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Silver lining despite Senate’s failure to block Saudi arms deal

Men inspect a house destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

A resolution to block the sale of $1.15 billion in tanks and weapons by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia failed in the Senate today. Politicians from both parties joined to oppose the deal, but could not muster enough support to stop it. It comes on the heels of new evidence that U.S. bombs were used to attack a Yemeni hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders.

“Over the course of the last year and a half, the Saudis have been fairly indiscriminate in their targeting,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in a press call ahead of the vote. “Despite U.S. pressure there is no sign the Saudi’s are getting better at staying away from civilian targets or listening to the United States when we give them information on targets to be avoided.”

Despite the loss, advocates are celebrating a hard-fought victory to see the issue debated at all. A companion resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives on Tuesday – evidence of opposition in both chambers of Congress. The vote allows senators to be on the record opposing a deal that enables Saudi forces to continue bombing civilians in Yemen. Pressure is building against the Obama administration to stop the backing Saudi-led coalition as it commits possible war crimes carried.

“This is the start of a conversation in a Congress, not the end,” Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam America, told Humanosphere. “What we are looking at is the first opportunity of Congress to register any sort of complaint about the U.S. involvement in Yemen.”

The needle on the issue was at zero, but moved up a few ticks with the vote, he said. It is also a significant signal to Saudi Arabia that U.S. politicians and citizens are concerned with its bombing campaign in Yemen. The hospital strike in mid-August killed 19 people, including a Doctors Without Borders staffer. Amnesty International’s investigation revealed that the weapon was a U.S.-made precision-guided Paveway-series aerial bomb.

“Any attack on a medical facility in a war zone is an affront to humanity, yet this bombing is sadly just the latest in a grim series of attacks on hospitals and clinics by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition,” said Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, in a statement. “This attack highlights, yet again, the desperate need for a comprehensive embargo on all weapons that could be used by any of the warring parties in Yemen and for an international investigation to bring those responsible for unlawful attacks to justice.”

Today’s vote was led by Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Murphy – an unlikely coalition that argued that the sale hurts U.S. interests. Some 3,800 civilians have been killed and more than 6,000 have been injured since the coalition began its campaign in Yemen in March 2015, according to the U.N. They were joined by 26 Senators opposing the sale. It does not necessarily reflect the level of opposition to the Yemeni attacks. Some Senators who voted against the resolution took issue with the way it was structured while also criticizing the Saudi-coalition.

“They’re trying to make a point with an arms sale that’s not relevant to those concerns,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., about the resolution’s sponsors, last week. “At this point, I don’t think it’s helpful to countermand the president.”

The biggest source of disagreement is over what is an appropriate way to deal with close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Some leaders feel that it is not worth harming an important relationship. Before the vote Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., defended the relationship with Saudi Arabia as an important partnership against Iran. His views were shared by fellow Republican senators, including majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who lambasted every policy decision made by the White House in the Middle East. Yet, he concluded that the deal should remain.

“There is a really fine line between those who want to step out and express concern about the program and those who disagree with it but do not want to rock the boat,” said Paul.

A letter to Obama from a bipartisan group of 64 members of Congress at the end of August asked for a delay so Congress can evaluate the terms of the deal. Oxfam, Amnesty International and more than a dozen other aid and human rights groups endorsed the letter, which raised concern over the timing of the deal. The congressional recess left little time to consider the details within the 30-day window to challenge a defense agreement.

The request did not succeed. As the window closed the four Senators put together a resolution that sought to block the sale based on the provision of tanks. Murphy said that the new tanks would likely replace tanks damaged in fighting, and would support further the fighting in Yemen.

“The war inside Yemen has been a disaster for U.S. national security interests. It is shocking to me that this war has not gotten more attention here in Congress and across the country,” said Murphy. “Without our bombs, without intelligence, without our refueling planes, the Saudis simply could not be conducting this bombing operation. If the United States decided to stop participation it would be very hard, if not impossible, for the Saudi’s to continue.”

To Paul, the lack of attention is due to two factors: lack of media in Yemen and the inability of refugees to leave the country. The problem is contained within Yemen’s borders, and prevents the kind of stories and images that have exposed the horrors of the Syrian civil war.

And a story that’s off the public radar likely won’t rate in the presidential election or put pressure on Congress to act.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]