The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump may be helping to create a famine in Yemen. Congress could stop him.

President Trump shakes hands with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
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Mark Pocan, a Democrat, has represented Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District in the House since 2013. He sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is first vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Donald Trump ran for president as the world’s greatest dealmaker. His first international destination as president, Saudi Arabia, is where he reportedly registered eight companies during his campaign. Yet by announcing one of the largest arms-sales deals in U.S. history during this visit, Trump is revealing to the world a dark side to his boasts of creating jobs: He may be helping to create a famine as well.

Yes, as Saudi Arabia is reportedly “pulling out all the stops” to “dazzle and impress” the president — not to mention the chief executives of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Dow Chemical and Blackstone who have followed Trump to the country — the Saudi kingdom is using U.S.-made planes and bombs to enforce a blockade of food and aid on its neighbor, Yemen, the poorest country in the region.

Last month, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres implored the world to ensure “the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid by air, sea and land” into the country to alleviate the suffering of 17 million food-insecure Yemenis caught in “the world’s largest hunger crisis,” which is “man-made” and is starving and crippling “an entire generation.”

Yet Guterres’s plea appears to be falling on deaf ears in Saudi Arabia. As my Senate colleague Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) maintained this week, “the Saudis are deliberately trying to create a famine inside Yemen in order to essentially starve the Yemenis to the negotiating table” — and “the United States is participating.”

In April, a bipartisan group of 54 of my House colleagues and I expressed deep concern that factions within the Trump administration are pushing for even deeper U.S. military involvement and escalation in this destructive Saudi-led war, which has directly killed thousands of civilians in indiscriminate airstrikes over the past two years. The Saudis’ seemingly deliberate bombing of roads, bridges, ports and cranes contributes to the death of a Yemeni child every 10 minutes, every day, according to the U.N.

If our dealmaker in chief ever had leverage in a negotiation, it would be this one. With a hundred billion dollars’ worth of U.S. planes, ships and precision-guided munitions on the line, Trump could simply demand that the Saudis end the blockade, refrain from bombing Yemen’s major port and enter into a U.N.-brokered political settlement in exchange for the U.S.-made weapons. But he doesn’t have to listen to a progressive Democrat like me — these are precisely the policies that Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) has been calling for. Even Trump’s own appointee to the World Food Program, former South Carolina governor David Beasley (R), argued that in light of the president’s visit, “it’s very, very timely that the United States apply all the pressure it can with regard to all parties involved, including Saudi Arabia.”

Trump has an opportunity to save millions of innocent lives — this may be the most consequential deal he has ever negotiated — and there’s every reason to worry that he’ll botch it by handing away billions of dollars in arms without extracting any concessions from the Saudis. That’s why the Constitution has granted Congress both the power of the purse and authority over war. Democrats and Republicans are increasingly alarmed that in Yemen, the Saudis are using U.S. planes to drop U.S. bombs, with U.S. pilots refueling them in midair and providing them with targeting assistance. This has become a U.S. war with no end in sight, a war that has never been publicly debated or congressionally authorized and that has nothing to do with fighting al-Qaeda — on the contrary, this war is strengthening al-Qaeda.

As a small-business owner myself, I know that no savvy entrepreneur can afford to bask in a photo op before a deal is final. And make no mistake: Congress has not yet approved this weapons sale. If Trump’s deal with the Saudis ignores the suffering of millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation, I can assure you that members of Congress will act swiftly, using every tool at our disposal — from blocking weapons shipments to forcing a debate and vote on U.S. military involvement in Yemen — to end this incomprehensible tragedy.