A bipartisan group of Senators is threatening to scuttle up to 22 separate sales of weapons to the government of Saudi Arabia because of the massive civilian casualties in the Yemen civil war for which human rights groups say the Saudis are responsible.
The sales are worth well north of $100 billion. The Trump administration has sought to bypass Congress because of the bipartisan opposition to the sales. The president would still be able to make the sales if Congress fails to vote them down.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) will introduce Monday a resolution to require the administration to report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices, the first step in forcing a vote on the security assistance.
“This administration has effectively given a blank check to the Saudis—turning a blind eye to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and allowing their ballistic missile program to expand,” Murphy said in a statement Sunday. “Congress needs to change how we do business with the Kingdom. The process we are setting in motion will allow Congress to weigh in on the totality of our security relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just one arms sale, and restore Congress’s role in foreign policy making.”
Under the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, Congress can vote to request the administration provide information within 30 days on a particular country’s human rights practices. Once Congress receives the human rights report, it can then vote to end any aspect of security assistance to that country.
The civilian casualties have exceeded 60,000 but also include the casualties inflicted by both Al-Qaeda and the Houthi rebels. The Saudis are faulted for what some human rights groups say is “unrestricted” bombing of civilian areas.
The Yemen civil war is a brutal conflict being fought by warring tribes and ethnic groups. The Saudis became involved to blunt Iranian influence on their doorstep and prevent a Shiite uprising. The fact is, no matter how viciously the Saudis are prosecuting the war, the Iranians pose an existential threat to the Kingdom and the stability of the Middle East.
The U.S. has already halted refueling operations for the Saudi air force and stopped most other supply operations. But it is the arms sales that have Congress’s knickers in a twist, despite the Saudis’ dire need to fend off a challenge from the Iranians.
“Our arms sales to Saudi Arabia demand Congressional oversight,” Young said in a statement Sunday. “This bipartisan resolution simply asks the Secretary of State to report on some basic questions before moving forward with them. The ongoing humanitarian crisis and complicated security environment in Yemen requires our sustained attention and we cannot permit U.S. military equipment to worsen the situation on the ground.”
There still may be enough bipartisan support for Saudi Arabia in Congress to OK the deals, but the troubling number of civilian casualties in Yemen, and the repressive nature of the Saudi regime may yet derail the agreements.