The civil war in Yemen has cost the lives of thousands of people, with many more on the brink of country-wide starvation. It might come as a surprise to many Americans that the United States has participated in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran by providing the Saudi-led coalition military advisers, intelligence, and mid-air refueling. What might be more surprising is the highly bipartisan vote in the Senate on Thursday to withdraw all military assistance from Yemen and the Senate’s accompanying Resolution, passed unanimously, assigning responsibility to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. With these measures, the Senate is sending a message to both the Saudi crown prince and President Donald Trump, whose support for the crown prince has not wavered.
Though the Senate vote on cessation of military assistance will have no practical effect – the House of Representatives will not take up the matter before the end of this legislative session – it is significant for at least three reasons.
First, the vote represents an attempt by the Senate to engage in meaningful oversight of U.S. participation in military actions ordered by the President without any initial congressional approval. President Barack Obama initially authorized U.S. involvement in the conflict in Yemen, as in so many other instances of military engagement in recent years, without first seeking to persuade members of Congress of the necessity of supporting Saudi Arabia’s position. Indeed, the Senate vote represents the kind of congressional involvement that may lead to greater accountability for American foreign policy decisions that typically escape the attention of many citizens: the Senate rebuke serves an example of why the framers favored a governmental structure that would emphasize the importance of shared decision-making, particularly in matters to which the President, or successive presidents, has committed the nation, and its armed forces.
Second, the vote shows that the Senate is both able and willing to take on the responsibility of articulating approaches to foreign policy independent of the executive branch. While the Constitution makes the President commander-in-chief of the armed forces, it does not give the occupant of the Oval Office sole responsibility for defining the scope or breadth of the nation’s foreign commitments. In addition to the constitutional power to authorize military actions and assistance, Congress can influence the direction of foreign affairs through a number of constitutionally authorized mechanisms, including the spending power. Using its authority to affirm the correctness of the CIA’s conclusion that the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s death and to chart a different approach to the Yemen War, the Senate has made its policy preference clear: the U.S. should not do business with a regime that so casually condones murder. What’s more, the bipartisan vote presents the American people the opportunity to contrast the administration’s transactional approach to Saudi Arabia with an alternative—and to decide which view better represents American priorities.
Third, the Senate vote shows that, notwithstanding the reluctance of the majority party in Congress to take on the President when it comes to domestic policy, its members are willing to join with their Democratic colleagues where foreign policy is involved, and even go so far as to circumvent the President’s policy decisions that a majority of the Senate has concluded are contrary to the national interest. This is not the first time the Senate has taken such steps in respect to the Trump administration’s foreign policy efforts. During the course of this administration, Senators from both parties have led efforts to curtail the President’s ability to appease Russia and Vladimir Putin by promoting legislation that both imposes sanctions on Russia and limits the President’s discretion to lift those sanctions.
Americans who disagree with this administration’s positions on a wide swath of domestic issues have despaired at congressional unwillingness to engage in meaningful oversight. This is one reason why the administration’s foes have turned to the federal courts, in the hope that the judiciary will check what Congress seems willing to permit. But a different story seems to be developing where foreign policy is concerned, an area in which the courts are unlikely to rule against the government. In the foreign policy realm, Senators from both sides of the aisle appear to understand that not only can Congress play a role in the development of the nation’s foreign policy, there is also no other federal governmental institution with the constitutional authority and capacity to do so.
Photo credit: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaks to the press after receiving a briefing from U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on developments in Saudi Arabia on November 28, 2018 (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)