By Sheila Archambault Helke
On November 28, 2018, and again in March 2019, the Senate delivered an extraordinary rebuke of Saudi Arabia by advancing a measure to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, showing that some lawmakers believe that the United States must prioritize American human rights ideals over the easier option of looking the other way. This unprecedented November vote marked the first time in history that the Senate utilized its powers granted by the 1973 War Powers Act giving Congress the power to demand an end to military actions.
Through extensive media coverage, Saudi Arabia’s human rights atrocities came to international attention with the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. In another blow to Saudi Arabia, Senators unanimously approved a separate resolution to hold Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, personally responsible for the death of Khashoggi. While this may not have legal implications for the Crown Prince, the symbolic power of this resolution cannot be overlooked.
Given the partisan polarization in current U.S. politics, a bipartisan show of unity in the Senate is quite noteworthy and not easily achieved. This resolution came in direct contrast to President Trump’s November statement, where he wrote that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” regarding whether the crown prince had prior knowledge of Kashoggi’s killing.
President Trump argued that punishing Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death would risk billions of dollars of American arms sales to the kingdom, a figure that was thoroughly debunked by the Washington Post in a fact-checking piece by Glenn Kessler. Since 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition entered the war in Yemen, the United States has provided aid to the Saudi coalition, including conducting aerial refueling for gulf warplanes, sharing intelligence and supplying partner militaries with arm sales.
Appeasing the Saudis while containing Iran and its influence on the Houthi rebels in Yemen are the main reasons for continued U.S. support for the coalition. The Saudi coalition and its allies sees the Houthis as a similar threat as other Iranian-backed groups, like Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to help Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In reality, the Houthis have displayed little regional ambition, beyond recent missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in retaliation for Saudi air strikes.
While the Saudi coalition claims that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa, notes that historically Iran’s support for the Houthis has been limited. But, as the war drags on, the Houthis will grow more dependent on support from Iran and its allies.
You can read the full analysis at Changed Affairs here.