The Senate voted twice on Thursday to challenge the Trump administration’s policies on Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
In a unanimous vote, the Senate held Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This statement went far beyond what the administration has been willing to say about the crime and signals that Congress is likely to revisit the issue next year.
Senators also voted 56-41 to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. This vote was particularly notable because it was the first time that a congressional chamber approved a measure that invoked the War Powers Act.
The votes are nonbinding because the House is unlikely to vote on either issue before the end of the lame-duck Congress.
Moreover, the Trump administration has warned that it will veto the measure if it passes both houses.
Nevertheless, the Senate actions set the stage for a fuller, broader, and more consequential congressional debate on both issues after a new Congress takes office in January.
Congress Needs Answers to Important Questions
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who co-sponsored the Yemen war resolution, has asked a key question: “Why should we continue to support Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen when the kingdom is killing our residents and lying about it?” (That was an allusion to the death of Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen who was living in Virginia).
The Trump administration must do a better job of explaining why these two important issues should not be conflated.
The Yemen war resolution is a blunt instrument that could inflict severe collateral damage on a range of U.S. national interests in the Middle East. It would punish not just Saudi Arabia, but the governments of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries fighting against the Houthis in the Saudi-led coalition.
An end to U.S. support could also benefit Iran, the Houthis’ chief source of support. Iran has sought to transform the Houthi Ansar Allah movement into the “Hezbollah of Yemen”—a permanent threat to regional stability and security that directly conflicts with U.S. interests.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has warned: “While the Saudis must answer for Khashoggi’s murder, congressional efforts to limit or end U.S. cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen risks emboldening Iran and increasing the suffering of the Yemeni people.”
Clifford May, the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has observed: “To punish Saudi royals by rewarding Iranian ayatollahs makes no sense.”
Before taking further action on the war in Yemen, Congress should seek satisfactory answers to these questions:
- Would cutting off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and other allies fighting in Yemen assist or set back efforts to reach a political settlement that would end the war and ease humanitarian suffering?
- Would abandoning U.S. allies fighting to defend what they see as vital national interests serve to advance the long-term national interests of the United States, or benefit Iran’s long-term interests?
- How can Congress hold Saudi Arabia accountable for Khashoggi’s death without demolishing bilateral Saudi-American security ties that advance American interests?
Now that the Senate has taken a firm stand against Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s death, it should divorce that issue from the issue of what to do about the war in Yemen.
As the contrasting tallies of Thursday’s two Senate votes indicate, it is much easier to fashion a statement about U.S. values in upholding human rights and the rule of law than it is to formulate a policy that protects American interests in the complex conflicts of the volatile and dangerous Middle East.
For more on this topic:
Ending U.S. Military Support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen Would Trigger Dangerous Consequences Chaos Will Erupt in the Middle East If U.S. Leaves Yemen
Why the Crisis in Yemen Matters to the United States
Iran’s Meddling Makes Yemen Regional Flashpoint
U.S. Should Encourage a Settlement in Yemen to Defeat Al-Qaeda and Contain Iran