Congressional Opposition to U.S. Involvement in Yemen Builds

The State Department’s recent certification that the Saudi-led coalition is taking “demonstrable steps” to reduce civilian casualties has galvanized some lawmakers.

Rep. Ro Khanna speaks at a rally to support a Senate vote to withdraw U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia's bombing of Yemen on Monday, March 19.
Paul Morigi/AP Images for Avaaz
Sept. 30, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Trump administration has repeatedly rebuffed lawmakers’ efforts to rein in U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Yet in the wake of the deadliest month for civilians in Yemen, that unyielding stance has reinvigorated congressional opposition.

In the House, Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a resolution Wednesday directing Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from hostilities in Yemen, on the grounds that Congress never authorized support for the campaign against the Houthi rebels. Civilian casualties have surged in the wake of the Saudi push to retake Hodeidah, a strategic city held by the Houthis that imports roughly 70 percent of supplies into the country.

Khanna’s resolution was cosponsored by two dozen Democrats—including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Reps. Eliot Engel and Adam Smith, the ranking members on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Armed Services Committee, respectively—as well as three Republicans. That’s a sizable jump from last October, when Khanna introduced a similar resolution with only three cosponsors.

“With every passing month, more and more members of Congress oppose the U.S. assistance to [the] Saudi coalition in Yemen, because we have continuously seen airstrikes on civilians nowhere near military targets,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, who signed onto Khanna’s resolution. “Those airstrikes look like war crimes, and whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you don’t support war crimes.”

Opposition has also intensified in the Senate, particularly after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified this month that the Saudi coalition in Yemen was taking “demonstrable actions” to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen. Pompeo was required to either certify compliance or issue a national security waiver under an amendment to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

Sen. Chris Murphy called Pompeo’s certification “absurd” and said it will be a “black mark” on the administration. “[The coalition] is absolutely targeting civilians,” said Murphy. “Everybody knows it.”

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Todd Young, who were responsible for the inclusion of the resolution requiring certification or a waiver, also criticized Pompeo’s decision. In a statement, Shaheen said the administration is “deliberately sidestepping congressional oversight,” and told National Journal that the administration “has not made the case” for U.S. support to continue. Young said that he is working with the administration to “reconcile some of the facts” in the certification.

“It strikes me that there’s a tension between those two things,” said Young. “The facts on one hand, and the decision to certify on the other.”

Unclassified portions of the report acknowledge instances of noncompliance with the Arms Export Control Act. The Senate is authorized to hold a majority vote to restrict arms sales under the law.

The report also states that “recent civilian casualty incidents indicate insufficient implementation of reforms and targeting practices. Investigations have not yielded accountability measures.” The report states that details are provided in the classified annex, which was not released publicly.

Under the resolution, Pompeo could have forgone certification, and instead issued a national security waiver. This would have given him “leverage” in negotiations with the Saudi coalition, said one senior congressional aide.

“If the administration makes the same mistake for the next two required certifications and is not more responsive to congressional concerns in the meantime, it will empower those on the Hill who want to end all aspects—not just the civil war—of U.S. involvement in Yemen,” said the aide. “If we want to oppose Iran’s activities in Yemen, we should start by demanding better of partners who benefit from our support and using all leverage available to end the civil war and promote a sustainable political solution.”

Also fueling lawmakers concerns, The Wall Street Journal reported this month that most State Department staffers involved in the decision—advisors at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration—opposed Pompeo’s decision, but that he was swayed by his legislative affairs team, which was concerned that non-certification would jeopardize the sale of military equipment to the Saudi coalition.

Sen. Bob Menendez has placed on hold the sale of roughly 120,000 Raytheon precision-guided missiles to the Saudi-led coalition. Pompeo’s legislative team is led by a former Raytheon lobbyist.

In a press briefing the day after the certification was announced, State department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the NDAA “did not require perfection” from the coalition, which is making “good-faith efforts” to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen.

Some State Department employees were upset by the certification, according to several nongovernmental-organization workers who met privately with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green hours after the decision to certify Saudi compliance.

“The feeling, the energy, or the animation—you could tell that [the State Department attendees] were distraught by what’s going on in Yemen,” said one attendee, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussion.

But officials insisted that diplomatic pressure is best exercised behind closed doors. “They really emphasized, ‘You have to believe us—it’s very harsh in how we talk to [the Saudi coalition],’” said the attendee. “‘We are very animated in our conversations with them.’”

Joel Charny, executive director of Norwegian Refugee Council USA, said that the administration’s reluctance is driven by their “core analysis” of the war: the Saudi-led campaign is countering an “Iranian proxy force” in Yemen. “Is the U.S. trying to halt what would be an absolutely disastrous and destructive attack on Hodeidah? Yes, I’m sure that at senior levels, they are trying,” said Charny. “Are they upset when the coalition bombs a school bus and kills 40 children? Yes, they are upset. But they’re not upset enough to fundamentally disrupt the dynamic of the war, as they perceive it.”

When asked at the most recent meeting why Pompeo did not issue the national security waiver, Sullivan demurred. “His response from what I remember was, ‘Yes, we could have done that.’ Full stop,” one attendee said.

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