WASHINGTON – The vote that took place Wednesday in the U.S. Senate over America’s involvement in the ongoing war in Yemen represented a stinging foreign policy failure for the Trump administration.
A group of 63 senators – including every Democrat and 14 Republicans – voted to allow a debate over ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition's war against Iranian proxies in Yemen. The vote took place just hours after two senior Trump cabinet members, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, pleaded with senators not to take steps that could harm the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
On Thursday, Trump is expected to leave Washington for the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also expected to attend the gathering, despite legal attempts in Argentina to hold him accountable for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. For both Trump and the young crown prince, Wednesday’s embarrassing defeat in the Senate could not have come at a worse time.
The vote showed growing dissatisfaction among senators over how the administration has treated both the disastrous war in Yemen and the Khashoggi crisis. In particular, senators expressed anger over the fact that the administration has been refusing to allow CIA Director Gina Haspel to brief Congress over the crisis with Saudi Arabia. This has caused even senators considered closely aligned with Trump, such as Lindsey Graham (Republican of South Carolina), to strongly criticize the administration.
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While it’s not automatically guaranteed that the Senate’s decision to allow a debate over ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen will actually lead to a cessation of that support, that certainly is a likely result at this point. Rep. Mark Pocan (Democrat of Wisconsin), an outspoken critic of the Saudi policy, said Wednesday that “it is now a matter of when, not if, the unconstitutional U.S.-Saudi war will end.”
Pocan also added that the House of Representatives should follow in the Senate’s footsteps and hold its own vote on the continuation of American support for the war. Such a scenario is almost certain to happen once the new Democratic majority will take over the House in early January.
If the biggest losers of the vote on Wednesday were Trump and the Saudi crown prince, perhaps the most obvious winner was Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent of Vermont), who has made Yemen the top issue on his foreign policy agenda over the past year.
Wednesday's vote was pushed by Sanders along with Sen. Chris Murphy (Democrat of Connecticut) and Sen. Mike Lee (Republican of Utah). For Sanders, this vote was part of a broader focus on Saudi Arabia. He has publicly criticized the country’s leadership, and especially Crown Prince Mohammed, in speeches and articles.
During a speech before the conference of the progressive Jewish group J Street in 2017, Sanders mocked the crown prince for his lavish spending on yachts and vacation homes, and wondered how many Palestinian refugees could have benefited from the sums of money he chose to spend on his luxurious lifestyle.
Hours before Wednesday's vote, Sanders urged his fellow senators to support it, stating, “Do not forget: It was a U.S. bomb that killed 40 children on a school bus in Yemen in August – some of the many thousands of civilians who have died in this horrific, Saudi-led war.”
Like Sanders, Murphy has also been a longtime critic of the ongoing war. He was one of the first lawmakers in Washington to criticize Saudi Arabia for its conduct in Yemen, as early as 2015. After the vote on Wednesday, Murphy said “this is a big first step, and it sends a message to this administration that they need to rethink their policy on Saudi Arabia, or Congress will do it for them.”
The composition of the Senate will become slightly more favorable for Trump in January, since Republicans have gained two seats in the midterm elections and will hold a 53-47 majority. However, the fact that 14 Republicans voted alongside the Democrats on this issue doesn’t bode well for the president’s goal of continuing the alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Even if 10 of those Republicans will eventually change their mind and be persuaded by the administration’s arguments – which is a very high bar to pass – that still won’t be enough to stop the Senate from limiting Trump’s support for the war in Yemen.
Among the most senior Republicans who defied Trump and voted in favor of the motion were senators Bob Corker (also chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee), Rob Portman, Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, voted against the motion, as did senators and former presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Rubio tweeted after the vote that “Pressuring for [a] stronger response to Khashoggi murder right thing to do, but pulling support from Saudi’s [sic] on Yemen wrong way to do it. Pulling support will result in more civilian casualties, make peace less likely and increase chance of broader regional war.”