President Donald Trump has pushed some audacious foreign policies since entering office. From North Korea, to Iran, to China, many of these policies have been controversial to say the least. Despite this, the president has managed to keep the country moving in the direction he wants on many of those issues. But no one can win them all.
In a recent Senate vote, the upper house of Congress voted to end America’s military assistance for the Saudi Arabia- led coalition supporting the government of Yemen. Immediately following the vote on the U.S. military assistance, senators also approved a separate resolution to hold Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While the vote on the military issue was far from a landslide (the final count coming out to 56 to 41), the vote on Mohammed’s connection to Khashoggi’s death was unanimous. Together, these two Senate actions represent the strongest show of bipartisan opposition to President Trump’s stance on Saudi Arabia.
Long in Coming
Granted the two points voted on by the Senate last week were not fundamentally connected, the combination of the two “broke the camel’s back” as it were, on the issue of backing the Saudi Kingdom.
Ever since the U.S. began to quietly provide logistical support to the Saudis in Yemen, there has been a gradually growing group of policymakers vehemently opposed to America’s involvement in the country. This movement within Congress has only increased over the past year as the horror of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has come more and more to light. The murder of Khashoggi and the obvious guilt of the Saudi authorities only bolstered their position.
Already at the end of November, the Senate voted to advance a resolution demanding an end to U.S. support for the Saudi’s Yemen coalition. In an attempt to stave off the decision, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivered a rare classified briefing for the entire upper chamber. Their argument was two-fold: First, the United States needs to support it’s ally Saudi Arabia in a war that is absolutely necessary for the Kingdom to fight. Second, even if the U.S. did pull out of the country it would not have a dramatic effect on bringing the conflict to a close. “What would happen if the U.S. withdrew from the Yemen effort? Guess what: The war wouldn’t end,” Pompeo said in the briefing. The efforts of the two cabinet members, however, was for naught. The resolution passed on 28 November: 63 to 37.
As if in tandem with the Senate’s vote, the Defense Department announced it is billing the Saudi coalition for all the expenses of U.S. military support. “US Central Command reviewed its records and found errors in accounting where we failed to charge the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates adequately for fuel and refueling services,” Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement last week. Now the Pentagon is “correcting” this accounting error, and has sent Saudi Arabia and its main partner, the United Arab Emirates, a $331 million bill for those overdue charges. According to Commander Rebarich, the “reimbursement” being sought from the two countries includes $36.8 million in fuel and $294.3 million in flight hours.
End of the Line
Make no mistake, the Senate vote was a legislative referendum on President Trump’s entire attitude on Saudi Arabia. As Congress’s ire toward the Saudis has grown over the past year—first due to their tactics in Yemen, then more recently due to the Khashoggi murder scandal—the president’s position has been essentially one of “the-benefits-outweigh-the-costs.” In a White House press release from last month, Trump laid out all the reasons why the U.S. must maintain its support of the Saudi Kingdom—from their reliability as a partner in the Middle East, to their massive investment in the American economy. Trump put the full blame of the war in Yemen at the feet of Iran, stating that “Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave.”
While admitting that the “crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one,” the relationship of the United States “is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” as a whole and not with any individual leader who “may or may have not” had any knowledge of the plan to kill Khashoggi. Opposition to the U.S. involvement in Yemen has been brewing within the Senate for a long time. It was only a matter of time before it came to a head. Now, even lawmakers from Trump’s own part are saying that the administration has gone too far in its unconditional support of the Saudis. For instance, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that there was a “lack of balance” in the administration’s approach to Saudi Arabia. “As much as I respect them, there was no attempt to try to realign that,” he said. In his November press release, even Trump recognized the increasing apposition within Congress. “I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction,” Trump said. “I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me.” But in the end, the Senate did not present an “idea.” They simply pulled the plug on a major aspect of Trump’s Saudi support strategy.
While the senators who voted for these resolutions may have their reasons, the consequences of cutting off military aid to the coalition in Yemen will go beyond just punishing the Saudis. As Trump administration officials had highlighted, America’s efforts in Yemen are not just about helping Saudi Arabia, but also apposing the Houthi rebels backed by Iran. This point was also alluded to in Pompeo and Mattis’s private briefings. Yemen isn’t only about Yemen, it’s part of a larger regional contest with Iran. Love them or hate them, at the end of the day, the Saudis are providing “boots on the ground” in this more general effort to clamp down on Tehran. The fact that the Saudis just suffered a significant depletion in resources represents a major win for the Houthis, and by extension their Iranian patrons.