How We Can End the Saudis’ War in Yemen

Saudi Arabia's apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi has provided the best chance yet to end US support for the Saudis' vile war in Yemen. Now is the time to ramp up the pressure.

Donald Trump meets with Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office, March 14, 2017. Mark Wilson / Getty

It’s long past time to end the vile war in Yemen.

A war crime almost from its inception — when a Saudi-led coalition entered a Yemeni civil war to topple the fundamentalist Houthis from power, and quickly turned to indiscriminately bombing the country’s civilian population — the three-year war has only reached new lows of moral depravity as the years have ticked on.

A Saudi blockade, coupled with the country’s deliberate targeting of food supplies, has pushed Yemen to the edge of the worst famine in one hundred years, producing sickening image after sickening image of malnourished children, a fraction of the 13 million people now at risk of starvation. The Saudis, who by now have dropped all pretense of going after military targets in the country, have bombed homes, schools, markets, mosques, factories, hospitals, weddings, a school bus full of children, and much else, killing at least ten thousand people so far, with children making up a fifth of the civilian deaths. The Saudi forces’ destruction of civilian infrastructure has also produced two cholera outbreaks in three years, affecting more than 1 million people, close to half of whom were children.

It’s difficult to overstate the rank human evil involved in the prosecution of this war, which has been supported every step of the way by Western governments, including Canada and, especially, the US and UK. Sadly, disgust at the news and images coming out of Yemen has not yet translated into widespread disgust at Western backing of the Saudis’ war — which, when it hasn’t been outright ignored by mainstream media and politicians, has been explicitly justified on the grounds of strategically isolating Iran (who are said to be aiding the Houthis).

That is, until now. No, Western officials haven’t suddenly remembered they’re helping a fundamentalist monarchy massacre children en masse. Rather, it’s the the Saudis’ alleged torture and murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi that is now threatening US and UK support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

This is crucial, because without such support, the Saudi war cannot go on. The US and UK currently provide the Saudi-led coalition with weapons, military equipment, and intelligence and logistical assistance, in addition to refueling their aircrafts. As former CIA and Pentagon official Bruce Riedel said in 2016: “If the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow, because the Royal Saudi Air force cannot operate without American and British support.”

There has been some movement in Congress to limit or end US support for the war. In March, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, Utah senator Mike Lee, and Connecticut senator Chris Murphy pushed for the withdrawal of US forces from the conflict (first deployed in 2015 by Barack Obama, who, true to form, didn’t bother getting congressional authorization). It failed when ten Democrats joined a largely party-line Republican vote in favor of maintaining US support.

For whatever reason, however, the Khashoggi story has been a game-changer, with senators — including some pro-war Republicans — expressing their openness to pulling US support as a form of punishment for the Saudi government’s alleged assassination. Go figure.

Most promising is Sanders’s decision, announced yesterday, to revive his earlier, unsuccessful resolution to end US involvement in Yemen wholesale, which had failed by only six votes.

Where to Apply the Pressure

How likely is Sanders’s resolution to succeed? While there’s been a remarkable turn in US sentiment toward Saudi Arabia, even among pro-Saudi politicians, any vote is going to be extremely close.

A number of prominent “anti-Trump” Republicans who opposed the resolution last time around have made noises over the past week suggesting they might flip. Arizona senator Jeff Flake, who’s leaving Congress at the end of his term, has said that US involvement in Yemen “certainly won’t survive . . . this kind of accusation, if it is true.” Tennessee senator Bob Corker, who has complained about the Saudis’ “arrogance,” has talked about ending Saudi arms sales, and says he’s working on a “pretty powerful” response. Florida senator Marco Rubio has said “there’s not enough money in the world for us to buy back our credibility on human rights if we do not move forward and take swift action.” South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham has pledged he is “not going back to Saudi Arabia” while the crown prince is in charge, and that he will “sanction the hell” out of the country.

It’s important to note that all of these men are proven political frauds who use grandstanding rhetoric to cover up their support of Trump’s agenda. And considering the Saudi government is currently concocting a story to exonerate the crown prince — the real purpose of which is to give Western lawmakers a pretext to keep backing the country — it’s all but certain that even half-measures like sanctions will be dead on arrival for these politicians.

The best hope, then, is to peel off some of the ten Democrats who previously voted against the measure through public pressure and protest. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, both Rhode Island Democrats, are two potential targets.

Whitehouse, who is comfortably leading his current Republican opponent, hasn’t uttered a word about the Saudi issue yet. Reed on the other hand, has supported selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in the past, a weapon that happens to have been manufactured in his state. While Textron, the Rhode Island–based company that made the munitions, no longer manufactures them — after Obama blocked their shipment to Saudi Arabia (something Trump has reversed) — the corporation still produces other weapons that the Saudis use. An additional complicating factor: defense contractors are among Reed’s top donors. Still, that doesn’t mean angry citizens hounding Reed at his office and on the phone might not force him to change course.

Catherine Cortez Masto could also flip. Although the Nevada senator has been silent on the latest Saudi news, she professed in June to be “deeply concerned” about the country’s actions in Yemen. Same with Bob Menendez, the corruption-tainted New Jersey senator who recently said he wants to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and called their “horrific campaign in Yemen” a human rights violation that must be stopped. Last month, Menendez, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “the status quo of current US policy on Yemen is difficult to defend.” (His campaign chair and longtime aide is also a lobbyist for Qatar, with whom Saudi Arabia has been feuding since last year.)

Likewise, Delaware senator Chris Coons could be pushed on the issue, despite his earlier reluctance to single out Saudi Arabia for criticism. Coons was one of seven senators who sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter last week challenging his earlier certification of Saudi behavior in the war. Under a clause in the National Defense Authorization Act, for the US to continue refueling coalition aircrafts, Pompeo has to certify that the Saudi-led coalition is taking steps to protect civilians and end the war. Coons and his colleagues pointed out the ludicrous contradictions of that certification, including that civilian deaths from airstrikes have increased since then.

Several of the ten Democrats are “red state” Democrats. Heidi Heitkamp, the conservative Democrat from North Dakota, voted to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia back in January, suggesting her amenability to removing the US from Yemen. But she’s also been trailing her Republican opponent for months, and her chances have been set back by a recent Supreme Court decision allowing the disenfranchisement of the Native American voters that helped put her in office in the first place. It’s a similar story with Ben Nelson, who is barely leading Republican Rick Scott in Florida, and Joe Donnelly, a conservative Indiana Democrat who has called for sanctions against Saudi Arabia, but is currently neck and neck with his rival in the polls.

Yet given the US public’s distaste for Saudi Arabia, a strong stance could actually help these candidates — doing the double duty of both running against the Saudi-friendly political establishment and being anti-al Qaeda, whom the US has been supporting as part of its involvement in the war.

Then there are the long shots. Joe Manchin is currently in a dead heat in a West Virginia, but given that he’s staked his political career on backing Trump, there’s no guarantee he’d vote for the measure even if he wins reelection. Doug Jones, best known for beating an Alabama pedophile by 1.6 points last year, has been a reliably right-wing vote since his election. But Jones, who can’t afford to lose any Democratic support if he wants to win reelection in 2020, could potentially also be nudged through popular pressure. In any case, it’s not as if continued support for the government that assisted the 9/11 hijackers would be a red line for even the state’s Republican voters.

One advantage is that Sanders is introducing the resolution next month. If it’s after voting day, this will not only give cover to timid Democrats who prefer not to cast any controversial-seeming votes prior to an election, but, if they lose, could also allow them to simply vote free of any perceived political risk. This may also depend on whether the Khashoggi assassination remains as fiery a controversy in a few weeks time as it is now.

While Republicans like Flake are more than likely just engaging in the performative outrage they’ve learned will get them mainstream praise and attention, one Republican who does genuinely appear to have shifted on the Saudi war in Yemen is Indiana’s Todd Young, who also cosigned the letter challenging Pompeo’s certification. Young has directly criticized the Saudi war, calling it a “gross violation of human rights,” said that the US needs to “leave all things on the table” to respond to Khashoggi’s alleged murder and other rights abuses, and insisted that Saudi threats shouldn’t stop the US from taking a stand against their use of starvation as a weapon of war.

But whether it’s someone like Young, conservative and liberal Democrats who are amenable to supporting the measure, or the few ostensible moderate Republicans like Susan Collins who voted for Sanders’s resolution last time, which side they fall on will depend on the level of pressure their constituents apply.

This is arguably the best chance we’ve had in years to end the horrendous war in Yemen. We can’t let it go to waste.