Few people noticed, but the United States Senate came very close to ending America’s complicity in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen earlier this week. But the very same person who had vowed to end that war intervened and stopped the Senate from taking action — President Joe Biden. The White House feared that the Senate resolution would have emboldened the Yemeni Houthi movement. But Biden may have instead signaled the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) that, even as he continues to undermine the United States, America still has his back.
The war in Yemen has a special characteristic. Opposition to it is one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats can find some agreement on. At a time when partisanship is at an all-time high, Congress has passed several resolutions calling for an end to America’s support for that war. The last war powers resolution that passed in 2019, which would have forced an end to American military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, was vetoed by Donald Trump. All Democrats in the Senate voted for it, as did several Republicans.
It was that same war powers resolution — with some modifications — that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont tried to put to a vote this week. One main difference compared to the 2019 version of the resolution was that “sharing intelligence [with Saudi Arabia] for the purpose of enabling offensive coalition strikes” was now also defined as a form of participation in hostilities.
If adopted, the resolution would have taken the U.S.’s involvement in the gruesome war in Yemen out of the hands of MBS, and put it back in the hands of Congress.
But at the very last minute, the Biden administration lobbied aggressively against the resolution, vowing to veto it if it passed. Toward the end of Tuesday, Sanders appeared to have lost rather than gained support for the resolution due to the White House’s intervention. So he withdrew the resolution before there was a vote since the Biden administration had agreed to work with him to end the war. But he vowed: “If we do not reach agreement, I will, along with my colleagues, bring this resolution back for a vote.”
Biden’s opposition to the resolution was particularly surprising since key Biden officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Director of the United States Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice, and head of USAID Samantha Power, had signed letters back in 2019 urging for Congress to pass the resolution and to override Trump’s veto.
The White House’s main argument against the war powers resolution was that circumstances have changed since 2019. A UN-negotiated truce has largely ended the fighting since April of this year, and although that truce expired in October, neither side has resumed violence. But the situation is very fragile and fighting can erupt at any moment. The White House believes that under these circumstances, the resolution may embolden the Houthis and incentivize them to restart the war and undermine ongoing Saudi-Houthi talks, because it could make Saudi Arabia look weaker to lose an ally’s support.
It is true that the status quo is fragile. And the truce has been a success in effectively ending the fighting — though it has not ended the casualties since most Yemenis are still dying from the humanitarian catastrophe that the war and the Saudi-blockade of the country have created. It is also true that the Biden administration deserves credit for helping the parties reach the truce. The administration is also right that the Houthis may abandon the truce and return to warfare. But it is less convincing that the war powers resolution would have a decisive impact on their calculations.
Nothing prevents the U.S. from resuming its support for the Saudi war effort if the Houthis were to restart the war. Sanders’ resolution would only ensure that if the Saudis restart the war, the U.S. would not automatically be siding with and assisting Riyadh in its bombardment of Yemen without Congress and the American people having a say. Nothing stops Congress from lifting the ban in the future.
The White House appears convinced that the Saudis are genuinely seeking an exit from the war and worries, as a result, less about a scenario in which the war is restarted by the Saudi side. I share their assessment that Saudi Arabia currently wants out of the war. But that can change as realities on the ground in Yemen evolve. The point of the resolution is to make sure that the fate of America’s involvement in the war is not determined by the Saudis.
By focusing excessively on the Houthi side of the Yemeni equation, the Biden administration may inadvertently make Riyadh more likely to recklessly restart the war.
But there are reasons to believe that Biden’s calculations may have been more about bolstering the Saudi-U.S. relationship than navigating the dynamics of the Yemeni truce. Biden has repeatedly failed to live up to his presidential campaign pledges to get tough on Saudi Arabia, and instead taken to coddling MBS at nearly every turn. During the presidential campaign, he vowed to make the Saudis “the pariah that they are.” Instead, he traveled to Riyadh and fist-bumped the Saudi crown prince. He said he would make MBS “pay the price” for their killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Instead, he intervened on MBS’s behalf in U.S. courts to ensure that the Saudi dictator was granted legal immunity in a lawsuit over Khashoggi’s murder. Biden promised he would not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. Instead, during his first year in office, he pushed an additional sale of missiles to Saudi, arguing that the weapons could not be used for “offensive” purposes. And when MBS shocked the oil markets by dramatically cutting oil production, in what likely was a move to help Republicans in the midterm elections, Biden promised there would be consequences. There have been none.
In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a landmark visit to Riyadh where the two countries, much to America’s chagrin, signed a strategic partnership agreement. Clearly, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is getting even more imbalanced. The Biden administration appears to be willing to settle for less cooperation from Riyadh even as it submits itself even more to MBS, including continuing to enable Saudi Arabia’s ability to bomb Yemen to smithereens.
It remains unclear how Biden and Sanders can come to an agreement on this issue. Sanders will likely want a deadline after which Saudi can no longer count on U.S. support in the war. Biden will likely balk. Nor does Sanders appear to have much flexibility on softening the language of the resolution.
But if Sanders and Biden can’t come to an agreement, Congress may still try to force Biden’s hand by passing the resolution without his blessing. Sanders has already succeeded in getting a commitment from the administration to move faster on Yemen and brought a lot of attention to the importance of preventing a renewal of Saudi aggression. As one senior administration official indicated to me the day after the drama in the Senate, progress on the ground in Yemen does not appear likely anytime soon, which probably will bring the war powers resolution back to a vote again in a few months, if not weeks. One way or another, America must find a way to end its complicity in the killings in Yemen.