The US Congress is preparing to reintroduce a war powers resolution designed to curtail US support of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war. If passed by both houses and signed by President Trump, it would end US support for the Saudi coalition. In December, the Senate approved the bill in a 56-41 vote with several Republicans choosing to send a message to Trump by crossing the aisle and supporting the legislation.
At the time, the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives and refused to allow a vote on the bill, effectively killing it until the new Congress was installed this January. With Democrats now in control of the House, the effort to reduce US involvement has been renewed. Even if the House approves the bill, which is likely, and the Senate reapproves it, Trump will still have to sign it into law.
The Trump administration has already voiced opposition to the measure, calling it “inappropriate”. Since the US does not have combat troops deployed in Yemen, a war powers resolution is meaningless as it is designed to withdraw the engaged troops. A longtime friend of Saudi Arabia, Trump will most likely veto the joint resolution after it arrives at his desk.
Already the bill has made history as being the first of its kind passed by a Congressional house since the War Powers Resolution of 1973. This bill was passed following the Korean and Vietnam wars, both of which created US military entanglements without Congressional declarations of war. Notably, both conflicts also included drafted soldiers. Concerned with the abuse of presidential power with military action after President Nixon ordered secret bombings of Cambodia, Congress passed the resolution that allocated most war powers to Congress.
It also requires the president to notify Congress of any military action within 48 hours and prohibits armed forces from being deployed for more than 60 days without Congressional approval.
The Yemen resolution “directs the President to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen” except for forces fighting al-Qaeda. It also explicitly states that ‘hostilities’ encompasses refueling non-U.S. aircraft, a major component of U.S. involvement.
America first entered the war between the Saudi-backed Yemen coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis in 2015 under President Obama. The US and Saudi Arabia have maintained strong diplomatic ties for decades. This includes regular arms purchases, military partnerships, and even saw the commitment of 500,000 US, troops to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.
The US first viewed the oil rich kingdom as a worthy ally to counter Iran after the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79. The breakup of the US-Iran partnership led to a hostage crisis, a war, and ice cold politics for the decades following it. An ally like Saudi Arabia then became key to US foreign policy in the Middle East. To maintain its foothold in the region, both for economic and political reasons, the U.S. looked to Saudi Arabia for a strong Arab partner.
This relationship also allowed the US to counter the threat of Russian influence in the region, especially during the Cold War.
Last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spent three weeks touring the U.S. During his visit, he gave journalists exclusive interviews, discussed business opportunities with some of America’s most famous CEOs, and met with Trump at the White House.
The American leader boasted during the meeting of the hundreds of million dollars Saudi Arabia was spending on weapons and technology and the enormous amount of jobs the arms deal would create.
“The relationship is probably the strongest it’s ever been,” Trump said of the Middle Eastern country.
Business and politics between the two nations are so valued that it often seemed nothing could separate the two. After 28 pages of the September 11 report were declassified and released to the public, it was clear that not only were most of the hijackers from Saudi Arabia, but they received financing from the highest levels of the government. Despite this revelation, nothing changed between Riyadh and Washington.
Now, after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, as Washington Post journalist who had Saudi citizenship but American residency, the tone in Washington seems to be shifting. Trump declared that he would keep his alliance with the nation to counter Iran, maintain stability in the oil industry, and to honor its arms sales agreement. He also publicly rebuked intelligence agencies foreign and domestic by stating that maybe the crown prince knew of plans to murder Khashoggi, but maybe he didn’t.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Prem G. Kumar argued that Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s murder would spur Congress to pay closer attention to the Arab state and possibly introduce sanctions or take other official actions. That’s exactly what is happening now with the war powers resolution.
Over the coming weeks, the role of the U.S. in Yemen will be up for debate as will be the US-Saudi relationship. A partnership that withstood decades of ups and downs will be heavily scrutinized, with one side weighing it in terms of Yemeni lives lost and the other viewing it as profits for American companies. While Trump does have the upper hand with veto power that Democrats do not have the numbers to overrule, it’s clear the opinion on Saudi Arabia is souring in Washington with even some Republican lawmakers becoming vocal.