President Donald Trump has used his veto power four times to shield Saudi Arabia from bipartisan congressional rebukes. A defense bill that landed on his desk this week might have forced him to use his veto pen again — or sign the bill and finally put pressure on the kingdom over the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But Congress sent Trump legislation free of tough measures against the Saudis. On Friday, he signed it into law.
In presenting Trump with a defense bill free of anti-Saudi measures, Capitol Hill squandered its latest chance to enact a policy — an end to U.S. support for the Saudis’ military intervention in Yemen — that’s been approved by both chambers and won the support of a crucial number of Republicans and essentially the entire Democratic Party.
The story of how that happened is one of broken promises, given that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) assured critics of the Yemen war that Democratic control of the House meant the issue would be a priority.
It’s also a story of political failure, given how rarely Congress comes so close to securing meaningful change on foreign policy and how clear it is that the time is ripe for a reset in U.S.-Saudi relations. And it’s a story of anger, pain and finger-pointing among a coalition of politicians and activists that’s worked for years to notch high-profile wins — as well as a test of whether that alliance can hold to address a situation in which the U.S. is implicated in the deaths of thousands of civilians and the risk of starvation for more than 14 million people.
“Yemen should never have been on the table to negotiate,” said Kate Kizer, the policy director at the progressive group Win Without War. “It’s mind-blowingly bad and really unacceptable.”
“It’s just like a punch to the stomach,” said Jehan Hakim, the chair of the Yemeni Alliance Committee, a Yemeni-American advocacy organization.
“I wasn’t fucking caving,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the lead Democratic negotiator in the wrangling between the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate and White House that produced the final bill. “I was fighting to the last conceivable minute.”
A clear picture of why things ended up this way matters for the movement to force accountability for the war — which the United Nations blames for the worst humanitarian crisis in the world — and to put an end to it by withdrawing U.S. support for the Saudis’ operations and making the kingdom more serious about peace talks with its opponents in Yemen. It’s also important for the question of whether Washington can ever adopt a more restrained foreign policy complete with constitutionally mandated oversight and a greater respect for human rights.
Lawmakers and activists view the antiwar movement’s campaign on Yemen as a test case, and the results so far have been encouraging, challenging congressional inertia and spurring the Saudis and others to change tack in big ways. The defeat on the defense bill — a bigger loss than expected, according to interviews with more than a dozen people involved — is the biggest blow to their momentum in months. Now they’re processing what went wrong.
Early Hope But Old Cynicism
The sparring factions of the Yemen coalition at least agree on how things looked at the start of conversations about the defense bill, around August.
War skeptics had overcome GOP tricks and finally sent Trump their bill to require an end to America’s aid for the Saudis, which President Barack Obama initiated and Congress never approved. They had demonstrated bipartisan and bicameral support for their position. And they had enough enthusiasm that they could channel some into new ideas, like a pitch from activist-turned-congressman Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) to bar offensive weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and its chief partner, the United Arab Emirates, for a year.
Taking advantage of Democratic control of the House and increasing public conversation about a more progressive foreign policy, peaceniks saw a chance to use the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to fight for other priorities, too: a resolution seeking to block a Trump strike on Iran and another repealing the 2002 authorization for the use of military force, which presidents have cited to justify military actions beyond the original intent of approving the invasion of Iraq.
But Republican leadership hadn’t suddenly become more dovish or abandoned its policy of shielding the Saudis, and the prospect of the two parties having to strike a broad deal posed a familiar problem for liberals.
“It was an uneven playing field where Republicans were willing to tank that bill but Democrats weren’t,” said Hassan El-Tayyab of the Friends National Committee on Legislation, a Quaker lobby.
GOP negotiators would be happy to abandon the process of crafting major legislation altogether and simply give Democrats the choice of voting on a narrow proposal addressing only vital needs, known as a “skinny bill,” or rejecting that and appearing to ignore national security.
Activists kept up conversations with Republican staffers, but they focused on ensuring Democrats would stand by their stated priorities — paying particular attention to Smith, in the House, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Outside pressure had already worked on Smith years earlier, when he became an ardent backer of a change in Yemen while facing a primary challenge from the left; this time around, advocacy groups urged constituents to press Reed.
Inside the discussions, Democrats were being as tactically smart as they could, Smith said. He pointed to the way he exaggerated Democratic opposition to the Space Force idea to gain concessions from Republicans eager to give Trump a win on a favorite issue. In reality, some Democrats had been talking about the idea — and agreeing with their counterparts across the aisle on it — before it made it to presidential Twitter fame. “I leveraged that, which is an impressive legislative accomplishment,” Smith said.
He had to take a broader view than just focusing on the foreign policy issues that were drawing outside attention, he added — considering concerns like how to, for instance, secure a provision that would continue the production of military flatware in the district of Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.).
Helping people like Brindisi stay in office in that way means, Smith said, “you have another Democrat who will vote to help cut off U.S. support in Yemen. All of that stuff dies if we just walk away from the bill.”
The Blame Game
Congressional negotiators were squabbling over the Saudi-focused amendments right down to the GOP’s final deadline, in early December. They had company: Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top White House adviser, was personally involved.
Kushner took a particular interest in the provisions targeting Saudi Arabia, Smith told HuffPost. A Hill source involved in the negotiations said Kushner’s role was expansive in a way that raised questions: “Why would we give him that kind of authority? ... Kushner was literally drafting it.”
That high-level interest from the notoriously Saudi-friendly Trump White House seems to have been the nail in the coffin for the proposals, which were already facing opposition from hawks, lobbyists for Riyadh and the influential defense industry. For Raytheon, for instance, a single Saudi deal that could have been affected by the Malinowski proposal was worth about 5% of annual revenue, according to calculations by William Hartung of the Center for International Policy.
The ultimate outcome on Yemen was a provision barring the U.S. from providing aerial refueling to the Saudis and their partners in the war — which doesn’t have any immediate effect since Trump chose to stop refueling last year anyway, but it does present a hurdle to presidents trying to begin it again. The compromise bill also demanded the names of Saudi officials involved in the murder of journalist Khashoggi but didn’t include measures like sanctions that lawmakers had been discussing.
“This was basically our worst-case scenario for how this legislation could play out in terms of making a difference in the lives of Yemeni people,” said Noah Gottschalk, humanitarian policy lead for Oxfam America.
House progressives rebelled against the bill, as did contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. ”Congress must vote against this disastrous Pentagon authorization — a bill of astonishing moral cowardice,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a frequent critic of the Yemen war, wrote on Twitter. “We do not need to shower Trump, his Saudi friends and the military-industrial complex with a $738-billion taxpayer giveaway.”
Multiple congressional and activist sources said the trouble was that Democratic leaders, particularly in the House, didn’t prioritize Yemen. Pelosi and her team pointed to other wins in the bill, notably paid parental leave for all federal workers. One aide pointed to Smith’s public remarks at the American Enterprise Institute days before he and other negotiators revealed the legislation, where the congressman said the amendment ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition wouldn’t immediately lead to the end of the fighting anyway. “It seemed once they realized they weren’t going to get it in… he had to discredit the amendment, that’s a way to justify it,” the staffer said.
Smith, unsurprisingly, takes a different view.
“I find to be bizarre a lobbying strategy to attack the person who agrees with you and advocated for your position and passed it out of the House and to give a total free pass to all of the Republicans,” he said. He feels he drew out the process and publicly alluded to the need to work on the opposite side. “Was the response, Please call [Senate Armed Services chairman Jim] Inhofe and Senate Republicans? The response is, Adam Smith is wavering.”
In his telling, securing provisions to end the U.S. military role in Yemen would have entailed accepting GOP demands to specify that the Saudis could get American help if they were attacked first — raising the specter of what he calls a “backdoor” authorization for a war. “All of these outside groups that are now deploring me, we talked about that... they said that’s awful.”
Amid the negotiations, an attack on Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 14 that the U.S. blamed on Iran had increased sympathy for the kingdom on Capitol Hill, a Senate aide told HuffPost.
Asked about the handful of Republicans who have repeatedly voted with Democrats on Saudi-related issues, Smith said Inhofe (R-Okla.) and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) didn’t view those members as “real Republicans.”
That’s a common refrain about Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who have broken with their party over civil liberties and national security issues. Both voted against the defense bill. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), a member of Senate Republican leadership who has condemned the Saudi-led coalition’s policies in Yemen for years, voted for the bill. He did not respond to a HuffPost request for comment.
Activists say there’s more Democrats could have done, including not voting for the bill at all. “I’m not saying that the bill is all bad, but this was our best chance to reassert congressional war authority and put a credible check on the Pentagon and the Trump administration, and that didn’t happen,” Tayyab of the Quaker peace group said.
Even on the parts of the legislation that Democrats point to as wins, they believe it’s clear that the party wasn’t as assertive as it could have been: Getting paid family leave is now to some extent a Republican issue, too, after all, given Ivanka Trump’s concern for the issue. (Though Smith noted Senate Republicans are still wary of the idea.)
“You shouldn’t be continuing the dangerous trend of trading bad national security policy for good domestic policy,” said Kizer of Win Without War.
And they’re not feeling bad about focusing their fire on Democrats. “The White House doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t on this, and we know where the vast majority of Republicans stand,” said David Segal of the group Demand Progress. “I blame the negotiators, and I blame the leadership on the Democratic side…. It’s not as passive as getting ‘rolled,’ as someone put it — they just actively chose not to stand up for it.”
A spokesperson for Reed, the top Senate Democrat in the negotiations, said in an email that the Yemen provisions “should have been included.”
“Both [Reed] and Chairman Smith fought hard and tried everything they could to include strong Yemen-related language in the final agreement. Ultimately, they weren’t able to overcome stiff opposition from Republican leadership and the White House,” the spokesperson added. “Passing an NDAA on an annual basis requires significant compromise.... Nobody got everything they wanted, but the vast bipartisan majority supported the conference report.”
Spokespeople for Pelosi did not respond to a HuffPost request for comment.
The Next Fight ― And The Next Win
The clearest lesson for the antiwar movement is that it hasn’t won quite as much support as it needs to, particularly in a Republican Party that’s currently of many minds on foreign policy ― dominated by a president who’s interested in reining in U.S. interventions but also desperate to project a vicious conception of strength, yet still heavily influenced by traditionalist lawmakers wary of what they see as weakness.
“The restraint community really has a lot of work to do when it comes to educating a broader swath of both conservatives and liberals or progressives, Democrats and Republicans about how our foreign policy over the last 30 years has not been making us safer or more prosperous and has actually collided with our values, and we need a new approach,” said William Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute, a group funded by the billionaire right-wing industrialist that supports a less belligerent foreign policy. “The people who want greater realism and restraint didn’t think that we were going to be able to see policy win after policy win right away… there’s a lot of energy around restraint, but it’s going to take time for that to bubble up in a way that leadership will understand where Americans are at.”
For Democrats, Yemen (and Saudi Arabia broadly) remains a top issue and a litmus test of sorts for the party’s base. A little-noticed detail about a bill accompanying the closely watched NDAA reflects that reality. Rep. Dutch Ruppersburger (D-Md.) tried to attach an amendment barring a U.S. role in the war to defense appropriations legislation — an apparent act of penance for an action almost exactly one year ago, when he and four other Democrats helped pass a GOP-led farm bill and halted the progress of a provision on Yemen, spurring fierce criticism and talk of primary challenges.
“Our work is not done” on Yemen, Khashoggi or preventing a war with Iran, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the first lawmakers to raise the alarm about the devastating war, said in an email. He’s crafted a process that could force a Senate vote on U.S.-Saudi security assistance next year.
Liberals should see now that they need greater discipline over issues like Yemen, argued Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who authored the amendment that failed to get in. “The problem is we don’t have a consistent frame as a Democratic Party: We’re not willing to make the argument that we need less focus on military interventionism…, so it’s a muddled mess and the other side has a clear frame that we need more national security and defense funding.”
The campaigns and grassroots organizers looking to those power-brokers for action aren’t likely to let them see this as the end of the road.
“There may be a sense of demoralization, but more so there’s a sense of anger among activists who elected what should be an opposition party but isn’t acting like it,” Kizer said. “It’s not only about hopefully legislating something — it’s also about setting up for a post-Donald Trump foreign policy.”