The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a Saudi national and U.S. resident who spent much of his career explaining the kingdom to Americans and more recently adopted a critical approach—has brought long overdue scrutiny to Saudi Arabia’s most toxic and destabilizing policies. Khashoggi’s tragic death, apparently at the hands of a hit squad dispatched by the Saudis’ top leadership, has finally spurred the United States to ask uncomfortable questions about its complicity in Saudi policy. A critical mass of American politicians in both parties now have the opportunity to challenge Saudi preferences and clarify American interests.
One of their top priorities should be to disentangle the United States from the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen. American policy in the Gulf cannot be subsidiary to weapons sales: major contracts must be reassessed so that they serve American policy interests, rather than drive them. Finally, a principled and strategically sound recalibration on Yemen can spur an even more important process: the revival of congressional oversight of America’s wars. It’s time to begin reversing the militarization of foreign policy and rethinking the logic of America’s reflexive and unconstrained global war on terror.
Bipartisan frustration was already building over the trajectory of the Yemen War and Saudi’s seeming indifference to congressional concerns even before Khashoggi’s murder. The Trump administration is unlikely to dramatically change course, but Congress has the authority to restrain the worst excesses of America’s involvement in Yemen and, equally important, to force a debate about our forever war.
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The Tragedy in Yemen
When Saudi Arabia launched its intervention in Yemen in March 2015, it expected a short campaign that would enable Riyadh to dominate its southern neighbor. Despite some diverging strategic priorities, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed on and provided the lion’s share of the ground troops. The Obama administration raised some concerns at the outset of the Saudi-led intervention, but ultimately agreed to provide military and intelligence support. Mohamed bin Salman, then defense minister and deputy crown prince, sold the war as a necessary response to Iran’s growing power in the region. Officials from the United Arab Emirates spotlighted the importance of limiting the power of Islamists and dealing a decisive blow against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Following a bruising fight over the Iranian nuclear agreement, the Obama administration relented to pressure from its Arab Gulf partners, who myopically viewed the agreement as a betrayal. Some of Obama’s advisers believed that U.S. participation could reduce civilian casualties and enable better strategic decision making by the parties to the war. Obama ultimately signed on despite voicing reservations.
The war quickly distinguished itself as a humanitarian fiasco even in a region already host to some of the most violent crises of our time, namely in Libya and Syria. The scope of destruction and human suffering in Yemen is staggering. Some estimates hold that 50,000 have died in Yemen as a direct consequence of military action, half of them civilians; perhaps many more have died from war-related disease and malnutrition. At least 2.3 million Yemenis have been displaced according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 22 million Yemenis require some form of humanitarian assistance; 8 million are on the brink of famine; and 16 million do not have access to safe drinking water. In October 2016, Yemen suffered an outbreak of cholera affecting nearly a million people, only to be further exacerbated by the war. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, of preventable causes.
Saudi and Emirati forces have been blamed by humanitarians for the famine and epidemics. The Saudi-led coalition has sporadically blocked access to the country’s ports and has made it difficult and at times impossible for humanitarians to reach the millions of desperate Yemenis. Coalition forces have been accused of torturing detainees and of holding Yemenis in secret prisons. Most troubling has been the indiscriminate nature of the bombing campaign, which has repeatedly struck civilian targets such as school buses and funerals.
Some proponents of the Yemen War claim that the strategic benefits justify the humanitarian costs. Echoing the arguments of the Saudi leadership, supporters of the war argue that Iran is eager to create a new Hezbollah on the Arabian Peninsula, and only robust military action has limited Iran’s latest expansionist project. The war, according to this view, has also dealt serious blows to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of Al Qaeda’s most vigorous affiliates. Saudi and Emirati leaders blame Yemen’s Houthis, and their Iranian supporters, for the harm that has befallen the country’s civilian population. Meanwhile, the Houthis have fired long-range ballistic missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia’s heartland, creating a new and tangible security threat.
Under scrutiny, however, the strategic justifications don’t hold up. In almost every case, the war has made old problems worse while creating new ones.The Houthis were not by any stretch an Iranian proxy at the outset of the current conflict, but welcomed ever greater levels of assistance and coordination from Tehran as they responded to the Saudi-led escalation. Today, the Houthis are much more strategically aligned with Iran than ever before—as a result of a military campaign that was supposed to curtail Iranian reach. Furthermore, the harm to civilians is a clear result of the air war and blockade: Saudi and Emirati talking points on this part of the conflict have failed to convince most Yemen observers.
The Houthis are much more strategically aligned with Iran than ever before—as a result of a military campaign that was supposed to curtail Iranian reach.
AQAP has suffered serious setbacks in its ability to undertake ambitious international terrorist operations, but the prolongation of the conflict and the resultant instability provides the group with a conducive environment to sustain itself and regenerate that external capacity.
The United States is directly implicated in the air campaign because it refuels the bombers and provides targeting intelligence, although the extent of that support remains unclear. Many American policymakers were willing to shoulder the risks of involvement because they hoped that careful U.S. advice would reduce casualties and enable Saudi and Emirati forces to concentrate their fire on military targets. Sadly, that has not proven to be the case. Whether because the Saudi-led coalition has ignored advice or is technically incapable of operating more precisely and with oversight, the strikes have fallen short of the already low standards set by America’s campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
The United States has thereby lost considerable face in the region, which has further diminished its ability to condemn war crimes with authority and to call for reasonable dispute resolution between the Middle East’s competing regional powers. Iran has found a low-cost new venue in which it can successfully thwart Saudi ambitions, while cultivating another allied militia. And as a bonus, Iran has been able to tie up American resources and political attention. Furthermore, as the war has dragged on, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been unable to achieve any of their stated war aims. In private, some Gulf officials make clear that they no longer expect a military resolution in Yemen, and hope that a political agreement can give them a way out. The United States, meanwhile, is tethered to the bad choices of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, now Saudi’s de facto ruler.
United States’ assistance to the Saudi-led coalition primarily consists of aerial targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and regular refueling of Saudi and UAE aircraft. However, the United States has also provided much of the coalition’s military equipment. Under the Obama administration, the United States agreed to sell approximately $112 billion worth of military equipment—including aircraft, helicopters, and air defense missiles—to Saudi Arabia. Last year, President Trump developed a memorandum of intent with Saudi Arabia to fulfill approximately $110 billion in arms sales over the next ten years, although much of that figure includes deals reached under Obama. Similarly, since 2009, the United States has negotiated deals with the UAE worth approximately $27 billion.
Not all of these weapons deals directly support the military campaign in Yemen, but the types of weapons involved figure heavily in the conflict, including precision-guided munition kits, F-15s, THAAD defense missile systems, Apache helicopters, and other fighter aircraft.
The real question, however, is of American culpability—legal, political, and moral. Pentagon lawyers argue that, based on their read of U.S. law, the United States is not legally engaged in direct hostilities in Yemen. This Pentagon position has shaped U.S. policy. For example, the Pentagon has told Congress that American refueling of coalition bombers does not amount to direct involvement. Some members of Congress have recoiled at the legalistic nature of the claim; and Yemeni civilians at the receiving end of an indiscriminate bombing campaign have not parsed responsibility along such fine lines. Regardless, there are serious legal arguments that U.S. officials could be held liable for their role in aiding and abetting war crimes. In any case, the United States is considered a central player in the conflict, and cannot escape political blame for the disastrous turn it has taken. The moral calculus is clearest of all: unlike murkier conflicts, where the United States can plausibly point to strategic benefits of messy engagements, in Yemen the human toll is damningly high, and is accompanied by a strategic loss rather than a mitigating payoff.
We know about some of the worst missteps in Yemen because of the work of local advocates, humanitarians, and journalists; but there is a great deal that remains completely opaque about the conflict and the United States’ role in it. Allegations about secret prisons, naval blockades, private military contractors, and much else have not been subjected to serious scrutiny. The administration has shirked even the minimal obligations that it has, under U.S. law, to report back to Congress about the nature and impact of American activities in the Yemen War. Historically, U.S. administrations have not found it difficult to convince lawmakers that essential U.S. interests are at stake in different conflicts, and have obtained waivers or other congressional permissions for all types of ventures. What’s different now is that the Trump administration isn’t even trying.
The Role of Congress
Even prior to the Khashoggi murder, some members of Congress had begun expressing frustrations over the consequences of the war and the administration’s refusal to answer questions.
In June of last year, the Senate only narrowly defeated a measure that proposed to block the sale of $500 million in precision-guided munition kits to Saudi Arabia. In June of this year, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, placed on hold a potential U.S. sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE worth $2 billion. In the House, Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) introduced a resolution to withdraw U.S. troops “from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen, except those engaged in operations directed at Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” signifying opposition to the war in general.
The Khashoggi affair has reignited calls to scrutinize U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Senator Lindsey Graham said he plans to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Senator Bernie Sanders went further, telling CNN, “I think one of the strong things that we can do is not only stop military sales, not only put sanctions on Saudi Arabia, but most importantly, get out of this terrible, terrible war in Yemen.” In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Senator Chris Murphy called on Congress to block any pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and hold hearings on the kingdom’s repression of domestic dissidents.
Congress can and should pass resolutions against the existing arms contracts connected to the war, and it can demand that the administration provide compelling national security arguments to continue any sales. For instance, the administration could easily convince Congress to approve sales of defensive weaponry, like anti-missile batteries that could protect Saudi Arabia from Houthi Scud missiles. Furthermore, Congress can and should demand that the administration fulfil its existing reporting requirements. Members of Congress have asked tough direct questions that Pentagon can answer about the impact of American refueling, and the nature and impact of targeting intelligence.
Those measures alone, however, will not be enough. Congress ought to write new legislation that imposes far more substantive reporting and certification obligations on the administration. Legislation with more teeth would make it much harder for the administration to treat certification as a hollow pro forma exercise. Such legislation should not allow for national security waivers, which in the past have been used by administrations to sidestep Congressional oversight. Tougher legislation would also suspend ongoing sales if the administration does not actively fulfil its reporting requirements. The Pentagon has an affirmative obligation to prove that its actions are fulfilling the United States’ stated aims—in the case of the Yemen War, that U.S. actions are advancing strategic aims and reducing civilian casualties.
The problem of weapons sales transcends the Yemen War and has contaminated a growing swathe of U.S. policy. Weapons sales have acquired a pernicious logic of their own, as if funding the U.S. weapons industry were a jobs creation program and national security policy simply a means to promote domestic economic growth. U.S. weapons sales can be a major driver of conflict and have routinely complicated foreign policy in regions where the imperative to maintain market shares conflicts with core U.S. interests. In specific cases like the Yemen War, where weapons sales run so thoroughly against U.S. policy goals, they should end conclusively.
To date, the United States has been almost entirely unwilling to give up any weapons contract, no matter how noxious, because of the adverse impact to the U.S. economy. This type of path dependency is counterproductive. The United States must be willing to forego profitable contracts that harm our interests or bind us to ineffective allies or specific misguided policies.
Winding Back the Forever War
The line between the Yemen War and America’s global war on terror is not a long one. Congress authorized the president to use military force against the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks. Since then, military action has become a reflex rather than a rarity. U.S. foreign policy since 2001 has been dominated by direct and indirect intervention, ranging from outright invasion and occupation, as in Iraq in 2003, to dozens of undeclared and unmonitored actions that might not meet the legal definition of direct military action. Trump’s excesses are an expansion of, rather than a departure from, the practices of his predecessors. Congress and public opinion have tended to applaud military adventurism when they like its results and have avoided confrontation with the executive branch even in cases where they disapprove. Endless war has successfully been sold as a public necessity in a campaign against terrorism, even when U.S. military action makes the world, and Americans, less safe.
There are, of course, real security threats, and counter-terrorism deservedly is a high priority for American officials—including in Yemen. An effective counter-terrorism policy would move away from a military paradigm toward a policing framework, in which the military supports a policy that pursues terrorist networks much the same way that it pursues organized crime syndicates. As the practice stands, the forever war it has produced and perpetuates has corroded American values and behavior. Malpractice abroad has bred contempt for our democratic values and a hopelessness about the rule of law at home. Ideological frameworks used to justify foreign intervention and mistreatment of civilians in conflict zones have also been invoked at home. Threat inflation and demagoguery have helped fuel bigotry and xenophobia at home. Elected officials now risk their careers if they try to openly address the tradeoff between security and rights.
Ending the United States’ part in the Yemen campaign won’t suddenly bring an end to the American forever war. But it would mark a turning point—a decisive rejection of the reflex to sign onto any military conflict with even the slightest connection to terrorism. The United States has a great many tools at its disposal beyond weapons sales and direct engagement in hostilities. We can pursue our interests in Yemen while avoiding extremes; and American self-interest does not require it to fully reject its traditional allies in the Gulf nor to actively join them in their worst excesses. A rational assessment of that self-interest might now be possible.
MOCHA, YEMEN – SEPTEMBER 22, 2018: Buildings lay in ruins in Mocha, Yemen. The city was retaken from Houthi rebels in early 2017, part of Yemen’s Saudi-led coalition-backed military campaign that has moved west along Yemen’s coast. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
Thanassis Cambanis is a journalist specializing in the Middle East and American foreign policy.