Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in Washington—just as a bipartisan group of senators are trying to extricate the U.S. from Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen.
As Saudi Arabia’s crown prince arrives in Washington for a diplomatic trip that doubles as confirmation of his geopolitical emergence, his U.S.-backed prosecution of a devastating war in Yemen may prove a stumbling block.
If things break the way three senators seek, then as early as Tuesday, the Senate will debate and then vote on ending U.S. military refueling, targeting analysis and other assistance to the Saudi war on Houthi-controlled Yemen. That war, for the past three years, has featured indiscriminate civilian bombing and facilitated a mass famine and cholera outbreak. And its primary mover is the Saudi defense minister and heir apparent, Mohammed bin Salman, ubiquitously known as MBS, who is slated to meet with President Trump at the White House on Tuesday.
“I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted this would occur when the Crown Prince was in Washington, but I think the upcoming public debate on the Saudis’ devastating war in Yemen will send a strong signal about Congress’s growing reticence to continue fueling this conflict,” Murphy told The Daily Beast.
But the antiwar senators think that they have the stronger argument. Section 8(c) of the resolution defines the “introduction of United States Armed Forces” to include servicemembers who “participate in the movement of…military forces of any foreign country or government when such military forces are engaged.” Since U.S. tanker aircraft that refuel Saudi warplanes that bomb Yemen necessarily facilitate military movement, the senators think they can bat back a challenge to their resolution on those grounds.
After a triumphal heir-apparent tour of Egypt and Britain, MBS and a gigantic retinue are en route to the U.S., which is “his gateway to becoming king,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs and a critic of the royal family.
A Senate fight on Yemen during his visit will make him “very upset,” al-Ahmed believes, as “the man does not like to be told no… He feels entitled to get his way. When he hears from the Senate that that’s what the U.S. wants, if that’s what they say, he’ll be extremely upset.” As defense minister, MBS “does not run away from [the Yemen war], he owns it, he says it’s necessary,” al-Ahmed said.
The U.S. military doesn’t go that far, but it has made clear it considers support for its anti-Iran friend in Riyadh more important than the starvation, disease and deaths of millions of Yemenis. Even though the Murphy-Sanders-Lee resolution does not restrict the military from attacking suspected terrorists in Yemen, a Pentagon document for senators acquired by HuffPost portrayed counterterrorism as collateral damage from a successful resolution, intimating that “Saudi Arabia may reallocate resources from counterterrorism to the counter-Houthi fight.”
Trump plans on discussing the Yemen war with MBS as well, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Monday. But the administration will emphasize mitigating the humanitarian disaster the war has unleashed more than it will expect the Saudis to end the war.
It’s far from certain that the three senators will actually get their floor vote. Staffers concede that there are parliamentary maneuvers that the resolution’s antagonists might launch to obstruct the measure or strip out its demand for an end to U.S. assistance. All involved recognize a lack of precedent for the Senate to force the U.S. out of an unauthorized war.
But after three years of the U.S. facilitating the decimation and immiseration of Yemen, senators opposed to the war have perhaps their best shot at both ending the U.S. role and making it a liability for the Saudi heir.
“We believe U.S. military support for the Saudis’ war in Yemen is illegal, immoral and harms national security,” Murphy said, “so yes, it’s good that we have an opportunity to ensure the war in Yemen is one of the main topics of discussion here in Washington during the Crown Prince’s visit.” SPENCER ACKERMAN for Daily Beast