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) SessionsFBI opens tip line requesting information on Charlottesville rally Sessions rails against Chicago during visit to Miami DOJ warrant of Trump resistance site triggers alarm 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 PaulRand PaulCurtis wins GOP primary for House seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz Glimmer of hope in bipartisan criminal justice reform effort Trump barrage stuns McConnell and his allies MORE of Kentucky, Mike LeeMike LeeTrouble draining the swamp? Try returning power to the states Congress must act to protect data privacy before courts make surveillance even easier Five tough decisions for the GOP on healthcare MORE of Utah, Todd YoungTodd YoungNo. 2 Senate Republican backs McConnell in Trump fight Savings through success in foreign assistance Senate Dems propose crackdown on foreign lobbyists MORE of Indiana, and Dean HellerDean HellerWhy 'cherry-picking' is the solution to our nation’s flood insurance disaster Club for Growth endorses Nicholson in Wisconsin GOP primary Sen. Heller reveals: I voted for Trump MORE of Nevada—voted against the sale. Five Democrats broke with their party and assured Trump’s victory: Virginia’s Mark WarnerMark WarnerTrump declares 'racism is evil' after firestorm How the New South became a swing region How to fix Fannie and Freddie to give Americans affordable housing MORE, Missouri’s Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillSenators push for possible FCC enforcement over Lifeline fraud Democrat senator: Trump has elevated Kim Jong-Un to the world stage It's time for McConnell to fight with Trump instead of against him MORE, West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOPINION | 5 ways Democrats can win back power in the states Trump's Democratic tax dilemma Manchin eyed as potential pick for Energy secretary: report MORE, Florida’s Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe five kinds of Republicans who could primary Trump Overnight Tech: Senate confirms two FCC commissioners | Dems want more time on net neutrality | Tech groups push White House on 'startup visa' Senate confirms two new FCC commissioners MORE, and Indiana’s Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyTrump's Democratic tax dilemma FEC 'reform' a smokescreen to weaponize government against free speech It's time for McConnell to fight with Trump instead of against him 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 MurphyChris MurphyDem senator: Trump team has no idea how to handle North Korea crisis Trump admin not opposed to new war authorization Dem senator: Trump has sent signal that Russia has free rein MORE, Rand Paul and Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenTrump quietly putting his stamp on the courts Grassley shouldn't allow Senate Democrats to block judicial nominees Senate Dems push Trump admin to protect nursing home residents' right to sue 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 CardinCongress should think twice on the Israel Anti-Boycott Act Don’t let Congress amend the First Amendment Federal anti-BDS legislation – Common sense and constitutional 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 GrahamGraham: Trump's Charlottesville rhetoric 'dividing Americans, not healing them' OPINION: Congress should censure Trump for his unfit conduct Supporting 'Dreamers' is our civic and moral duty 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.