With a vote on Yemen, the US Senate may have rediscovered its conscience

A boy in Yemen looks over the wreckage of a Saudi air strike that killed his brother; September 2018.
A boy in Yemen looks over the wreckage of a Saudi air strike that killed his brother; September 2018.
Image: Reuters/Naif Rahma
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US senators voted overwhelmingly today to pull support from Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military activities in Yemen. The 63-37 bipartisan vote is a clear rebuke to the Trump White House, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and the Saudi royal family.

The bill will now go to a full debate in the Senate, and pass the House of Representatives before it hits Donald Trump’s desk. He has threatened to veto it.

Still, the vote represents unusual defiance by Senate Republicans, who have mostly voted in lock step with Trump’s wishes, as Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, pointed out.

The US is currently providing support to a Saudi-led coalition aligned with the Yemen government that’s battling Shiite Houthi forces aligned with Iran, including supplying fuel and explosives for military aircraft. The Saudi-led blockade of parts of the country has caused widespread famine; an estimated 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death in Yemen since Saudi Arabia’s air war began. Tens of thousands more Yemenis have been killed by Saudi-led air strikes.

The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi catalyzed talk of withdrawing support from the kingdom. After Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi in an Istanbul consulate, the CIA reportedly concluded “with high confidence” that the murder had been ordered by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Senate vote today came just after Pompeo and defense secretary James Mattis told a closed-door session of the Senate that they endorsed continuing the US-Saudi relationship. There is “no direct reporting” connecting Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Mattis and Pompeo said. Senators were frustrated, however, by the fact that CIA head Gina Haspel did not brief them.

“If that briefing is not given soon, it’s going to be hard for me to vote for any spending bill,” said Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who has otherwise been a vociferous defender of the White House.

Trump has stated unequivocally that he doesn’t believe his own intelligence agencies, and that his priority is to maintain the US’s financial ties to Saudi Arabia.