William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
Last week’s call by the Trump administration for a cease-fire in the war in Yemen “in the next 30 days” is welcome but long overdue. A similar demand could have been made at any time during the more than three years of Saudi intervention there, which has caused more than 17,000 civilian casualties, most of them because of Saudi/United Arab Emirates air strikes carried out with U.S.-supplied bombs and aircraft.
Unfortunately, there is reason to question the sincerity of the administration’s proposal. A similar statement by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in April of last year ended up being empty rhetoric not backed up by forceful action. And it was only back in September that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that our Saudi allies were taking due care to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen. The certification was required by legislation promoted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) as a condition for continued U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. The decision was cast in further doubt when it was revealed that members of the State Department’s legislative affairs department pressed for a pro-Saudi ruling, arguing that doing otherwise would jeopardize lucrative arms deals with the kingdom. The office in question is run by Charles Faulkner, a former lobbyist for Raytheon, which is a major supplier of bombs to Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo’s endorsement of Saudi conduct contradicts the reality of the country’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen — a campaign that has targeted hospitals, civilian marketplaces, weddings, a funeral and even a school bus carrying 40 children. Does this seem like the record of a country that is taking due care to avoid killing civilians?
The administration’s reversal on the issue of the Saudi role in Yemen is clearly tied to the outpouring of negative publicity the regime has rightly received for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has spilled over into a surge of scrutiny of the U.S. role in enabling Saudi behavior in Yemen. The killing of Khashoggi has prompted growing opposition to U.S. arms sales and military support for the Saudi regime on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Promising to end the killing in Yemen is the best way for the Trump administration to take the heat off of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But how can we tell if the promise is genuine?
One thing the administration can and should do is to end U.S. arms sales and logistical support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen immediately, as leverage to get Riyadh to the peace table. Why wait 30 days and risk more civilian deaths in a war that has already killed far too many people?
There is also a suggestion in the State Department’s official statement calling for the cease-fire that the Houthi rebels should stop first. For those who haven’t been following the conflict, perhaps this seems like a reasonable demand. But Saudi air strikes on civilians are not a legitimate quid pro quo for Houthi actions — they should be stopped in their own right. Doing otherwise could spark a “you first” approach that would allow the devastating bombing to go on for an indefinite period of wrangling, charges and counter-charges.
The best way to make sure the current opening for peace in Yemen isn’t allowed to pass is for Congress to persist in its efforts to end U.S. support for the Saudi war effort. In the House, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and more than 70 colleagues have introduced a measure that would end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen under the War Powers resolution, which requires congressional authorization for U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is poised to introduce a similar measure in the Senate. The last time he did so, in partnership with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), their measure garnered 44 votes. In the new climate created by the Saudi assassination of Khashoggi — and the increased scrutiny of the Saudis’ role in Yemen — a renewed proposal could well pass in the Senate.
Congressional action to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen is the best way to hold the Trump administration to its pledge to use its leverage with Riyadh to promote a peaceful conclusion to the war in Yemen. There is no time to lose.