He urged Congress not to impose restrictions on the “noncombat,” “limited U.S. military support” being provided to Saudi Arabia, which is “engaging in operations in its legitimate exercise of self-defense.”
The war in Yemen has inspired much controversy in Congress, as lawmakers have questioned why the United States has involved itself so closely on the Saudi-backed side of a civil war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel forces. Successive presidential administrations have presented the campaign as a necessary component of the fight against terrorism and to preserve stability in the region. As Mattis put it in his letter to congressional leaders Wednesday, “withdrawing U.S. support would embolden Iran to increase its support to the Houthis, enabling further ballistic missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and threatening vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea, thereby raising the risk of a regional conflict.”
But critics point out that a fierce Saudi bombing campaign has worsened chaos on the ground that has allowed Sunni extremist groups and al-Qaeda affiliates to grow in strength, while humanitarian organizations have charged that the United States bears responsibility for the attacks on civilians in what the United Nations has called the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) are leading the Senate effort to invoke the War Powers Resolution and force a vote on ending the U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war — a vote that is now expected to take place next week, when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also visiting the United States.
For the three senators sponsoring the resolution, the question of U.S. engagement is primarily a constitutional one: Yemen, they argue, is a case in which Congress must reassert its constitutional authority to authorize hostilities that may not meet the traditional boots-on-the-ground definition of engagement but are commonplace in the 21st century.
“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,” Lee said on the floor Tuesday. “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.”
But in making their appeal for support, they have also highlighted the disastrous humanitarian picture in the country, arguing the United States bears responsibility for the suffering because the bombs the Saudi-led coalition is dropping on humanitarian targets “are made in the United States, are dropped by planes refueled by the United States, are directed by a targeting center that involves U.S. personnel,” Murphy said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“There is a U.S. imprint on every single bomb that is dropped,” Murphy continued, standing next to photographs depicting malnourished Yemeni children and scenes of destruction. “While we may talk a good game about humanitarian relief . . . all they know is that for three years, the United States has been supporting a Saudi bombing campaign that does not end.”
Mattis’s letter to congressional leaders is a clear attempt to warn senators that if they think the current situation in Yemen is bad, humanitarian suffering will worsen without the continued engagement of the United States.
Mattis sent his letter to leaders on the same day as senators gathered for a closed-door briefing on Yemen from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who will take over the State Department after the current secretary, Rex Tillerson, departs his post at the end of the month.
Senators sympathetic to the Yemen resolution said the administration’s appeal fell flat.
“I don’t think it was that convincing,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said, emerging from the briefing Wednesday.
“I am continuing to support the resolution,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
It is far from clear that supporters of the resolution will be able to secure the votes necessary to pass the measure.
But the Yemen resolution is not without precedent. Last year, the House voted 366 to 30 to approve a nonbinding resolution that the U.S. involvement in Yemen could not be covered by any of the existing authorizations for military force.
It is also not the only Yemen legislation pending in the Senate: Sens. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) periodically certify to Congress that Saudi Arabia is making “an urgent and good faith effort” to diplomatically end the civil war in Yemen and take measures to alleviate humanitarian suffering in the country. Shaheen said Wednesday that there were no plans to have a vote on that bill before the Sanders-Lee-Murphy privileged resolution is considered on the floor next week.
Last year, the Senate only narrowly defeated a measure to block an arms sale to the Saudis over unease that the government was using the precision-guided munitions against civilians in Yemen — an uncommon rebuke of Riyadh, long considered a close and key ally.
For the sponsors of that resolution, the vote on the privileged resolution is the logical and necessary next step in Congress’s efforts to reclaim authority over how the U.S. military is engaged around the globe in the name of fighting terrorism.
“Congress has got to assert its congressional authority over the issue of war,” Sanders said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Here’s the bottom line: If the United States Congress wants to go to war in Yemen, vote on that war.”