WASHINGTON — A month after a Saudi-led airstrike in Yemen hit a bus with children in it, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has certified the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are "undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.”
Wednesday’s certification, which allows the U.S. military to continue its assistance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, received backing from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis but inflamed human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers opposed to America’s role in the growing humanitarian crisis.
The Trump administration’s move here may backfire, finally turning the political tide against U.S. involvement, according to lawmakers who have long pressed to cut off U.S. bomb sales to coalition allies and aerial-refueling support to coalition aircraft. (The U.S. also trains and advises the Saudi military to improve targeting and follow international law.)
"Pompeo’s ‘certification’ is a farce,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “The Saudis deliberately bombed a bus full of children. There is only one moral answer, and that is to end our support for their intervention in Yemen. If this executive will not do it, then Congress must pass a war powers resolution."
When Khanna led efforts as a freshman congressman in 2017 to halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, most colleagues didn’t get it, he said. But he’s since seen his position become common ground between noninterventionist Republican allies and mainstream Democrats, evidenced by his successful measure last year declaring U.S. aid against the Houthis outside of post-9/11 war authorizations.
“They thought I was nuts. They thought, why am I taking this on as a freshman member, bucking leadership,” Khanna said of his initial efforts. “And now that opinion in our party has changed, and I estimate 20-25 percent of Republicans are increasingly asking these questions.”
Khanna said he, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith and other Democratic leaders, will soon introduce a new resolution invoking Congress’ constitutional war powers to keep U.S. forces from aiding the Saudi-led coalition.
If midterm elections in November turn the House blue, ranking Democrats like Smith will become chairmen and hold more sway. To boot, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a likely 2020 hopeful, have both been active on the issue.
Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter last month to Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of U.S. Central Command and top commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East, requesting that he detail American military involvement.
“Secretary Pompeo’s response today makes a mockery of congressional oversight authority. It’s not a certification — it’s a rubber stamp for Saudi Arabia,” Warren said in a statement.
“The Trump administration has all the facts here — but continues to support a coalition that bombs schoolchildren on a class trip. It’s wrong, and does nothing to make America safer. We should use our influence to bring an end to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis — not contribute to it,” Warren added.
August was the bloodiest month so far this year for civilian casualties in Yemen, according to Oxfam America, which attributed the majority of these casualties to the Saudi-led coalition. The coalition triggered widespread condemnation last month when it dropped a U.S.-made bomb on a school bus killing 40 people, including children.
In a strongly worded statement Wednesday, Oxfam accused the Trump administration of “doubling down on its failed policy of literally fueling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis” and challenged Congress to “end the United States’ complicity in this war."
For his part, Pompeo said in a statement that allies are “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offered a similar statement and expressed support for the United Nations-led peace process.
Generally, proponents of U.S. military intervention justify it as necessary to maintain the alliance with Gulf allies and contain Iran. Acknowledging humanitarian concerns, some argue U.S.-made precision munitions and U.S. advice both help reduce the risk of civilian casualties.
“In the absence of U.S. assistance and that technology, all you’re going to see is untargeted bombings and kinetic military activity that potentially harms civilians,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said last month. “You hate to see innocent people killed in a war zone, but I blame the Houthis for that because they’re the ones who have created this situation.”
In March, the Senate voted 55-44 to defeat a bipartisan war powers resolution aimed at ending U.S. involvement in the war. It was sponsored by Sanders and Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Murphy on Wednesday said he’d had the votes at the time to pass the resolution, but lost them when a deal was struck that led to the provision in the annual defense policy bill that required Pompeo’s certification. (Pompeo must periodically certify Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were taking meaningful steps to avoid civilian casualties and permit humanitarian aid, or U.S. military aid must cease.)
“It might be interesting to revisit the war powers resolution given the fact that some members voted against us because they thought we were getting real teeth legislatively — and the administration effectively ignored the language,” Murphy said, referring to the certification. “Maybe now there’s more interest.”
Murphy and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced the first such resolution on Yemen during the Obama administration in 2016, and it failed 71-27, but “today we are right on the precipice of 50,” he said.
“The first couple votes, a lot of members did not know this portfolio and trusted the things people like Mattis were saying because Mattis is generally a trustworthy source,” Murphy said. "As senators are spending more time with the source material, they’re realizing the emperor has no clothes. But it’s a process.”
For now, Murphy is ready to introduce a joint resolution of disapproval in the Senate should the administration advance a precision-guided munitions sale to Riyadh. The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has been delaying that sale for months, and it is hard to see him let up now.
Another factor is that Democrats, who would have been reticent to buck President Barack Obama, have been energized to oppose President Donald Trump, whose approval rating is reportedly around 40 percent, according to several recent polls.
“The (Trump administration) knows they have a losing hand here,” a Senate aide said. “So long as busloads of children are being bombed, it is hard for them to continue defending the status quo. I think both sides of the aisle are finally and fully aware of the tragedy unfolding in Yemen.”
The United Nations in April called the Yemen conflict the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people, or three-quarters of Yemen’s population, in need of aid and protection. While both sides in the fighting reportedly use food as a weapon, the Saudi-led coalition has faced criticism throughout the war for its air, land and sea blockade.
In the unclassified portion of Pompeo’s report to Congress, he touted Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s “active engagement” in talks aimed at a diplomatic solution, their efforts to clear the way for humanitarian aid and their humanitarian spending. The UAE has given $3.81 billion in assistance while Saudi Arabia has committed to $2 billion to the Bank of Yemen, $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid and $1 billion toward U.N.-led efforts.
On the military side, Pompeo said the Saudi-led coalition has included a “no-strike list” into its target-development procedures and that a $750 million foreign military sale to Riyadh included U.S. training to “reduce the risk of civilian casualties.”
Yet, Pompeo acknowledged these steps are not enough, punting the details to a classified annex to his report. He also said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have complied with U.S. laws governing arms transfers, “with rare exception” — but did not explain further.
“Recent civilian casualty incidents indicate insufficient implementation of reforms and targeting practices,” he said. “Investigations have not yielded accountability measures.”
Amid the report’s contradictions, several lawmakers vented their annoyance on Wednesday — including the lawmakers who pressed for the certification requiremen:, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Todd Young, R-Ind., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
To Shaheen, “the coalition clearly hasn’t met” the legislation’s benchmarks on avoiding civilian casualties, “and it is evident that the administration is deliberately sidestepping congressional oversight.”
But Shaheen held out hope the White House would get serious for future certification deadlines. “I hope that the administration will take these opportunities to finally use the leverage it has to hold our allies accountable,” she said.
To Khanna, who had called the certifications a farce, the more honest path would have been for the administration to exercise the legislation’s national security waiver. Then, he said, Pompeo would have to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis and admit that it was being overridden by the national security interests in containing Tehran.
“What is galling is not just an indifference to human rights but a lack of transparency about what’s really driving this administration’s policy,” Khanna said. “Just own up to it."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.