Do Democrats Want a U.S.-Saudi Alliance or Not?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Does it matter to America which side wins the civil war in Yemen? It most certainly does — although congressional Democrats seem to need a reminder why.

The question arises after the House passed a resolution Thursday to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in that conflict by a vote of 247 to 175. While some Republicans in both chambers supported the resolution, it enjoyed near unanimous support from Democrats in Congress.

As Senator Chris Murphy put it last month during the debate over the resolution in the Senate, where it passed by a vote of 54 to 46: “We should not be associated with a bombing campaign that the U.N. tells us is likely a gross violation of human rights.”

Murphy is not wrong that Saudi Arabia has caused famine and misery in Yemen. It has destroyed not just schools but school buses, and prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid. Add to this the Saudis’ murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and their lies and half truths about it, and it’s easy to see why members of Congress would want to end U.S. support for the Saudis’ war in Yemen.

Nonetheless, this approach is short-sighted. To focus solely on Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen conflict is to give Iran a pass for making it worse — by, for example, giving its Houthi clients missiles capable of reaching Riyadh. If the Houthis prevail, then Iran will have access to a port in the Red Sea, from which it can make more mischief in the Middle East. This is what the Saudis are concerned about — and they will fight the war in Yemen with or without U.S. support.

For the moment at least, there is no danger that this expression of congressional disapproval will result in an end to U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen. First and most relevant, President Donald Trump has promised to veto it.

But even if a veto weren’t certain, there’s reason to doubt the impact of the resolution itself. It will not end U.S. intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia, for example, which allows Saudi bombers to target sites in Yemen. It also allows for U.S. operations against al Qaeda and its affiliates in Yemen to continue. Finally, there is the matter of the Pentagon’s termination late last year of its mid-air refueling for Saudi aircraft engaged in the war. In this respect, the resolution would make law a policy already adopted by the administration.

This maneuver is more a matter of messaging: In effect, Democrats are signaling what their policy toward the Saudis will be if they win the White House in 2020. And here, the resolution matters a great deal.

When combined with the growing number of Democratic presidential candidates pledging to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, this vote shows a party ready to embrace neutrality in the conflict for the future of the Middle East — a conflict that pits Iran against America’s historic allies in the region. It’s not only possible but necessary to criticize the Saudis and their depravities, while still recognizing that it’s better for the U.S. if they prevail in Yemen and help to contain Iran.

Only one of those countries cooperates with the U.S. on counterterrorism and is slowly thawing its relationship with Israel. It’s the same country whose war in Yemen has been supported by the U.S. since the administration of President Barack Obama, whose diplomats negotiated the nuclear deal. Even though Obama once mused that Saudi Arabia and Iran should learn to share the Middle East, he nonetheless approved massive arms sales to America’s Persian Gulf allies after the nuclear deal was finished.

No one, least of all the Trump administration, should turn a blind eye to the Saudis’ crimes. But it’s much easier to exercise leverage when both sides have confidence the relationship will endure, no matter which party occupies the White House.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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