Democrats and Republicans Split on Yemen

This week in Washington, there was a major split between the two major parties on the issue of US strategy toward Yemen. While few would agree that Washington’s current policies are conducive to peace in Yemen, there are major differences between lawmakers as to how best to recalibrate US policy. On March 6, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a public hearing on “The Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen: Addressing Current Political and Humanitarian Challenges.” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) later held a nomination hearing for the two individuals tapped to represent the United States in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the nominees were also asked a host of questions about the situation in Yemen. Finally, on March 11, the Senate received a briefing from the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths. The responses to these briefings clearly illustrate the fault lines separating Democrats and Republicans on this critical issue.

Partisan Disconnect

There is quite clearly a partisan divide on the issue of the United States’ role in Yemen; members of each party are drawing completely different conclusions from the situation there. During the House subcommittee hearing, Democrats gravitated toward their preferred witnesses—in this case, three human rights and development experts—to buttress the liberals’ arguments that the United States’ role in this human-made humanitarian crisis is morally reprehensible. In addition, they believe that it could prove to be a grave national security risk as US support for Saudi and Emirati bombing sorties could breed anti-Americanism among Yemeni civilians.

Republicans, for their part, were not necessarily apathetic to the crisis decimating Yemeni society, but their humanitarian concerns seemed second only to their apprehensions about the consequences of ending US support. They focused on the use of military force as a way to undermine the Houthi rebel group—to which Republicans repeatedly referred as an Iranian proxy despite legitimate evidence suggesting that Tehran’s support for the Houthis is more of a cheap strategic investment against arch foe Saudi Arabia than any Hezbollah-like project on the part of Iran—and extremist groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Throughout the briefings, the parties stuck to their respective corners and seemed only to seek information that was congruent with their preconceived notions. The Democrats’ witnesses—Dafna Rand (Mercy Corps), Jeremy Konyndyk (Center for Global Development), and Radhya Almutawakel (Mwatana for Human Rights)—all focused on the humanitarian aspects of the war in Yemen and ultimately argued in favor of ceasing US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, including ending arms sales to Riyadh. The House GOP was more interested in the analysis by Katherine Zimmerman (American Enterprise Institute), who argued that ending US support for the anti-Houthi coalition’s efforts would undermine US national security and provide an opening for the Houthis and Iran to entrench themselves in any Yemeni peace settlement that may result from the UN-led peace efforts. Meanwhile in the SFRC nomination hearing, John Abizaid, the nominee to represent Washington in Riyadh, and Matthew Tueller, the ambassadorial nominee for Iraq, appeared reflexively anti-Iran (in fact, that is reportedly why Tueller was nominated to represent the United States in Baghdad). This was clear in both nominees’ assessments of the situation in Yemen, much to the delight of the Republican members at the dais. Ultimately, Tueller—who was asked a number of questions about Yemen as he has been ambassador there since 2014—and Abizaid painted Iran and the Houthi rebels as the actors most responsible for the ongoing humanitarian crisis and recommended maintaining strong relations with Saudi Arabia.

What Will Congress Do?

Clearly, the two parties have fundamentally different priorities in mind for US policy, resulting in separate and almost incompatible solutions. Democrats in both chambers support ending US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition’s war efforts in Yemen and they argue that sufficient pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis would force the two countries to become more serious about negotiating a political solution with the Houthis based on the UN plan to end the fighting. Most, though not all, Republicans reject this idea and argue instead that only steadfast military support for the coalition can bring the Houthis to the negotiating table while simultaneously helping minimize the civilian casualties that have been a tragic feature of this war.

Though the House version of the War Powers Resolution was stymied in the Senate due to its incompatibility with the chamber’s rules, the Senate is likely to vote on its own version of the joint resolution (S.J. Res. 7) this week, perhaps as soon as March 13. Should it pass, the House would have the opportunity to pass the Senate version and then avoid the procedural snafu that resulted in the legislative death of H.J. Res. 37 in the first place. But ahead of any Senate vote, GOP leaders—particularly SFRC Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho)—has looked to unify the Senate GOP and quell any rebellious Republicans who might help S.J. Res. 7 pass (like the joint resolution the chamber passed late last Congress). After the Senate briefing with UN Envoy Griffiths, Risch put out a statement that read as a caution against doing anything that might upset Griffiths’s shuttle diplomacy, saying he and his colleagues hear “Martin Griffiths’ assessments of U.S. efforts to support the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and how congressional actions may influence critical peace negotiations. We all want to see an end to this conflict and humanitarian crisis and ensure that the Yemeni people can address their needs. It must be noted that Iran has been a destabilizing force in this conflict.” Risch, who seeks to subtly manage intra-caucus fighting, seemed to be warning colleagues that voting on legislation that might upset or pressure the Saudis could potentially disrupt the peace negotiations and frustrate UN efforts. This is despite others’ argument that it could, and indeed does, have the opposite effect.

In light of these developments, the chances of the War Powers Resolution becoming law are nearly nonexistent. Even if it passes the Senate—which is no longer a guarantee due to a greater GOP majority and strong lobbying against the measure by the White House—and the House, there likely will not be enough votes to override President Trump’s promised veto. Moving forward, public pressure from Congress (e.g., hearings and symbolic votes on resolutions and joint resolutions), alongside holds on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and other members of the anti-Houthi coalition, will be the only realistic forms of punishment Congress will have at its disposal as long as the White House holds steadfast in its support for Riyadh.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Anti-Hate Resolution. As noted in last week’s report, members of the House were preparing to pass a resolution rejecting anti-Semitism in the wake of remarks made by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota). After many groups expressed support for Omar—and stood against what they characterized as a hypocritical and opportunistic attack on her by those seeking to stifle debate of US-Israel relations—the resolution was transformed into a broader “anti-hate” statement. That resolution, H. Res. 183, was adopted overwhelmingly (407-23, with one voting “present”).

Repeal Authorizations for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq. Senators Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) introduced S.J. Res. 13 in an effort to repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force against Iraq.

Stabilization to Prevent Instability and Violence. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Representative Eliot Engel (D-New York) introduced corresponding bills in their respective chambers aimed at stabilizing fragile states (S. 727 and H.R. 1580), including Syria.

Assistance for Americans Taken Hostage or Detained Unlawfully. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and three of his colleagues introduced H.R. 1611, a bill that would authorize the United States to provide assistance to US citizens held abroad as hostages or who are detained unlawfully. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced a Senate version that same day (S. 712).

Similarly, Chairman Engel introduced a resolution in the House broadly calling on Iran to release all American citizens it has detained. His House colleagues and Senator Rubio introduced similar bills focused specifically on Robert Levinson, the American citizen missing in Iran since 2007, in their respective chambers (H. Res. 218 and S. Res. 104).

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Members of Congress Join in Reception Recognizing Anniversary of Syrian War. On March 7, Americans for a Free Syria held a congressional reception to recognize the eighth anniversary of the Syrian civil war. In total, 11 current members of Congress, including chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) and SFRC, spoke at the gathering, and former Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) gave remarks as well. Another commemorative event to expose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s secret prisons will be held on March 13.

Statement on Saudi Arabia. The chair and ranking member of the HFAC released a joint statement on March 7 expressing concern about Saudi Arabia’s detention and reported torture of a US citizen.

Senator Lindsey Graham Visits Israel, Golan Heights. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) took a trip to the region last week, visiting Israel and the occupied Golan Heights. Graham vowed to lobby the Trump Administration to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, an area considered by the international community as occupied Syrian land.

3) Hearings

CENTCOM Commander Warns of IS Resurgence in Congressional Hearing. General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), appeared at his last congressional hearing—before leaving his post—to talk about a number of issues including the US presence in Syria. Votel again reiterated the military’s opinion that although the Islamic State (IS) has been dispossessed of most of its territory, it is far from defeated and the United States must maintain a military presence to ensure stability and prevent a calculated resurgence by the group.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Reverses Obama Era Reporting Requirements. The Trump Administration has revoked a 2016 executive order that mandated that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report the numbers of civilian deaths resulting from drone strikes outside of war zones. The Department of Defense carries out drone strikes as well, but it is mandated by law to report these figures. Transparency advocates worry this action may result in the CIA becoming more cavalier with targeting terrorists if its concerns about public scrutiny diminish.

Trump Administration Releases Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request. On March 11, the Trump Administration released its budget request for fiscal year 2020. This year’s budget—which essentially outlines the president’s priorities but does little to influence the kind of budget Congress will eventually draft—calls for $40 billion to be spent on State Department and US Agency for International Development programs. This would amount to a 23 percent decrease from the previous year. Learn about other provisions here and here and here.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II Visits US Officials in Washington. During a recent trip to Washington, King Abdullah II of Jordan held meetings with Vice President Mike Pence, presidential advisors Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, members of Congress, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. During the meetings, the officials discussed US-Jordanian relations and a host of regional issues of mutual concern, including peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

2) Department of State

Pompeo Speaks with Iraqi, Kurdish Leaders. On March 6, Secretary of State Pompeo held phone calls with the current prime minister of Iraq, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and the former president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, to discuss the general state of affairs in Iraq and the continued efforts to counter IS.

Ambassador James Jeffrey in Brussels for Donor Conference. From March 12 to 14, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, will be in Brussels, Belgium for a donor conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region.” It is noteworthy that Jeffrey will attend the conference shortly after President Trump released a budget that included cuts to millions of dollars of aid to opposition-held parts of Syria.

PLO Urges Against Diplomacy with New Palestinian Affairs Unit. The ACW column last week noted that the State Department collapsed the US Consulate General—historically the official channel for US-Palestinian communications—into a Palestinian Affairs Unit (PAU) inside the US embassy in Jerusalem. In response, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is now calling on the international community to forego interacting with the PAU for it contravenes international law, as a spokesperson wrote, and legitimizes an illegal act.

3) Department of Energy

Secretary Rick Perry Holds Bilateral Meetings with Middle East Officials. Beginning on March 11, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry was in Houston, Texas for CERAWeek, where he held bilateral meetings with the energy ministers of Israel and Egypt. Secretary Pompeo was also in attendance and he held a roundtable on the energy pillar of what is colloquially known as “Arab NATO.”

4) Department of Defense

Acting Secretary Shanahan Meets with Jordanian King, Qatari Defense Minister. On March 11, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan met with King Abdullah II of Jordan. He also met with the Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Khalid Al-Attiyah the following day. The meetings were intended to reaffirm Washington’s strategic security partnerships with the two countries.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here