When Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy cast his vote in the Senate on Tuesday supporting a $650 million missile sale to Saudi Arabia, he bucked the better half of his party. That evening, 28 of 50 Senate Democrats voted for a resolution of disapproval, authored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that sought to stop the Saudi arms sale. The decision by a majority of Senate Democrats to oppose transferring weapons described by the State Department as “defensive” was a major show against President Joe Biden and an affirmation of their opposition to Saudi Arabia’s strangling of Yemen. But the Democrats on Murphy’s side were joined by all but two Republicans — Paul and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah — and the measure failed 30-67. In Murphy’s case, it was proof of a significant shift by the previous anti-war champion.
Democrats are in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen began six years ago. In that time, the kingdom’s airstrikes and port blockades have killed thousands of civilians and left millions more at risk of starvation. Aggravated by the devastation, the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the White House’s nonsensical declaration of a national emergency to expedite weapon sales, Democrats under the Trump administration mounted a series of attempts to withdraw U.S. involvement from the Saudi offensive, often with Republican collaboration. These efforts included the first-ever bicameral, majority votes invoking the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Although it ultimately failed, receiving a veto from Saudi-friendly former President Donald Trump in April 2019, Murphy emerged as a leading advocate in the Senate for ending the conflict.
Now that Democrats are in a position to actually force an end to the war in Yemen, caucus members like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., have continued their campaign to end U.S. support. They have picked up a few newcomers, like Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who voted to stop the missile sale Tuesday. But they also lost certain powerful Democrats who had backed anti-war initiatives during the Trump administration, like Murphy, House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who supported the sale.
And Democrats failed to include an amendment by Sanders and Khanna in the National Defense Authorization Act to prohibit U.S. defense contractors from maintaining Saudi warplanes. The provision would have grounded the fighter jets, effectively lifting the blockade and winding down Saudi Arabia’s capacity to wage the war. The House passed the compromise NDAA bill Tuesday evening.
At first, the anti-war effort appeared to have a strong ally in Biden, who significantly shifted U.S. policy in February when he announced that the government would cease support for “offensive operations” in Yemen, citing the country’s humanitarian crisis. Instead, he argued, the U.S. would solely participate in activities intended to defend Saudi Arabia from attacks by the Houthis, a Shia movement that pushed the Saudi-backed Yemen government out of power in 2014.
But by distinguishing between defensive and offensive operations, the new president carved out room to allow the military partnership with the kingdom to continue — especially since the Iran-backed Houthis have increased attacks and emerged as the clear victors in the civil war after Saudi Arabia started to pull back forces in the fall of 2020. Although Biden ended intelligence sharing and exports of air-to-ground munitions that killed civilians and destroyed infrastructure, the administration recently greenlighted the sale of 280 Raytheon-built Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, intended to intercept attacks from the Houthis.
Beyond that, Biden also still allows American defense contractors to provide maintenance to Saudi warplanes, without which they would be unable to fly. For Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former State Department official during the Obama administration, the continuation of maintenance contracts is the biggest indictment of Biden’s position on the war in Yemen.
“I think there are some folks there who might have hoped that we didn’t notice the omission” of warplane maintenance from Biden’s policy against support of offensive operations, he told The Intercept last month. “They wanted full credit for breaking with the Trump policy, and they have to some extent, but they didn’t want to do the one thing that the Saudis would miss the most. Because that would have led to real friction in the relationship.”
“To the extent we’re still doing that, I think we are engaged in hostilities in Yemen in ways that are not consistent with the administration’s goals and objectives,” he added.
“I think we are engaged in hostilities in Yemen in ways that are not consistent with the administration’s goals and objectives.”
Murphy characterized the nature of U.S. involvement much differently, telling The Intercept at the time that “we are not partners in the Yemen war,” though the U.S. “may be still in the security business with the Saudis.”
Asked in November if he would support the Sanders-Khanna proposal to halt all maintenance of the Saudi war effort, Murphy said, “I’d have to read the specific language of Bernie’s amendment to understand what the practical impact would be.”
But Murphy already voted for the measure once, in 2019, after Trump vetoed the War Powers Resolution Murphy had sponsored with Sanders and Lee. Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., confirmed to The Intercept that the new version was left out of the compromise NDAA as a result of an objection, though he declined to identify who was responsible. Jurisdiction for the proposal fell under the foreign relations committees, according to Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chair of the defense panel. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to answer questions from The Intercept.
The measure was also undermined by powerful Democrats. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., introduced a watered-down amendment to the NDAA that competed with Sanders and Khanna’s more comprehensive reform. Meeks’s alternative sought to prohibit U.S. maintenance of warplanes by Saudi military units found responsible for “offensive” airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties but would leave it up to the sole discretion of the president to determine which units received that designation. Though both amendments passed during an initial round of votes in September, the Meeks proposal received greater support, securing the votes of 11 Democrats who had backed Khanna’s measure in 2019. A congressional source, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told The Intercept it was “inconceivable” that Meeks acted without consulting the White House.
Smith, who co-sponsored both the Khanna and Meeks amendments this year, defended Meeks’s more conciliatory approach to the kingdom. “What I am genuinely worried about now is that if our entire focus is on Saudi Arabia … and the narrative is, I think, not looking at what the Houthis are doing,” he told the Intercept last month.
But not even the Meeks amendment made it into the compromise NDAA. The exclusion of proposed measures to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its actions in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi was enough to compel Khanna, Malinowski, and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., to vote against their party’s first NDAA since gaining control of a unified government. Meeks and Smith voted in favor.
In addition to his decision to distinguish between “offensive” and “defensive” operations and allow Saudi warplane maintenance contracts to continue, Biden indicated a more conciliatory approach to the kingdom when he appointed Tim Lenderking to serve as special envoy to Yemen in February. A career diplomat, Lenderking was the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia between 2013 and 2016.
He endorsed the kingdom’s offer of a ceasefire in March, even though experts considered it untenable. The plan rehashed a previous proposal that would have required the Houthis to be the first to make concessions, even though they had rejected these terms absent an end to the blockade, according to Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group and Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute. Despite concerns that the new process favored Saudi Arabia, Murphy traveled to the Middle East with Lenderking in May and expressed encouragement regarding the ceasefire, tweeting: “President Biden has made ending the Yemen war a priority, and this matters. He stopped U.S. offensive support for the Saudi side of the war, and he named veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking Special Envoy. There is new momentum toward a ceasefire [because] of Biden’s new approach.”
Murphy’s show of support for the Saudi-led process differed from his colleagues’ priorities. In May, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., led 15 Democratic senators in a letter to Biden urging him to pressure the kingdom to lift the blockade to alleviate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Murphy notably did not sign. A congressional source said that he didn’t necessarily disagree with the letter’s content but wanted to issue a statement in his own words. More than 70 Democrats in the House also sent Biden their own letter calling on him to publicly demand that Saudi Arabia unilaterally end its blockade.
Their appeal for unilateral action by the kingdom puts these Democrats at odds with the State Department.
Their appeal for unilateral action by the kingdom puts these Democrats at odds with the State Department, which places blame for the lack of peace on the Houthis. In an email to The Intercept, a State Department spokesperson said: “Houthi escalating military actions, fuel stockpiling and price manipulation, abuses against civilians, like the detentions of our staff in Sana’a, illustrate Houthis’ obstruction to a durable peace solution,” referring to the breach of the U.S. Embassy in early November and detention of Yemeni employees by Houthi forces.
The State Department condemned the breach, and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget later expressed its opposition to Senate efforts to block the weapons sale, citing “increased missile and drone attacks against civilians in Saudi Arabia.”
Most Senate Democrats were not deterred from rejecting the State Department’s justification for the $650 million air-to-air missile sale Tuesday. Before voting against the sale, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told The Intercept: “I don’t trust Saudi Arabia and what’s been going on in Yemen.” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., dismissed characterizations of the sale as defensive, telling The Intercept that “there are a lot more considerations at work here.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also voted to block the sale.
Murphy, who in February argued for a “suspension of all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia until there is a substantial change in behavior,” repeated State Department arguments when explaining his vote supporting the missile export Tuesday. “With the increased pace of Houthi drones coming into Saudi territory, it is actually important for them to have the ability to shoot them,” he told The Intercept, calling the transfer a “true defensive weapons sale.”
Menendez, who in June 2019 introduced 22 bipartisan joint resolutions of disapproval with Murphy after the Trump administration declared a national emergency to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, also voted to support the air-to-air missile export.
“Make no mistake, the Saudi-led coalition bears the brunt of the responsibility for the devastation in Yemen,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday ahead of the vote. “Yet I, along with most members of this body, have always supported the use of weapons systems in defense of civilian populations. … There’s no denying that the Houthis have been deploying increasingly more sophisticated weapons, particularly armed aerial drones, to target civilian populations in Saudi Arabia.”
Last month, when Omar sought to ban the sale in the House, Smith had a similar reaction. “We’ve called off other stuff, and that’s a defensive weapon, OK. Well that’s the whole point,” he said. Even Malinowski, who is critical of Biden’s stance on warplane maintenance, concurred, saying: “I’ve always said that I’m opposed to all offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. … But I’m not in favor of blocking weapons that are primarily intended for defense, missile defense, air defense.”
The attempt to halt the arms sale was, of course, a stopgap measure. The Khanna-Sanders NDAA amendment to end maintenance support for Saudi warplanes — a strategy launched in lieu of another War Powers Resolution — was Democrats’ best shot to cease U.S. participation in the conflict this year. Without U.S. support, the Saudi planes would be grounded and the blockade on Yemeni ports effectively lifted, putting an end to Saudi bombing and providing a way out of the worst famine in a century. Now that it has failed, the next test of the party’s commitment to end the war will be whether they again attempt to invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Biden would have a harder time justifying a veto than his predecessor — should the bill ever reach his desk.