It’s nice to see the Congress flex some muscle, especially those atrophied constitutional tendons that are supposed to make the legislature the sole arbiter of American conflicts abroad. This week, the Republican-led Senate essentially ratified (some procedural hurdles aside) a House resolution that directs President Donald Trump to withdraw all U.S. forces engaged in “hostilities” in Yemen in concert with the Saudi-led coalition. And while this congressional foray back into its lawful remit is welcome, the limits of this particular resolution are revealing. They expose the extent to which Congress seems to be aware that the Saudi-led mission in Yemen, while distasteful, is a necessary project from which the United States cannot simply exempt itself.
The war in Yemen has become a source of embarrassment for the United States, and for good reason. The Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to push back the assemblage of tribes that make up the Shia extremist Houthi militia group has produced misery and human suffering on an industrial scale. Tens of thousands have died in the conflict, many of whom are civilians, and the United Nations has repeatedly warned that famine-like conditions prevail in much of the country. The occasional atrocity, like the August 9, 2018 bombing in which 40 boys between the ages of six and 11 were killed, put into focus the scale of the horrors meted out in the effort to role back Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula.
Americans are appropriately mortified by their association with the less-than-discriminate campaign being waged by the Saudis and their Sunni allies, but that sense of humiliation has accompanied a loss of perspective. In the rush to condemn the Gulf States, the arbiters of American political discourse have given the Houthis a pass for terrorizing civilians.
They have overlooked how these tribes divert humanitarian and food aid to their supporters to sell on the black market, exacerbating the famine. They have ignored how these militias, which control vast swaths of territory including the capital Sana’a, use sophisticated missiles provided by Iran to rain fire down on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And they have forgotten why the Obama administration involved itself in this conflict in the first place. Protecting the vital port of Aden and the vital Bab al-Mandab strait on which it sits from an expressly anti-American Iranian proxy and maintaining the vital drone-warfare campaign targeting al-Qaeda operatives on the Arabian Peninsula was enough to convince the Obama administration to put its hostility toward Riyadh aside.
Even though these facts have eluded American taste-makers, they have not been entirely forgotten by U.S. lawmakers. Supporters of the resolution insist that it will compel the administration to cease cooperation with the Saudi-led campaign, which has specifically manifested in intelligence sharing and mid-air fueling support for coalition air assets. But the House version of this bill included a GOP-introduced amendment that preserved intelligence-sharing arrangements with the Saudi Kingdom when “appropriate in the national security interest of the United States.” What’s more, dozens of Democrats crossed the aisle to vote for it. Also, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia agreed to a cessation of mid-air refueling operations last November. Those operations supported only one-fifth of Saudi and Emirati aircraft anyway.
So, what does this resolution do? Well, according to most of the analysis of the resolution in the mainstream press, it strikes a vengeful blow against the Kingdom in response to the slaughter of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The New York Times dispatch on the vote against the Yemen campaign devoted extensive space to congressional irritation over the fact that the administration simply ignored a legal deadline to provide the legislature with information clarifying the extent of the Saudi regime’s involvement in Khashoggi’s killing (even though the White House imposed humanitarian sanctions on 17 Saudi officials late last year). “We should not use this specific vote on a specific policy decision as some proxy for all the Senate’s broad feelings about foreign affairs,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, sensing the consternation within the chamber. But considering how cosmetic Congress’s war powers resolution is, that seems to be precisely what happened here.
The conduct of American foreign policy will never be entirely ideological or purely realist—neither condition would be desirable even if they were feasible. The United States cannot afford to uncritically align itself with states that do not share its values and compromise its moral authority, but nor can America sacrifice its geopolitical interests upon the altar of good intentions.
So long as the U.S. is committed to containing the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, it will side against the efforts of Iranian proxy forces to destabilize the region. The U.S. will continue its commando raids and airstrikes on operatives associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula because to fail to do so would put the lives of Americans and their allies at risk. And the U.S. will maintain its relationship with Saudi Arabia if only to preserve the influence it has already wielded to compel its ally to deescalate the conflict around civilian centers and prevent unnecessary human suffering. Statecraft isn’t always an emotionally satisfying or morally unambiguous venture, which is why it should be left to the professionals. Sadly, it seems there are far too few such professionals in Congress.