Although the brutal assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi may have begun to recede from the American public consciousness, Washington has clearly not moved on. In fact, the new Democratic majority in the House is poised, in partnership with key Senate leaders, to advance a bold agenda to bring accountability to the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and finally reassert congressional oversight of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
In no place is congressional action more urgent than in Yemen, where approximately half of the population—nearly 14 million people—remain on the brink of starvation due to the war and the ensuing economic collapse in the country. Although congressional pressure caused the Trump administration to finally call for an end to the war last October and cut off U.S. refueling support in November, the United States remains intimately involved in the Saudi- and UAE-led military operations in the country.
"Congressional action can finally begin not only to reorient U.S. foreign policy from an ineffective and destructive military-first approach but also help bring the parties to the conflict in Yemen to the negotiating table to the find a political solution on which so many Yemeni lives depend."
The newly minted House Foreign Affairs Committee’s first priority was to follow up on the Senate’s unprecedented passage of the war powers resolution on Yemen last December that positively influenced ceasefire negotiations in Sweden. It did so by marking up Congressmen Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mark Pocan’s (D-WI) (along with 68 bipartisan colleagues) war powers resolution on Yemen. The committee reported the resolution favorably out of committee this week, and there may be a floor vote by the end of February.
Senators Sanders (I-VT), Lee (R-UT), and Murphy (D-CT) have also reintroduced their war powers resolution, setting up another Senate vote to send the legislation to the president’s desk. Should the resolution pass both chambers as it is likely to do, it will set up a confrontation with Trump. He will have to decide whether to listen to the will of Congress in asserting its constitutional authority over matters of war or side with the Saudi and Emirati governments, whose support his administration views as essential to pursuing its primary goal of military confrontation with Iran.
Even if Trump vetoes the war powers resolution, passage in both chambers of Congress will continue to signal much-needed pressure to the Saudi-led coalition that a political solution is the only acceptable resolution to this conflict. It will also indicate that U.S. support for their indefinite military adventurism, which relies on collective punishment of civilians, is not a blank check. Although the December ceasefire and confidence-building agreement made in Stockholm remains precarious, further congressional pressure can have a positive effect in support of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ shuttle diplomacy.
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Should Trump decide to ignore the will of Congress, it will also provide the impetus Congress needs to take further action to limit U.S. military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen. A variety of legislative initiatives lie at Congress’ disposal and many have already been initiated.
Congressmen Ted Lieu (D-CA), Ted Yoho (R-FL), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) have introduced a stand-alone bill to permanently prohibit U.S. in-flight refueling to the Saudi-led coalition, thereby preventing the Pentagon from reversing its earlier decision to cut off this support. House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced legislation to punish Saudi Arabia for its murder of Jamal Khashoggi by ending all weapons sales and security cooperation with the country unless high-bar conditions are met. Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN) have reintroduced their Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which is a positive first step towards a comprehensive reformation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and U.S. policy in Yemen, and includes sanctions for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, a permanent end to refueling for the Yemen military coalition, and a nearly two-year suspension of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), an advocate for ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, can and should include many of these provisions in his base text for this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. He should also require a DoD Inspector General investigation into U.S. involvement in torture and other human rights abuses in UAE-run prisons in Yemen, and prevent U.S. complicity in foreign military partners’ human rights abuses by expanding the Department of Defense’s Leahy Law to apply to any advise, assist, accompany, or support activity undertaken by the U.S. military. Similarly, Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, should build on Senator Menendez’s continuing informal hold on further sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE by advancing legislation to permanently ban the sale of such weapons for a period of at least two years.
Following this week’s reporting that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are actively diverting U.S.-sold weapons to al-Qaeda-linked and hardline Salafist militias in Yemen—reportedly in violation of U.S. end-use agreements and in addition to their already documented cooperation with al-Qaeda in the country—it’s clear that Congress must place strong human rights conditions on the U.S. military relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Evidence continues to mount that their activities in Yemen not only violate international and U.S. domestic law, but also undermine U.S. national security interests by destabilizing the region and grossly violating U.S. values in the process.
Such congressional action can finally begin not only to reorient U.S. foreign policy from an ineffective and destructive military-first approach but also help bring the parties to the conflict in Yemen to the negotiating table to the find a political solution on which so many Yemeni lives depend. It’s encouraging that majorities in both chambers of Congress finally appear poised to act with this in mind.