A Senate resolution opposing a $1.15 billion arms transfer to Saudi Arabia garnered support from 27 senators on Wednesday, a sign of growing unease about the increasing number of civilians being killed with U.S. weapons in Yemen. A procedural vote to table the resolution passed 71-27.
The Obama administration announced the transfer last month, the same day the Saudi Arabian coalition bombed a potato chip factory in the besieged Yemeni capital. In the following week, the Saudi-led forces would go on to bomb a children’s school, the home of the school’s principal, a Doctors Without Borders hospital, and the bridge used to carry humanitarian aid into the capital.
Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March 2015, four months after Houthi rebels from Northern Yemen overran the capitol, Sanaa, and deposed the Saudi-backed ruler, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In addition to providing Saudi Arabia with intelligence and flying refueling missions for its air force, the United States has enabled the bombing campaign by supplying $20 billion in weapons over the past 18 months. In total, President Obama has sold more than $115 billion in weapons to the Saudi kingdom – more than any other president.
After the White House failed to respond to a letter from 60 members of Congress requesting that the transfer be delayed, Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a resolution condemning the arms sale. Paul and Murphy said they had planned to pursue binding legislation if their resolution was successful.
“It’s time for the United States to press ‘pause’ on our arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” Murphy said. “Let’s ask ourselves whether we are comfortable with the United States getting slowly, predictably, and all too quietly dragged into yet another war in the Middle East.”
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., speaking in support of the resolution, said the “very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that we are watching your actions closely, and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children.”
The Republican leadership strongly opposed the bill, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican Whip John Cornyn, Armed Services Chairman John McCain and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker speaking against. Republicans claimed that the Houthi insurgency is an Iranian proxy, blamed President Obama’s foreign policy for emboldening Iran, and argued that the war is justified.
“Let’s be clear about what the arms sale is all about. It’s about giving a nation that’s under attack by Iranian-sponsored militia the arms it needs to defend its people and its territory,” McCain said. “Make no mistake, this aggression is fueled by the Iranians.”
The Saudi government frequently describes the Houthis as an Iranian proxy in order to justify their bombing campaign. Numerous U.S. diplomats and experts on Yemen, however, have argued that Iranian support for the Houthis is very limited, and that the war in Yemen is a civil war, not a proxy war.
Coalition airstrikes are responsible for the majority of the 10,000 people killed in the conflict, and according to data collected by the Yemen Data Project, nearly a third of all Saudi air raids have hit civilian targets, including markets, factories, mosques, schools, or hospitals.
Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, praised the vote of the dissenting senators. “Today, for the first time since the war in Yemen began, 27 senators voiced the first cries of dissent against our government’s unconditional and unlimited support for the Saudi-led coalition,” Offenheiser said in a statement. “Concern in Congress regarding the situation in Yemen and the US’s heartless and disjointed approach to it will only grow stronger.”
The measure still may have a chance in the House, where Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., has introduced a companion resolution. In June, the House almost passed a measure banning the transfer of internationally banned cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, but the amendment was defeated 204-216.
After the vote, Murphy tweeted:
Never before have so many Senators gone on record supporting a rethink of the US-Saudi relationship. Didn't win, but a strong message.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) September 21, 2016
Lots of Senators who voted for the sale mentioned to me how good it felt to be openly debating foreign policy in the Senate again.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) September 21, 2016