A combination of disapproval from the Biden administration and lack of votes to discharge the legislation from committee effectively killed a Yemen War Powers Resolution last week by convincing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to table his bill until a Saudi-friendly, Republican House takes power in January 2023.
In the time that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Saalman al Saud has ruled Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has killed over 377,000 Yemenis and executed over 523 Saudis. President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress have had numerous opportunities to hold Saudi Arabia accountable but continue to kick the can down the road.
This is a contradiction for a political party that spent the latter half of the Trump administration criticizing the former president’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. For Biden, this means broken campaign trail promises to stand up for human rights and rightfully treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state.”
Saudi Arabia’s goals in Yemen are simple: empower a puppet leader and cause suffering to any political opposition, even if they are civilians. Saudi Arabia formed a coalition in 2015 to reinstall President Mahdi al-Mashat to power in Yemen after he was overthrown by the Houthis during the Arab Spring. The Saudi-led coalition has launched a war that has consisted of only an air campaign and blockade.
The former has come under criticism for using U.S. weapons to target civilians. The latter has left over 17.6 million Yemenis needing food assistance. Overall, civilians account for more than 19,200 of the total killed or maimed in Yemen.
Given the nature of air and sea campaigns that are unaccompanied by ground troops, all a country can inflict is damage. Without boots on the ground, there is nobody to hold territory. In essence, waging a no-ground-troop campaign can only inflict suffering and will never create stability.
The Cato Institute’s annual Arms Sales Risk Index, which measures negative factors linked to arms sales such as dispersion, diversion, and the misuse of weapons by recipients, found Saudi Arabia to be one of the 30 riskiest countries to sell weapons to, as the kingdom uses weapons for human rights abuses, there are high levels of government corruption in Saudi Arabia, and there is a high risk those weapons will find their way into the wrong peoples’ hands.
Beyond the sheer civilian damage, reports suggest that weapons sold to the coalition ending up on the black market and are being sold to terrorist groups. Nonetheless, Riyadh is also America’s No. 1 arms purchaser 13 years running because three straight administrations have prioritized defense contractors’ profits over human rights.
More hawkish critics point to the lack of violence as evidence that a War Powers Resolution or reduction in weapons sales to the kingdom is unnecessary. As written, however, Sanders’ resolution would merely force the Biden administration to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen without congressional approval. The bill does not end all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, nor does it force the kingdom to stop waging its war.
On the other hand, some progressive critics argue the resolution gives Congress the ability to say that they did “something.” By simply calling for an end to U.S. support for hostilities, critics say the resolution does not do enough to stop violence facing Yemenis today.
To a certain degree, this is correct. The resolution does not end U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia nor prevent Saudi Arabia from resuming air strikes. Nonetheless, because U.S. support by refueling and intelligence-sharing with Saudi pilots is necessary to the air campaign, lacking Washington’s aid should serve as a deterring factor allowing the current calm’s continuation. Therefore, while the present-day effects may seem small, such a resolution can deter a future escalation.
Saudi Arabia is run by a viscous authoritarian who kills people abroad and in his own country, disperses weapons to terrorist groups, and runs a country that is the antithesis of free. The Yemen War Powers Resolution that never escaped from committee would not have stopped most of this.
Regardless, by deterring future negative actions by the Saudis in Yemen, such a resolution would end Washington’s continuous inaction and potentially begin a long-needed process of decoupling from the regime.
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