Senate votes to continue arming Saudis As Yemenis suffer the consequences
© Getty Images

On June 13, while Beltway politicos were focused on the Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWyden presses FBI for information on inflated encryption figures ‘Whatever’ isn’t an option for immigrant children Comey blasts Trump's FBI claims: 'How will Republicans explain this to their grandchildren?' MORE hearing, a momentous vote critical to the future of the Middle East occurred on the Senate floor. It was a vote about whether or not to support the Trump administration’s plan to sell precision-guided munitions to the Saudi regime; Trump won by a slim margin of 53 to 47.

The vote broke down mainly along party lines. Four Republicans— Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Energy: Reporters barred from Day 2 of EPA summit | Dems blame Trump for gas price increases | Massachusetts to get new offshore wind farm Senate Democrats look for traction on gas prices GOP Senate primary heats up in Montana MORE of Kentucky, Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeDenial of services to same-sex couples can harm their health GOP Senate primary heats up in Montana Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA MORE of Utah, Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungDems win nail-biter in charity congressional soccer game Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA International trade: Big business for small businesses MORE of Indiana, and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerKennedy retirement rumors shift into overdrive McConnell: Midterms will be 'very challenging' for GOP Singer Jason Mraz: Too much political 'combat' in Washington MORE of Nevada—voted against the sale. Five Democrats broke with their party and assured Trump’s victory: Virginia’s Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerConservatives leery of FBI deal on informant Overnight Finance: House sends Dodd-Frank rollbacks to Trump | What's in the bill | Trump says there is 'no deal' to help ZTE | Panel approves bill to toughen foreign investment reviews DHS secretary says she hasn’t seen assessment that Russia interfered to help Trump win MORE, Missouri’s Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Republicans see some daylight in midterm polling Trump urges anti-abortion advocates to rally in November Calif. gov candidates battle for second place MORE, West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Finance: House sends Dodd-Frank rollbacks to Trump | What's in the bill | Trump says there is 'no deal' to help ZTE | Panel approves bill to toughen foreign investment reviews House votes to ease regulation of banks, sending bill to Trump Senators demand answers on Trump’s ZTE deal MORE, Florida’s Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonPoll: 8 in 10 people in key states concerned about driverless cars Ted Cruz and Bill Nelson give NASA a reality check on privatizing International Space Station Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade MORE, and Indiana’s Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — House passes 'right to try' drug bill | Trump moves to restrict abortion referrals House votes to ease regulation of banks, sending bill to Trump House approves 'right to try,' sends bill to Trump's desk MORE. Activists denounced the Democrats who broke ranks and accused them of caring more about contributions from weapons makers than the lives of Yemeni children.

In anticipation of the vote, a coalition of peace and humanitarian aid groups launched a vigorous campaign to support the anti-weapons resolution sponsored by Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDem senator: I support 'real' Second Amendment, not 'imaginary' one Frustrated Trump wants action on border wall, immigration Michigan Dem: Detroit-style pizza 'sweeping the nation' MORE, Rand Paul and Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenSenators introduce bill to overhaul sexual harassment policy Ex-White House ethics counsel: More evidence against Trump than there ever was against Nixon 100 days after House passage, Gillibrand calls on Senate to act on sexual harassment reform MORE. Thousands of activists around the nation emailed, called, and visited their senators. Among the more clever tactics was a teach-in on Saudi Arabia in the D.C. office of Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinSenate panel unanimously approves water infrastructure bill Kim Jong Un surprises with savvy power plays Overnight Energy: EPA moves to roll back chemical plant safety rule | NASA chief says humans contribute to climate change | Pruitt gets outside lawyer MORE (D-Md.) by activists who refused to leave until the senator released a public statement against the sale.

On the other side were lobbyists for the Saudi government and the weapons industry. Officials from the Trump administration also lobbied extensively, spending hours before the vote frantically making phone calls and holding briefings with lawmakers when they realized the vote would be a close one.

The vote reflected an unprecedented level of opposition in the Senate. Murphy and Paul tried to pass a similar resolution of disapproval during Obama’s presidency last fall, but the measure failed by a 71-27 vote. “Today’s vote total would’ve been unthinkable not long ago, but Congress is finally taking notice that Saudi Arabia is using U.S. munitions to deliberately hit civilian targets inside Yemen,” said Murphy. The more cynical interpretation would be that Democrats are more willing to criticize Saudi weapons sales under a Trump administration than under a Democratic one.

Moreover, the sale of Raytheon precision-guided munitions is only a small portion of the massive $110 billion sale President Trump boasted about after his trip to Saudi Arabia in May, and there is no move in Congress to challenge that larger transfer.

The precision munitions were selected because they would be used in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and reports have shown that the Saudi air force has used U.S. weapons to bomb schools, hospitals, residential neighborhoods and water infrastructure. 

Humanitarian groups clearly outline the devastating consequences of these strikes; a Yemeni child dies every ten minutes from the consequences of the war and an outbreak of cholera has sparked a national emergency.

Some senators, including Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — GOP centrists in striking distance of immigration vote Dem leaders request bipartisan meeting on Russia probe Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA MORE (R-S.C.), justified the sale because of Iran’s support for the Houthis; others, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), saw the benefits in terms of jobs back home. Others argued that precision-guided munitions were less likely to cause civilian collateral damage, despite the fact that the most deadly bombings by the Saudi-led forces used precision weapons and that the problem was not the bombs but the targets the Saudis picked.

“The Saudis will tell you they need these precision-guided missiles to more effectively target Houthi military assets inside Yemen,” said Murphy  “The fact is, they have deliberately targeted humanitarian and civilian assets within Yemen. They are purposefully trying to create a humanitarian nightmare to starve the Yemenis to the negotiating table. The United States should not be a part of that strategy.”

It was after Saudi Arabia bombed a funeral hall in October 2016, leaving 150 dead, that the Obama administration put a temporary hold on a sale of precision-guided munitions, a decision quickly reversed by the Trump administration.

With the green light for this sale and the larger weapons package, the U.S. government will continue to arm a regime responsible for the spread of Wahhabi ideology and terrorism around the world. More weapons to the Saudis will exacerbate the tragic plight of the people of Yemen, the upheavals raging throughout the Middle East, and the backlash by terrorist groups in the West- all the while fattening the profits of the weapons makers. But why waste our time on such frivolity when we can be mesmerized by the national obsession over Russian interference in our democracy?

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of and author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.