The Senate can’t do it alone, however. The measure would still have to pass the House, which has said it won’t vote on it this year, and get signed by the president, who has stuck by MbS, as the crown prince is known, but also signaled openness to withdrawing from Yemen, in order to become law. Even some critics of the Saudi-led war in Yemen like Graham argued that the resolution, which relies on a controversial law saying Congress can stop U.S. forces’ participation in hostilities they haven’t authorized, wasn’t the appropriate tool—and in any case, that U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen didn’t count as active hostilities.
What all this adds up to is a set of major foreign policy questions that will only grow more urgent from next month as a new, Democratic-led House convenes, with the Senate having vowed to keep up the pressure on Saudi Arabia. Those concerns go far beyond the immediate debate over how much more the United States should punish the Saudi regime for Khashoggi’s death, given that the Trump administration has already sanctioned 17 Saudis for their alleged roles.
More broadly, there is growing congressional unease with aspects of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, which Trump has made the pillar of his entire Middle East strategy, particularly when it comes to confronting Iran. It’s this aspect of the relationship especially that administration officials have warned is at risk in the outcry over Khashoggi’s killing, arguing that the fate of one man shouldn’t be allowed to damage a productive partnership against a mutual adversary.
Congressional worries have only grown since February, when two Democrats and one Republican first introduced the just-passed resolution, which initially went nowhere. Even then it was clear that some members were disturbed by U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, which began under Barack Obama’s administration in 2015. After Houthi rebels, who are aligned with Iran, overthrew the internationally recognized government in Sanaa, Saudi Arabia intervened against them to restore the government, with the U.S. providing limited support. That help took the form of refueling of aircraft and some intelligence assistance, in part to help Saudis limit civilian casualties. It was also an effort to prove to the Saudis that Washington would aid an important ally to contain the spread of Iranian influence.
It didn’t turn out that way. The reports kept coming—of weddings bombed, of school buses, of funerals. Widespread starvation broke out, then cholera. Iran’s influence only seemed to grow as it funneled more weapons to the Houthis. By the spring of 2018, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, was citing the 22 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen and had convened a hearing to examine the way forward—and how the United States should be involved. By summer, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator Bob Menendez, was threatening to hold up arms sales to the kingdom. He described then his concern that “our policies are enabling perpetuation of a conflict that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”