Trump Admin Rejects Rand Paul's Effort to Get U.S. Out of Iranian-Backed Conflict in Yemen

Paul pushing Congress to cut U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain

Buildings lay in ruins in Mocha, Yemen
Buildings lay in ruins in Mocha, Yemen / Getty Images
November 14, 2018

Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) is encouraging the Senate to suspend U.S. arms sales to Bahrain, an American ally, as it serves on behalf of a Saudi military coalition battling against Iranian-backed militias in Yemen, according to a copy of a letter being hand-delivered to offices on Capitol Hill and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Paul, along with other lawmakers opposed to military escalation in Yemen, is seeking to see the Saudi-led coalition cut off from American military aid, despite opposition from the Trump administration and warnings that Iran's forces could further escalate tensions in the region and expand Tehran's influence.

Anti-Saudi voices, including Paul, have been seeking to exert pressure on the government following public outcry over the mysterious disappearance and murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi.

The United States has provided public as well as classified military support to the Saudi coalition battling against Iranian militants, but the murder of Khashoggi and resulting backlash has provided fuel to those seeking to pull the United States out of the conflict.

However, many other voices in Congress and the Trump administration reject this approach, telling the Free Beacon the United States must continue to play a role in support of its regional allies as they battle an increasingly belligerent Iranian regime that has sent militant forces to hotspots across the region.

In addition to its military support on behalf of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Iranian forces have caused massive civilian casualties and sparked a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

"Tomorrow the Senate will vote to proceed… [with] a resolution of disapproval that would block the sale of offensive weapons to Bahrain, a member of the Saudi-led coalition that has devastated Yemen," Paul wrote in a letter to Senate colleagues delivered to offices on Tuesday. "This vote is about more than weapons; this is a vote against the war in Yemen. This vote will send a message to the Saudi coalition that the Senate will not support further destruction in Yemen, and that further arms sales to participants in the Saudi collation will be restricted until the war in Yemen is ended."

While the United States would be bucking its allies by undertaking such a move, Paul argues the ban would not prohibit future arms sales to these nations that are unrelated to the conflict in Yemen.

"Bahrain itself has been an ally of the United States in the past, and this would not be an open-ended ban on arms sales to Bahrain," Paul writes. "Rather, this is a one-time action limited to Bahrain's proposed purchase of rockets. Blocking this sale is a small step that could nonetheless serve as the beginning of the end for the war in Yemen."

A U.S. State Department official, speaking to the Free Beacon on background, rejected Paul's maneuver, explaining that Bahrain is an important strategic partner aiding the Trump administration's efforts to counter Iranian extremism.

"Bahrain is an important U.S. security partner," said the State Department spokesman. "Our relationship is built on common interests, including joint efforts to counter violent extremism, promote regional security, and confront the threat from Iran."

In recent days, the United States has ceased operations to help refuel Saudi combat aircraft engaged in operations in Yemen. Paul said he supports this step, but wants to see more of a rejection of the Saudi coalition by the United States.

The Saudi government announced that it supports the United States ending refueling operations, as they now have the capacity to handle these operations alone.

"This means that our effort to withhold refueling support will not apply sufficient pressure to change the conduct of the war in Yemen," according to Paul's letter. "We must take additional actions, and this resolution is an important first step."

Paul's effort is being viewed as a foolish shot-across-the-bow, according to congressional sources engaged on the matter.

"A lot of offices are trying to engage Senator Paul's office on his Bahrain resolution," said one Republican Senate staffer who works on foreign policy. "There are a lot of challenges. So far the main one has been explaining to Senator Paul's staffers that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not the same country. There are a lot of other problems with the resolution, including undercutting Bahrain's status as a major non-NATO ally, but so far the geography problem has been the main one."

A second senior congressional source told the Free Beacon the Trump administration is poised to oppose Paul's resolution and offer alternative language permitting the arms sales and other critical aid to stem the humanitarian crisis.

"Bahrain is a critical ally in the Middle East, home to our Navy’s 5th fleet," said the second congressional source, speaking on background about congressional opposition. "They want to replace their arsenal of cluster munitions with more precise missiles manufactured in the U.S. But Rand Paul and Mike Lee seem hellbent on finding new, creative ways to undermine the United States and our allies when it comes to fighting the very real adversaries we face in the Middle East and around the world."

"Like the failed attempt to invoke the War Powers Act in March, I expect their latest legislative gimmick will go down in flames when it comes to a vote before the Senate this week," the source predicted.