Washington can continue to work with Riyadh, but it need never again accept flagrant violations of human rights, international norms, or U.S. national interests.
It’s not every day when members of Congress can move U.S. foreign policy in a more productive direction and save thousands of innocent lives at the same time. But this week, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Mike Lee, R-Utah; and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., did precisely that by forcing a debate and vote on a bipartisan war powers resolution requiring a U.S. withdrawal of all military assistance to the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition’s war effort in Yemen. The action by 63 Senators to advance this legislation is a long-overdue corrective to what has been nearly four years of unjustified and unauthorized U.S. involvement in a war where all combatants have engaged in war crimes on a weekly basis.
The United Nations has called Yemen the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis. This, however, is actually a mild description to what millions of Yemenis face every single day. The conflict has upended day-to-day life on an unimaginable scale: wiping out the country’s public health industry; raising the price of necessities such as food and fuel; sending the economy into a tailspin; and forcing parents to travel hundreds of miles through battlefronts in the hope of saving their children from starvation and disease. Some 85,000 children are estimated to have perished from starvation since the war began. Some 14 million people, nearly half of Yemen’s population, are now at severe risk of famine from the war – a man-made famine in which the U.S. would be culpable. If the Saudi-led coalition continues its attack on Hudaydah through which roughly 70 percent of the country’s food and fuel pass, the world could witness starvation on a scale it has not seen in decades.
As a primary supplier of arms, munitions, and logistical support to the Saudi and UAE coalition, the United States is directly complicit in the sorry state Yemen now finds itself. While the parties to the conflict bear primary blame for its effects, Washington’s unconditional assistance to Riyadh has undoubtedly served as kindling and prolonged the bloodshed. The Trump administration’s decision to terminate mid-air refueling to the coalition was a welcome, yet reversible, step in the right direction, even if the U.S. should never have provided such capability in the first place.
By advancing the Yemen resolution, senators in both parties have sent a clear message to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that America’s elected representatives are running out of patience. Just as importantly, by merely using the War Powers Resolution as a vehicle to force a national debate, lawmakers in the Senate have put the White House on notice that Congress as an institution is no longer content with being a passive spectator on some of the most critical issues of American foreign policy and our democracy: the power to determine when and where we go to war.
The Senate will now have the chance to fully debate our role in the war in Yemen. This Yemen War Powers Resolution can be the first mile on the road to a more intellectually honest conversation about reorienting the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Bilateral ties between Washington and Riyadh are in significant need of a comprehensive, uncomfortable reevaluation that recognizes the United States does not need Saudi Arabia nearly as much as the Trump administration likes to claim. After more than three years of leadership under King Salman and his favorite son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian government’s true nature has been revealed, and for the first time in recent memory, its international reputation has taken a massive hit. MbS’ actions over the past year have finally brought the war in Yemen out of the shadows and made the Kingdom no longer synonymous with “stability.”
Indeed, from the abduction and forced resignation of the Lebanese prime minister and the economic embargo of Qatar to an unnecessary diplomatic crisis with Canada and the state-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has made one self-inflicted mistake after another. Despite the administration’s intellectually dishonest claims to the contrary, Riyadh is proving itself to be less a security partner and more like a menacing tornado leaving destruction in its wake. For all the administration’s bemoaning of Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the region as the reason to stay allies with Saudi Arabia, MbS’ tenure as crown prince has shown such justifications to be based on an agenda for regime change, rather than based in fact. The reality is the United States needn’t pick sides in a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran – siding with Saudi Arabia serves no one’s interests except Saudi Arabia. The United States doesn’t have to put up with such behavior from Saudi Arabia—and it certainly shouldn’t enable its abuses at home and abroad as the United States has done for decades.
A new approach is needed. When U.S. national security interests are at stake, Washington can continue working with Kingdom on shared priorities. But it should do so with eyes wide open to the fact that the Saudi government’s words cannot be taken at face value, and never unquestioningly or unconditionally.
But the United States doesn’t need to put up with flagrant violations of human rights, international norms, or U.S. national interests. And working with Saudi Arabia on areas of mutual concern does not mean the U.S. should take Riyadh’s side in every regional dispute or allow the royal family to dictate the course of the relationship. This week’s vote in the Senate should push the White House to recalibrate its view of Saudi Arabia as less of an ally and more as an imperfect but at times necessary partner. If not, it looks like Congress will do it for them.