The US senate voted yesterday on a bill to end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The chamber, which regained a Republican majority during recent elections, voted 63-37 in passing a bill seen by commentators to be a strong rebuke of President Donald Trump over his handling of the Jamal Khashoggi case.
The bipartisan resolution introduced by the independent Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Republican Senator Mike Lee and Democrat Chris Murphy, called for the “removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorised by Congress”. The measure invoked the War Powers Resolution, which checks the president’s power to commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of the US Congress.
If the push is successful, it will be the first time since the act was passed in 1973 that it has been used to end a foreign operation; a scenario which the Washington Post says will put the Senate in somewhat uncharted legislative territory.
The overwhelming support for the bill is seen to represent a highly symbolic act of defiance against the Trump government. Two of the most senior members of the White House administration, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and Defence Secretary, James Mattis, were called to brief the entire Senate on matters related to US relations with the Saudis concerning the war in Yemen.
After casting his vote, the Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, was reported by the Guardian expressing his admiration for Pompeo and Mattis but adding: “I found their briefing today to be lacking. I found that in substance we’re not doing those things that we should be doing to appropriately balance our relationship with Saudi Arabia between our American interests and our American values.”
Senators were keen to point this out that following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump has faced repeated criticism for failing to defend “American values” and interests, preferring instead a relationship built on money and personal ties.
Yesterday’s vote is seen as a showdown between the White House and Senate which, as the Post points out, have been tiptoeing toward a standoff over Saudi Arabia for more than a year, as an increasing number of senators have backed efforts to halt certain arms sales or end other military support for the Saudi-led coalition battling Iranian-backed groups in Yemen. But the willingness to formally admonish Saudi Arabia grew after Khashoggi’s death.
Pompeo and Mattis are reported to have struck a defiant tone, telling the Senate that US support for Saudi Arabia was a national security matter, and the without US involvement, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen would have been worse.
“All we would achieve from an American drawdown is a stronger Iran and a reinvigorated ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” said Pompeo, using an acronym for Daesh. “Try defending that outcome back home.”
US lawmakers however appear to have grown tired of such strategic arguments, saying that Trump should prioritise the defence of American human rights ideals — such as condemning the killing of a journalist — and not look the other way. “I’m all for realpolitik, but that suggests that you accept the truth,” Senator Jeff Flake said of Khashoggi’s death, adding that if Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman “wasn’t directly involved, he certainly knew of it”.
Despite the resolution getting the backing of 63 senators, the bill is believed to stand little to no chance of clearing the House, where Republican leaders already intervened once this month to block members from voting on a similar measure.