Congress is Rattled by the US Role in Yemen—But Will It Matter?

On August 9, the Saudi-led, anti-Houthi rebel coalition—consisting of Arab states Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, and the Gulf Cooperation Council states without Qatar and Oman—dropped a bomb on a school bus in Yemen, killing over 50 and wounding scores more, most of whom were children. For the Trump Administration, which has gone to great lengths to obfuscate the US military’s role in the fighting, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis claiming the United States is “not engaged in [Yemen’s] civil war,” the strike was justified because friends in Riyadh said so. There were, they claim, two Houthi targets on that bus.

For some members of Congress, however, the images of bloodied backpacks and tiny graves have proven to be too much. No longer are these elected officials willing to stand by as the United States helps perpetuate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. After all, the bomb that was dropped on the Yemeni children was made by US defense firm Lockheed Martin and transferred to the Saudis with approval from the US State Department. In addition, the midair refueling of coalition jets—without which these bombing sorties would not be possible—is a service courtesy of Washington, and US military personnel have been giving the coalition operational support, including providing intelligence that may be used to choose targets. All of this, according to Congressman Ted Lieu (D-California), “could qualify as aiding and abetting…potential war crimes.” By any reasonable standard, the United States is, in fact, involved in this war, at most as a co-combatant, and at least as a culpable enabler.

The latest strikes drew condemnation from across the Capitol. Granted, there have been small groups of objectors to US backing of the Saudi-led coalition’s fighting in Yemen since the Obama Administration first lent support to Riyadh and allies in 2015. Even President Barack Obama and his team showed a certain reluctance in aiding the coalition’s fight after well-documented missile strikes killed civilians at weddings and funerals; the president opted to bar the transfer of missiles and other munitions so as to distance the United States from the coalition’s possible war crimes. As the Trump Administration has lifted restrictions on arms transfers and seemingly emboldened Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and their partners, more and more members of Congress are speaking out.

Within days of the August 9 attack, Democratic members of the House, centrists and progressives, wrote to the Trump Administration demanding a briefing about the extent to which the United States aids coalition attacks. Possible 2020 presidential contenders like Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) also raised objections to US involvement in the war, with the latter taking a top ranking general to task for being less than forthcoming about the role of US officials in facilitating Saudi attacks. Despite all of this, it is an open question as to whether anything will really change, as there has been a deafening silence from the GOP majorities on Capitol Hill.

Some Republican lawmakers have spoken out against US involvement in Yemen. Indeed, Republican Senators Mike Lee (Utah), Todd Young (Indiana), and Rand Paul (Kentucky) have voiced objections. In the House, GOP representatives like Thomas Massie (Kentucky) and Walter Jones (North Carolina) have weighed in as well. Further, language in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), albeit timid and subject to the whims of the president, was adopted by bipartisan majorities in both chambers and ostensibly places conditions on how the United States can support the coalition in its fight against the Houthis. However, those looking for more than condemnations of coalition strikes and generic calls for a political settlement to end the fighting will likely be dissatisfied.

Up to now, criticism from Capitol Hill has been largely symbolic because few in the Republican majorities in the House and Senate have opted to challenge the president on this issue. Multiple times lawmakers have voted down legislation that would end US military support for the coalition’s operations. Even after the aforementioned NDAA provision became law, the president essentially wrote it off, signaling he may ignore the will of Congress—with hardly an objection from any member of the House or Senate leadership. To be sure, it is constructive to see Democrats in greater numbers raise the issue; but having a large number of elected officials in the minority party raising objections to attacks like the one on August 9 is well short of the heavy lifting necessary to change US strategy.

For their part, Democrats have tried to force the administration’s hand. For example, Senator Robert Menendez (New Jersey) has used his position as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to freeze transfers of missiles and other munitions to the Saudis, but that does not stop the midair refueling services and the operational support that make bombing sorties a reality. The Saudis already have plenty of bombs. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), who has been a leading critic of US support for the war in Yemen, has offered an amendment to the Defense Department’s appropriations bill that the Senate is currently debating, one that would cut off all funding for military support to the Saudi-led coalition until specific conditions are met. The fate of the amendment remains uncertain.

Useful as these steps might be, Republicans, with their House and Senate majorities, must act if anything is to change. They have the power to hold hearings to question officials about the military’s role in the war and, with their votes, lawmakers can finally prohibit the use of funds to support strikes on funerals, weddings, markets, and buses filled with children. However, the GOP has repeatedly proven unwilling or unable to stand up to President Trump. So while it is important that elected officials are speaking out, their words may prove too little to revoke the blank check the administration has given to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and their partners.

Finally, even if there is a seismic shift in the GOP caucus and enough members vote to withdraw US support for the Saudi-led coalition, little has been said about ending the broader war. An inconvenient fact remains in Washington: because the United States sells billions of dollars of weapons, munitions, and bombs to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it wields significant leverage to force the coalition to participate in good faith negotiations with the Houthis. The United Nations is working on a negotiating framework, but as long as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi feel they have Washington’s blessing to undertake this fight—under the guise of countering Iran—they have little incentive to halt the fighting. If Congress can make clear to members of the Saudi-led coalition that they will not receive any support until they stop targeting civilians and torturing Yemenis and buy into negotiating a political solution, perhaps US allies France and the United Kingdom would reduce their support as well and the Saudis would finally get the message.

The chorus of objectors on Capitol Hill is growing. Even privately, many in the GOP are likely fed up with the administration’s unfettered support for the Gulf states waging the war. But, until lawmakers band together and challenge President Trump on the issue, their words will ring hollow and the carnage will continue.