the United States wages war abroad.

Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat, said he and other Democratic lawmakers are eyeing new steps to stop U.S. support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war. The measures they are considering include sanctions against Saudi officials involved in blockading shipments of humanitarian supplies to Yemen, cutting funding in defense appropriations bills for military involvement in Yemen, and further restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

After more than four years of war, Yemen has spiraled into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, pushing millions to the brink of famine and fueling deadly outbreaks of cholera. While some civilians have died in fighting, others have died of malnutrition and disease, exacerbated by a Saudi blockade of humanitarian and medical supplies to the country.

Khanna told Foreign Policy he is looking into sanctioning Saudi officials “who are involved in the blockade of food and medicine getting in and who are perpetuating the famine … to put pressure on the Saudis to lift the blockade.”

Saudi Arabia eased its near-total blockade on Yemen in late 2017, but aid groups say there are still considerable restrictions on getting supplies into the country.

The Trump administration has faced a groundswell of opposition from Republican and Democratic lawmakers for its relationship with Saudi Arabia over both the Yemen war and Saudi government officials’ roles in directing the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In an unprecedented measure, both chambers of Congress recently passed a war powers resolution demanding the Trump administration cease all military engagement in Yemen. Both chambers passed the resolution without the two-thirds majority required to override a veto.

U.S. support in Yemen includes advising the Saudi coalition and intelligence and surveillance support. Last year, the United States decided to halt aircraft refueling support to the coalition.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution gives Congress authority to pull back U.S. military forces deployed abroad without granting a formal declaration of war. The resolution opened a still-unresolved constitutional debate about the extent of the president’s authority to wage war without congressional consent.

But President Donald Trump’s decision to veto the latest resolution has done nothing to kill Congress’s appetite to roll back U.S. involvement in Yemen.

“We need to make clear to the Saudis that there’s some consequence, short of pulling out of the military coalition, for the way in which they have managed this war and the way in which they have our relationship for granted,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy.

The Trump administration and lawmakers who opposed the resolution argued the War Powers Resolution isn’t relevant to Yemen, as there are no U.S. troops deployed to Yemen and U.S. military support is limited to sharing intelligence and advising.

Trump also slammed the resolution as “an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities” in signing the veto.

The Trump administration, like that of former President Barack Obama, views Yemen as a hotbed of terrorist groups—including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—and an important proxy war in confronting Iran in the Middle East.

The U.S. Defense Department said the only “hostilities” the United States conducts in the country are counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State. Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokesperson, noted that the department had seen “demonstrably improved processes and procedures” from the coalition over the past eight months and will continue to provide limited “non-combat” support. But civilian casualties spiked in 2018, at a rate of almost 100 per week throughout the year, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. has tracked over 18,000 civilian casualties from the conflict since it began in March 2015—7,025 killed and 11,148 injured—though experts believe the number could be higher. The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the deaths of over 65 percent of those killed, according to U.N. data. The coalition’s bombing campaign—entailing nearly 20,000 air raids carried out in part by U.S. bombs sold to Riyadh—has also eroded the country’s underdeveloped infrastructure, including ports, markets, hospitals, factories, and roads, which helped prop up the country’s faltering economy.

Over eight years starting in 2009, the Obama administration offered over $115 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a trend that has continued under Trump.

Murphy said the Senate is blocking pending sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. “If there’s any weapons sale to Saudi Arabia to help them perpetuate the war inside Yemen, there’s going to be a vote to reject it on the Senate floor,” he said.

Lawmakers and experts are torn on the impact of Trump vetoing the resolution to cut off U.S. military support in Yemen. Some saw the resolution as an unnecessary symbolic measure that would have made things worse in Yemen. Others saw it as an important move that could have helped the United States regain the moral high ground and advance U.N. peace talks.

“The resolution would have had a very limited practical effect on the course of the fighting,” said John Hannah, a former senior George W. Bush administration national security aide now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. “If anything, the withdrawal of U.S. intelligence support would only have exacerbated the shortcomings in Saudi targeting, perhaps resulting in even more mistakes and greater unintended casualties and suffering.”

“It’s a little bit puzzling, because Congress’s reaction, it seems to me, is in relation to the Khashoggi case and not really much to do with what is happening with Yemen,” added Charles Schmitz, an analyst with the Middle East Institute think tank. Lawmakers “are overlooking the longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia, and it’s a little bit disingenuous to me after selling them billions and billions of dollars in arms.”

Proponents of the resolution, including Murphy and Khanna, say a withdrawal of U.S. military support could have pressured the Saudi-led coalition into making more progress in U.N.-brokered peace talks. They also point to the symbolism of Trump vetoing a resolution aimed at bringing about an end to the devastating conflict.

“For more than four years, the U.S. has shielded the coalition from accountability and enabled it to carry on fighting a war without a clear or realistic political strategy,” said Scott Paul of Oxfam America, an international humanitarian group involved in Yemen. “Instead, Trump’s veto maintains the status quo and sends a signal to the Yemeni people and parties to the conflict that the U.S. is not willing to use its influence to end this war.”

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