When the new Congress convenes Jan. 3, it is expected to pass a House resolution upholding congressional war powers and ending all direct U.S. involvement in the Saudi coalition’s war in Yemen. But hopes remain high that H. Con. Res. 138 will help to end the Yemen war itself. Congressional strategists and activists who have been working on the issue believe passage of the war powers measure will force Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the negotiating table.
Together, they are challenging the position of some former Obama administration officials who have warned the war powers resolution alone cannot bring the conflict to a close. Those former officials, led by Brookings Institution fellow Bruce Riedel, say that cutting off the Saudi pipeline of spare parts is the only way to prevent further airstrikes, which have been central to the Saudi war strategy.
Proponents of the war powers resolution, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, argue the Saudis will not be able to continue the war without the political-diplomatic support of the United States, and the Yemen resolution will make dramatically clear the Saudis can no longer count on U.S. support. How the Senate came to pass a version of the Yemen resolution, co-sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and ratified in December by a vote of 56 to 41, would appear to lend support to their argument.
The Khashoggi Effect
Until 2018, the Obama and Trump administrations had successfully avoided any congressional move to block U.S. support of the Saudi-Emirati bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, or the country’s air and naval blockade. That success was possible, at least in part, because the U.S. media largely ignored the mass starvation of the Yemeni people and unprecedented cholera epidemic these acts of aggression had wrought.
The media also failed to report on the United States’ direct role in that conflict. From mid-2017 to mid-2018, MSNBC ran only a single story that mentioned the United States’ in-flight refueling of Saudi planes and its provision of intelligence for Yemeni bombing targets.
Nevertheless, some key members of Congress were well informed about the United States’ complicity in the Saudi coalition’s crimes. As early as March 2018, when Sens. Sanders and Lee first introduced the Yemen war powers resolution, a head count by the office of co-sponsor Chris Murphy indicated it would pass the Senate with a narrow majority.
Several of those votes were lost in May to legislation by Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., which required the secretary of state to “certify” that Saudi Arabia was making efforts to end the war, increase access to humanitarian goods and “reduce harm to civilians.”
But this fall, a tragic event and dramatic revelations created new impetus for a Yemen war powers resolution: Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and hard evidence emerged that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government had ordered his murder and dismemberment over his critical coverage. The political impact of that story can hardly be exaggerated. Whereas before the media had been reluctant to report on the war, they were suddenly eager to document its myriad atrocities, including the ongoing starvation of Yemeni children.
The pressure on President Donald Trump to abandon his unflinching support of the Saudi regime intensified. Administration officials knew full well the Saudi coalition was already planning to capture the key Yemeni port of Hodeida—the country’s lifeline for food imports and humanitarian goods. That assault was scheduled to begin on Nov. 3, and it would have further weakened the administration’s case against a war powers resolution if one were brought to the Senate floor. The administration also knew by late October that Democrats likely would be taking control of the House of Representatives, where Republican leadership had successfully employed legislative tactics to prevent even a congressional debate on the Saudi-led war efforts.
The Administration Adjusts Its Yemen Policy
Between Kushner’s personal ties to Crown Prince Mohammed and the lure of tens of billions of dollars in arms sales, the Trump administration remained wedded to the Saudi regime. But it was now forced to make adjustments in its policy to try to shore up the collapsing congressional support for the war. So Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a call on Oct. 30 for a cease-fire in Yemen and peace negotiations within 30 days.
A careful reading of Pompeo’s statement, however, reveals two key giveaways to the Saudi regime: It did not require the Saudis to halt their bombing until after the Houthis had halted missile strikes on Saudi and United Arab Emirates targets, and the Saudi coalition was only required to cease bombing “populated areas,” evidently leaving it free to hit targets outside urban concentrations.
There would be more to come. After discussions with the Trump administration, the Saudi government officially requested on Nov. 9 that the U.S. end the refueling of the coalition’s aircraft for its Yemen operations. The Saudi statement said the coalition had “increased its capability to independently conduct in-flight refueling in Yemen,” and had therefore requested, “in consultation with the United States,” the “cessation of in-flight refueling support.”
Experts maintained the Trump administration had compelled the Saudis and their UAE allies to accept less capability—especially as it pertained to longer-range strikes by UAE aircraft—for domestic U.S. political reasons. Former National Security Council official Riedel, for one, commented that giving up U.S. refueling would make it harder for the Saudi coalition to “carry out strikes deep into Yemeni territory.”
All that elaborate maneuvering with the Saudis failed to influence the Senate, which voted, 63-37, in November to advance the Yemen war powers joint resolution. Prior to that vote, Pompeo and Mattis had briefed the Senate in an attempt to tamp down anger over the Khashoggi murder, attempting to sell the idea that American interests required U.S. support for the Saudi coalition’s war in Yemen. But senators who attended the briefing told reporters their arguments—especially regarding the crown prince and Khashoggi—had not been credible. If anything, Pompeo and Mattis had strengthened their determination to support the resolution.
In December, seven Republicans joined 49 Democrats in approving the Sanders-Lee resolution, 56-41, in a major rebuff to the entire foreign policy establishment. That vote was followed moments later with the unanimous approval of a separate resolution condemning the Saudi crown prince by name for Khashoggi’s grisly murder.
In a clear indication the Trump administration aimed to hold the line against a Yemen resolution, the Saudi coalition abruptly halted the Hodeida offensive it had begun 12 days earlier, almost certainly under U.S. pressure. The Saudis also agreed to participate in U.N.-brokered “consultation” that began in Sweden on Dec. 6 led by the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths.
Even before the conference had officially begun, Griffiths negotiated a swap of 2,000 to 3,000 prisoners held by the two sides. And on Dec. 13, Saudi Arabia and Yemen agreed to a cease-fire in Hodeida, where the fighting had been concentrated, although it soon broke down with mutual recriminations.
The Key to Yemen Peace?
The Trump administration’s official position, based on the notion that “limited support to member countries of the Emirati and Saudi-led coalition, including intelligence sharing, logistics, and, until recently, aerial refueling” did not constitute being “engaged in hostilities,” was that the resolution had no legal effect. But the activists and congressional staff who worked on the resolution are convinced that the administration’s frantic efforts to prevent its passage reveal just how powerful it will prove.
One Democratic congressional strategist involved in promoting the resolution acknowledged as much in an interview with Truthdig. “At the same time the Pentagon and the Trump administration were saying it would have no impact, they were scrambling to change the facts on the ground by unilaterally suspending air refueling,” the strategist said.
The strategist also admitted this “first assertion of war authorities by Congress” would “force the administration to retreat, and when the U.S. is no longer the steadfast patron of the Saudi coalition campaign, the Saudi coalition will be compelled to seek an urgent and immediate peace settlement.”
Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy, an activist membership organization that has been working to support the eventual passage of the Yemen resolution in both houses of Congress, agrees the resolution is bound to push the Saudis toward ending the war. “I’ve always believed any kind of congressional vote that says no in a toothy way like the war powers resolution would be enough to force the administration and the Saudis to change policy,” he told Truthdig.
Naiman called the administration’s gambit to head off passage of the resolution “a political signal the whole world sees.” He said he believes “the political-diplomatic signal is even more important than direct military participation.”
The war’s swift conclusion appears all but inevitable. While Crown Prince Mohammed may be committed to final victory, the Saudi regime remains heavily dependent on U.S. political-diplomatic cover, as it has since the beginning of the bombing campaign in Yemen. Ironically, that political reality could now tip the balance toward peace.