The Ongoing US Entanglement with Saudi Arabia over Yemen

The Ongoing US Entanglement with Saudi Arabia over Yemen

President Trump’s veto over the Saudi-led war in Yemen represents a sharp divide between Congress and the White House over US foreign policy. This is unlikely to be the last time this divide occurs, raising questions over US leadership and its commitment to human rights.

Ever since President Trump made his first foreign trip to Riyadh and was greeted by giant billboards of himself marking the occasion, he has had a hard time breaking away from Saudi Arabia on numerous policy areas. Despite the evidence that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration has done little if anything to hold him responsible. Likewise, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, in which the US, the UK, and other Western partners contribute bombs and aerial support, remains a policy the administration is unable to break with Riyadh. Considerable domestic pressure namely from Democrats in the new Congress has meant that legislation to end the US’ involvement in the bombing campaign has come up frequently. Despite that pressure, President Trump has decided to veto a bill to end the US involvement, and there is likely nothing that Congress can do to override it.

Congress vs. Trump on Saudi Arabia

The bipartisan resolution which Trump vetoed passed in the Senate in March in a 54-46 vote. In the House of Representatives, it also passed in April by a vote of 247-175. In explaining his reasons for the veto, Trump called the resolution an “unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities” even going so far as to say it might “endanger the lives of American citizens.”

The US, under both the Trump and Obama administrations, has provided billions of dollars’ worth of arms to the Saudi-led coalition fighting against rebels backed by Iran in Yemen. In a series of fatal incidents, however, it has become apparent that thousands of civilians have died as a result of the coalition airstrikes, and the bombings often appear to be indiscriminate. Yemen now faces one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, with a cholera outbreak looming and famine a severe risk. Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are calling on more humanitarian assistance instead of bombs in order to help the people of Yemen.

The veto by President Trump is likely to prolong the conflict and might give a green-light to regimes around the world that the US is willing to overlook human rights concerns when conducting sensitive foreign policy matters. It also set a dangerous precedent of Congress and the President having two different sets of foreign policies, with the President being able to override Congress despite serious evidence that the current military engagement is not in the nation’s best interest. This risk could stem from having a businessman President with commercial links to Saudi Arabia for decades, but that is unable to be proven as a reason for the veto in this specific circumstance.

While the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has been controversial and extensive for many decades, it is not currently built upon a shared set of interests but rather a shared leadership mentality surrounding Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and President Trump. The decision to support MBS regardless of the reckless nature of his bombing campaign further risks an erosion of traditional liberal democratic alliances around the world in favor of authoritarian ones.

Future Prospects

Saudi Arabia is unlikely to assume the pariah status some may wish in the aftermath of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi so long as the US remains a strong ally and partner in areas of defense and national security. While the separation of human rights from US foreign policy is not a new approach, the willingness to do so over the objections of Congress as well as traditional allies from NATO is a new standard that presents some risks. In advocating for more expansive presidential powers, Trump risks further placing US foreign policy solely in the hands of the White House and without congressional approval. This has been a recurring debate in American politics for some time related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Trump is now using this argument to justify US involvement in a regional war that does not involve US troops.

In a sense, this approach can be viewed as a more isolationist or consolidated form of a selectively interventionist foreign policy. In abrogating the responsibility to consult on matters of national interest and coordinate with allies on areas of shared concern, an interventionist foreign policy led by Trump could be seen as a uniquely siloed and isolated voice. As a result, commitments to Saudi Arabia may be long-lasting, but with minimal support and little oversight. Thus, the Yemen veto risks setting a dangerous precedent that is likely to be invoked in future conflicts either with unique geopolitical stakes or personal or financial stakes given whoever is the occupant of the Oval Office.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.