WASHINGTON -- One of the architects of unprecedented new legislation that would restrict U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia believes the Obama administration has repeatedly deflected questions about its ongoing support for Saudi actions in Yemen.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said his frustration with the U.S. policy is one reason why he joined three other lawmakers to propose barring the sale of more American bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia until the administration provides new guarantees on Saudi behavior.
That precondition means that the measure, introduced earlier this month, is an indictment of President Barack Obama’s approach to the kingdom as much as it is one of Saudi wrongdoing.
In March 2015, Obama quietly approved a U.S. role in a Saudi-led military effort to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which had lost its capital and much of the country to Iran-backed rebels. U.S. intelligence began to flow to the campaign and U.S. planes began refueling its jets, as Saudis and other Gulf Arabs deployed U.S. weaponry sold to them with the president’s permission.
Not long afterward, Lieu began to read the news of what the U.S. military was helping the Saudis and their allies do in Yemen -- dropping bombs that killed hundreds of civilians, including children, and bringing widespread destruction to one of the poorest countries in the Muslim world. The congressman said he contacted Obama administration officials, including Gen. Joseph Dunford, the newly appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for answers to three broad questions:
What is the U.S. national security interest in supporting the Saudi-led air coalition in Yemen?
Why is this coalition dropping bombs on civilians nowhere near military targets?
How is the U.S. going to stop that from happening?
The effort initially appeared to win results. "The administration gave me a briefing last year," Lieu told The Huffington Post in a recent interview. "After the briefing, I came out with the impression that things were going to get better."
But months later, Lieu had to write another letter to the secretaries of state and defense.
"Having served on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, and as a graduate of Air War College, I understand that in the fog of war no battle plan will be executed perfectly," the congressman wrote in a message dated March 2. "As I previously wrote to Gen. Dunford, however, the apparent indiscriminate airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen seem to suggest that either the coalition is grossly negligent in its targeting or is intentionally targeting innocent civilians."
To Lieu, it looked like things had actually gotten worse since his initial complaints. The congressman is still waiting to hear back from the administration in response to his latest message.
The White House has offered a limited public defense for its role in the bloody Yemen conflict. It speaks mainly of supporting a friend against instability in its neighborhood, with an official telling Al-Hayat newspaper that the U.S. was nervous that the Yemeni rebels were preparing to attack Saudi Arabia. The administration also says it regrets the civilian deaths.
But officials do say that U.S. support, particularly intelligence sharing, is intended to reduce the chance that the relatively inexperienced Saudi military will miss targets and kill civilians.
Lieu slammed that reasoning in his HuffPost interview.
"The notion that if we're assisting this Saudi-led coalition, that they're going to commit 27 war crimes instead of 34 war crimes to me is not a persuasive argument," the congressman said. "We should not be assisting a coalition that's committing any war crimes."
He noted that his approach is informed by his experience as a military lawyer.
"Under the law of war, if an individual or entity aids and abets someone who is committing war crimes, then that person can also be liable for war crimes, so that is something that the administration needs to take into account," Lieu said.
The rebels whom the Saudi-led coalition is fighting -- a tribal group known as the Houthis that has ties with Saudi rival Iran and controversial former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh -- are also responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths, according to international rights groups. But they are not receiving American military support and Washington has few non-military ways to change their behavior beyond meting out sanctions, which it has already done.
Observers of the conflict note that the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition has been linked to tragedy again and again, with the most recent prominent example a March 15 attack that killed over 100 people, including 25 children. The Obama administration has freshly approved arms sales as the killing has continued. In November, it gave the Saudis the green light to buy $1.29 billion more of American bombs.
Concern over Yemen has fueled increasing criticism of the U.S.-Saudi partnership in Washington this year. Such critiques quickly won support in part because of timing: with the Obama administration focused on last year’s international nuclear agreement with Iran and Saudi Arabia’s financial power falling because of shifts in the oil market, it’s become fashionable to talk about reshaping the relationship, seen by some observers as a relic the U.S. no longer needs.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) became the most prominent lawmaker to call for reassessing the de facto alliance in a speech in January. In a HuffPost interview days later, he said he would like to cut off all U.S. support for the Yemen war, which he noted has provided an opportunity for al Qaeda to gain ground and resources. He is now the Senate lead for the measure Lieu is co-sponsoring in the House.
The bill has one Republican co-sponsor in each chamber: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). And Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) recently signed up as a co-sponsor in the House as well. The measure's supporters will begin "a big push" for more co-sponsors next week, Lieu aide Jack d'Annibale told HuffPost Thursday.
It's unclear how much more support the measure will gain. Two other congressional efforts that risk offending the Saudis have attracted attention in recent weeks: a bill colloquially known as JASTA that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government over suspicions that it facilitated the al Qaeda attacks; and a resolution calling on Obama to declassify 28 pages of a U.S. report believed to describe Saudi links to the terror attacks.
Speculation over the classified pages continues to bolster public skepticism of the kingdom. Lieu said his hunch about what the pages might reveal led to one of the most contentious parts of his new proposal for arms sales to the Saudis: that the U.S. guarantee that the Saudi government is not supporting terror organizations. To even call that into question would be a big step in the relationship with a decades-long partner.
Meanwhile, Saudi attempts to improve the kingdom's image in the U.S. have largely faltered.
But though JASTA appeared to gain steam this month when The New York Times revealed harsh Saudi attempts to undermine it, the proposal's chances of becoming law have plummeted since the White House began describing the effect the law would have on sovereign immunity for the U.S. and made clear that Obama would veto it.
The resolution on the 28 pages, of which Lieu is a co-sponsor, also appears to be in limbo. The Saudi government has long publicly said it would be happy to have the pages be released, but both the Bush and Obama administrations have kept them classified for what they describe as national security reasons.
In addition, the kingdom has begun to weaken the critique of its military campaign by starting to consistently target al Qaeda in Yemen, undermining claims Murphy and others in the U.S. have made about the Saudi-led coalition allowing violent extremism there to grow stronger.
Obama remains committed to his relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is marked by public condemnation but a private enabling of the kingdom through record arms sales. And criticism over civilian casualties in Yemen has had little impact on the president in the past: his officially secret drone war in the country has killed hundreds of Yemenis, including at least 64 civilians, and traumatized millions more. For years, Obama supported Yemen's Saudi-backed government, describing his approach in that country as an international success as recently as August 2014, while discontent grew and helped lead to the chaos of today.
Other top arms suppliers seem unlikely to change their position either. Attempts by the European Union to try and prevent member states like Britain and France from selling more weapons to Saudi Arabia have had little impact.
The Yemen conflict is currently frozen under the terms of an April 10 truce meant to allow U.N.-backed peace talks between the Houthi rebels and the government. The talks made progress Tuesday after a brief suspension.