The Senate narrowly voted Tuesday to block a resolution to end US military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s bloody civil war. But the vote indicates that the debate over Congress’ role in authorizing such military action is far from over — and the Pentagon’s outreach to lawmakers, through letters and meetings ahead of the vote, suggests that military leaders were worried it could gain traction.
The final outcome in the Senate, which saw 55 senators in favor of tabling the bill and 44 wanting it to move forward, came after weeks of increasingly heated words from lawmakers in floor speeches and hearings with military officials. Spearheaded by a bipartisan group of senators, including Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, Utah Republican Mike Lee, and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, the resolution would have forced the withdrawal of any US forces from Yemen not involved in fighting al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
It argued that the Constitution states that only Congress can authorize the US to engage in war, forcing President Donald Trump to seek lawmakers’ approval in order to continue its backing of the Saudi-led coalition in the three-year civil conflict.
Choosing to table the resolution is "a choice to be willfully blind to the exercise of a power that belongs to us," Lee tweeted Tuesday afternoon.
The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for two-thirds of more than 10,000 civilian deaths in Yemen since 2015, according to the United Nations. The US military has been providing intelligence, munitions, and logistical support, including midair refueling to the Saudis, according to the Pentagon, which insisted such “non-combat support” complies with the law.
Tuesday’s vote came at an awkward time, as Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is currently visiting the US. As the Senate debated, the prince was visiting the White House, where Trump praised him as a "great purchaser" of US military equipment. His schedule in Washington also includes dinner with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and a meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein recounted a 2015 phone call she received from a Saudi official telling her that the country’s military actions in Yemen “would not last long” and would end after its airstrikes pushed the Houthis out of the country's capital, Sanaa.
“That was nearly three years ago, and the conflict has since grown into the world's worst humanitarian disaster,” she said. “We can't turn away from suffering because we are a party to this conflict...It's time we separate ourselves from this bloodshed. This resolution will send a clear message that we will no longer enable this proxy war.”
Also speaking on the floor, Lee argued that former president Barack Obama initiated the US military involvement in Yemen without permission from Congress.
“The current administration has continued Obama’s War…[we] are giving Congress a chance to fix this error by debating and voting on our nation’s continued involvement in the illegal war in Yemen," he said.
The resolution was opposed by the White House and Republican leadership, as well as the Pentagon. Mattis met with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday ahead of the vote. Asked by reporters if he was worried about the resolution, he answered, “I don’t worry about things.”
“New restrictions on […] limited US military support could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis, all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis,” he wrote in a letter to Congress last week, urging against restrictions on US support for the campaign.
“I ask that Congress not impose restrictions on continued limited US military support of coalition forces in engaging in operations in its legitimate exercise of self-defense,” he continued.
The Pentagon’s acting general counsel, William Castle, also argued in a letter to Congress that the US role in Yemen is too “limited” to need congressional approval, and that the resolution’s “premise is flawed.”
Many in Congress have become increasingly critical of US involvement in the civil war, suggesting that the US has become too closely aligned with Saudi-backed government forces fighting Iranian-backed rebels known as Houthis.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, said last week that Tuesday's resolution "would ensure that the United States is not giving the Saudis a blank check to bomb Yemen and worsen the humanitarian crisis.”
In a sometimes tense hearing last week, senators at a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee pressed the top US commander in the Middle East on the Pentagon’s accountability in Yemen as it backs the Saudi-led coalition.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, admitted that CENTCOM does not track where aircraft that the US is refueling is going, what targets it strikes, or the results of the missions. He also conceded that when media or local organizations report civilian casualties, the US military can’t tell whether its fuel or munitions were used as part of the strikes.
“We’re not parties to this conflict,” he insisted. “The people that are responsible for this are the Houthis. And they are — they are the ones — they are the central nexus to all of this, enabled by Iran.”
Many senators on the committee did not buy that reasoning. US defense officials argue, however, that that US involvement actually is tempering Saudi operations, which the Saudis would carry out regardless of US help. The Saudis also are more likely to agree to negotiations if the US remains involved, they say.
“We believe this is the best way to continue pushing this to a UN-brokered negotiation,” Mattis told reporters last week.
The three-year conflict has led to what United Nations officials describe as “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.” In addition to relentless bombing and the threat of starvation, Yemenis are suffering the outbreak of the fastest-growing cholera epidemic ever recorded.
In an attempt to ease concerns about its military campaign in Yemen, Saudi Arabia said it would engage in a $750 million program with the US military to help prevent the accidental killing of civilians.
The civil war has created the largest number of people facing severe food insecurity in the world, with 17.8 million people experiencing hunger, Matthew Nims, USAID’s acting director of the Office of Food for Peace, told Congress last week.
“Fighting has hampered commercial trade, which is devastating in a country that traditionally has imported 90 percent of its food and most of its fuel and medicine,” he said.