Senate votes to continue arming Saudis As Yemenis suffer the consequences
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On June 13, while Beltway politicos were focused on the Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants DOJ wades into archdiocese fight for ads on DC buses Overnight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector 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 PaulNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Fix what we’ve got and make Medicare right this year Despite amnesty, DACA bill favors American wage-earners MORE of Kentucky, Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle With religious liberty memo, Trump made America free to be faithful again This week: Time running out for Congress to avoid shutdown MORE of Utah, Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungTrump steps up threats to foreign aid Blue wave of 2018 stops in Indiana and Missouri Indiana GOP candidate targets Senate rival over past Trump criticism MORE of Indiana, and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Nevada Dems unveil 2018 campaign mascot: 'Mitch McTurtle' Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in MORE of Nevada—voted against the sale. Five Democrats broke with their party and assured Trump’s victory: Virginia’s Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Dem lawmaker wants briefing on major chip vulnerabilities Week ahead: Tech giants to testify on extremist content MORE, Missouri’s Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in Dems search for winning playbook MORE, West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMcConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in MORE, Florida’s Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in Week ahead: Tech giants to testify on extremist content Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds MORE, and Indiana’s Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDems search for winning playbook GOP anxious with Trump on trade Blue wave of 2018 stops in Indiana and Missouri 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 MurphyFlake's anti-Trump speech will make a lot of noise, but not much sense Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds MORE, Rand Paul and Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota EMILY’s List president: Franken did 'right thing for Minnesota' Dem pledges to ask all court nominees about sexual harassment history under oath 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 take the lead on reworking a successful Iran deal 'Fix' the Iran deal, but don't move the goalposts North Korea tensions ease ahead of Winter Olympics 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 GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House 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.