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Only in Washington is a debate about war in Yemen controversial


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in the United States last Monday to begin his two-week goodwill tour. His appearance coincided with a Senate vote on the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen’s civil war, and, eager to avoid angering the young autocrat, the Trump administration urged Congress to stand down.

“New restrictions on this limited U.S. military support could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism and reduce our influence with the Saudis,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). An accompanying Q&A sheet declared the Pentagon is not involved in the intervention’s “hostilities” and cannot verify whether its backing of Saudi airstrikes has contributed to the massive civilian casualties Yemenis have suffered.

{mosads}The 44 senators who voted last week to debate the matter further were not convinced — nor should they be. “The U.S. government claims that it’s not engaged in hostilities unless U.S. troops are on the ground being shot at by the enemy,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who cosponsored the legislation in question. “It stretches the imagination, and it stretches the English language beyond its breaking point, to suggest the U.S. military is not engaged in hostilities in Yemen.”


Sen. Lee is correct, and he is equally correct to insist that Congress address this matter. Whatever the Department of Defense (DoD) may claim, the situation in Yemen is clear, and it is grim.

No U.S. interests are at stake in Yemen, and yet, with support from Washington and the U.K., the Saudi alliance is enforcing a blockade on Yemen that has produced a man-made famine in the import-dependent country and contributed to widespread incidence of preventable disease, including a cholera epidemic with more than 1 million cases affecting one in every 28 Yemenis.

“Saudi-led coalition bombing has hit civilian targets more than 30 percent of the time, and that may be a conservative estimate,” notes The American Conservative Daniel Larison. “The coalition has bombed many schools, houses, weddings, funerals, medical facilities, and factories since 2015, and their campaign has targeted critical infrastructure needed to transport food and medicine to the most populated areas of the country.”

This is made possible by Washington, as the U.S. military has been tasked with enforcing the blockade, refueling Saudi jets for prolonged bombing campaigns, and providing intelligence about where to strike. The DoD’s communications to the Senate argue that American involvement can serve as a check on civilian casualties, displacement, and hardship; but the reality is the Saudi intervention could not continue at anywhere near its present level without American support. Washington is not serving as a check on Riyadh but as an enabler.

In addition to its humanitarian cost, the Saudi intervention has been marked by dangerous unintended consequences which threaten American security in a way the localized conflict of the Yemeni civil war cannot.

While Riyadh aims its fire at the Houthi rebels attempting to overthrow the internationally recognized Yemeni government, the local branch of al Qaeda has seized the opportunity to expand its reach. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is considered the terrorist group’s most lethal division, and stated goal is terrorism on American soil.

“As the coalition campaign began, AQAP increased its numbers and war chest by staging a massive jailbreak, seizing military hardware and robbing the central bank,” explains Oxford researcher Elisabeth Kendall at The Washington Post. “Ironically, AQAP benefited from the Saudi naval blockade,” she adds, “since this gave it a virtual monopoly over imports and generated an estimated $2 million a day.” Americans are thus made less safe by the very blockade our Navy is helping enforce.

It is this reckless and callous project Sen. Lee and the bipartisan group of senators supporting his bill seek to revisit. “For too long, and under both parties, Congress has abdicated its responsibility to provide authorization for the use of military force,”

Sen. Lee wrote in a letter with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) this month. “Regardless of what one thinks of our involvement in Yemen, as we enter a fourth year of helping the Saudis prosecute this war it is important that Congress either provides express authorization for our involvement in the conflict or calls on the president to cease operations.”

This proposal is not be controversial outside of the beltway: Americans want a more realistic foreign policy that serves the United States’ interests, not those of Saudi Arabia or other countries. President Trump and the DoD ought to support the Senate’s assertion of its constitutional war powers and stop trying to quash this overdue debate. There’s nothing “America first” about silencing Congress to make a foreign dictator happy.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chris Murphy Donald Trump Mike Lee Mitch McConnell

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