Tom Cotton Makes Last-Ditch Effort to Preserve U.S. Support for Saudis in Yemen

Amendments meant to weaken Senate resolution calling for end to U.S. involvement

Tom Cotton
Tom Cotton / Getty Images
December 13, 2018

In a last-ditch effort to preserve U.S. backing for the Saudi-led operation in Yemen, Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) on Thursday introduced two amendments intended to weaken a Senate War Powers Resolution that called for an end to American involvement.

Both measures failed. Instead, lawmakers voted 56-41 to deliver a rebuke of the Trump administration's support for Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign against Iranian-backed Houthis.

Even with overwhelming support in the Senate, the resolution remains largely symbolic. House Republicans on Wednesday moved to block consideration of any resolution that draws on the 1973 War Powers Act to limit American involvement in Yemen. The effort will likely be stalled until January when the new congressional term begins.

The first amendment proposed by Cotton would have allowed the United States to continue providing advice and intelligence to the Saudis intended to reduce civilian casualties and ensure the adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict. The measure would have sustained current U.S. strategy in the country.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote in a letter to Congress earlier this year that limited American support to the Saudi-led coalition has "focused on improving coalition processes and procedures, especially regarding compliance with the law of armed conflict and best practices for reducing the risk of civilian casualties."

The second measure from Cotton would have carved out an exception for American assistance aimed at disrupting Houthi attacks against targets outside of Yemen. He cited the Houthi missile attack targeting an international airport in Saudi Arabia's capital of Riyadh earlier this year.

"If we withdraw our support from the coalition in the Arabian Peninsula, the fight's not going to stop," he said prior to the vote. "Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not going to allow Iran to supply a rebel insurgency with missiles and UAVs and boats that can reach their citizens. I would suggest that we should try to do everything that we can to minimize civilian casualties."

Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) said both amendments "would essentially gut the underlying resolution."

Several recent events, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and warnings of widespread famine in Yemen, have prompted appeals to the Trump administration to reevaluate its backing of Saudi Arabia.

Mattis has told reporters that he is "constantly reviewing" American support for the coalition, determining in September that it was "the right thing" to help Saudi Arabia defend its borders and reinstate the "rightful" UN-backed government in Sana'a.