As Senators Rebuke U.S.-Saudi Policy in Yemen, Revisit FRONTLINE’s Yemen Films
This picture taken on November 22, 2018 shows a Yemeni mother holding her five-year-old son who is suffering from severe malnutrition in the western province of Hodeidah. (-/AFP/Getty Images)
Since 2015, the United States has supported a Saudi-led military coalition’s war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. However, on Wednesday, the Senate voted to advance a measure that would end American involvement in the Saudi-led war, a move that was seen as a stunning rebuke to President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia.
The vote to advance the resolution, which passed by 63-37, comes as Yemen is in dire crisis. Thousands have died in airstrikes. Disease and malnutrition is rampant, and the United Nations has warned of the “clear and present danger” of a massive famine. An estimated 85,000 children may have died from extreme hunger and disease since April 2015, according to one aid organization’s analysis. And while the measure is unlikely to succeed in suspending U.S. support for the war, it marks the first time in three years that such an initiative has advanced in Congress.
But for some lawmakers, the rationale of Wednesday’s vote had more to do with the death of one man than those of thousands of Yemenis who have died in the war.
On Wednesday, senators expressed frustration at how the U.S. has responded to the murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey last month. The CIA concluded last week that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death, according to The Washington Post.
But Trump has been more circumspect, noting that bin Salman “vehemently” denied any involvement. After the report on the CIA’s findings, the White House released a statement from the president that cast doubt on the crown prince’s involvement, emphasized the importance of the U.S. government’s weapons deals with Saudi Arabia and the nations’ shared opposition to Iran.
Voting on the Yemen measure was seen by some lawmakers as a way to censure the crown prince, who has led the campaign in Yemen.
“We have a problem here. We understand that Saudi Arabia is an ally, of sorts, and a semi-important country, and we’ve watched innocent people be killed, we’ve watched people dying of diseases they shouldn’t be dying of…” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said before the vote. He added, “We also have a crown prince that’s out of control.”
In a classified briefing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis urged senators not to vote in favor of the measure. Some senators had wanted CIA Director Gina Haspel to take part in the briefing on Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi case, and voted for the measure out of anger. “I changed my mind because I’m pissed,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. He added that while he didn’t agree with the measure, “the way the administration has handled Saudi Arabia event is just not acceptable.”
FRONTLINE has been reporting on Yemen for several years, since the country became host to a powerful affiliate of Al Qaeda. Stream our films on the conflict below:
The Fight for Yemen (2015)
In 2015, Safa Al Ahmad traveled to Sa’ada, the northern stronghold of the anti-American rebel movement known as the Houthis, to explore the roots of the civil conflict that broke out in 2014. The Yemeni government had launched six wars against the Houthis over the preceding decade, and Saudi Arabia accused the rebels of colluding with its regional rival, Iran.
Yemen Under Siege (2016)
The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military intervention was under way, and parts of Yemen were under siege by the Houthi rebels when Safa Al Ahmad traveled back to the country in 2016 to see the human toll of the war. The people in city of Taiz, besieged by Houthi forces, had dwindling supplies of food, medicine and medical equipment.
Inside Yemen (2017)
Yemen, already the region’s poorest nation before the outbreak of war, was in a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Civilians were killed in airstrikes, and the country saw the fastest growing outbreak of cholera with one million suspected cases. Martin Smith was one of the only foreign journalist able to get permission to enter the country in early 2017. Health care workers told him that a child died every 10 minutes in Yemen from preventable causes. A nurse said that the number of cases of children with severe malnutrition had doubled since the war began. And at a rally called “Say No to American Terrorism,” Yemenis protested U.S. involvement in the war, and the sale of American weapons to the Saudi-led coalition.