Pockets over people: What Trump's Yemen veto tells us about the president

Pockets over people: What Trump's Yemen veto tells us about the president
Congress, not the president, must vote and sign off on US participation in armed conflicts around the world.
6 min read
22 April, 2019
Trump has been reluctant to pull back from Saudi ally Mohammed bin Salman [Getty]
US President Donald Trump this month vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have ended the US role in the devastating Yemen war, "choosing his pockets over his people", American rights activists have said.

The president issued the second veto of his presidency to shoot down the vote, dismissing concerns raised by senators, rights organisations and global activists fighting to bring an end to "the world's worst humanitarian crisis".

Although the bill was under-reported in the global media, it marked the first time US legislation under the 1973 War Powers Act received high levels of bipartisan support, including every Democrat and independent vote as well as support from 16 Republicans.

Still though, Trump, the staunch Saudi ally, swam against the tide and wishes of Congress - including those of his own party - to retract the country's hand from the bloody war and instead followed through on his earlier stated intentions to veto the bill. 

For years, questions surrounding the legality of Washington's involvement in the war have remained ignored but the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October prompted US lawmakers to kick into action. 

The journalist was murdered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul by a team of Saudi hit men, which US intelligence says was a direct order by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - the "mastermind" behind the controversial Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen. 

Almost immediately, the world began to criticise and condemn Saudi Arabia - and Trump's relationship with the young and reckless prince was heavily scrutinised.

This forced US lawmakers to invoke the 1973 War Powers Act and in December 2018, just three months after the Khashoggi murder, the Senate approved a measure that sough to remove US military personnel from "hostilities" overseas. 

Under the US Constitution, it is Congress and not the president which must sign off on all US roles in armed conflicts around the world, including Yemen, Jehan Hakim, the chair of the Yemeni Alliance Committee (YAC), told The New Arab. This simply means all US support, action and assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen would be illegal if the bil had been signed into law.

"The US president has no constitutional authority to be involved in a foreign war, especially if it goes against the will of US lawmakers," Hakim said, noting neither matters of national security nor personal business partnerships provide a legal basis for Trump's defiance of Congress.

The decision to veto the resolution "is a clear indication that profits and interests come before human rights", she said.

"Trump chose to side with Saudi-UAE war criminals and put his financial ventures before the will of the American public, the House and the Senate," she added. In doing so, she said, Trump endangered the lives of millions in Yemen.

The US is the world's top arms seller, while Saudi Arabia is the world's largest customer
- Jehan Hakim, chair of Yemeni Alliance Committee

More than four years into the Saudi-Emirati war on Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, recent figures by ACLED suggest more than 70,000 have been killed since the Riyadh-led military coalition intervened in 2015 to reinstate the government following a rebel takeover of the capital.

The conflict has pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of mass starvation and efforts to end the conflict for the country's 27 million population have so far failed to blossom. Trump's veto will make sure nothing changes on the ground in Yemen - and that's just the problem.

The US provides military intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition, offering Riyadh and Abu Dhabi logistical intelligence, targeting assistance, in-flight refuelling of aircraft and more - crucially, billions of dollars' worth of US arms.

The veto ensures "continued US support of the Saudi-led bombing campaign of Yemen which has repeatedly struck hospitals, schools, funerals and UNESO heritage sites", Hakim said. 

"The US is the world's top arms seller, while Saudi Arabia is the world's largest customer," Hakim added, noting this essential piece of information provides the missing piece of the puzzle for understanding Trump's decision.

"This helps gives us context, it shows what is at stake if we cut off support to the Saudi kingdom - there is a lot of money and contracts at risk," Hakim said. 

In February, Amnesty International revealed weapons supplied by western governments to the UAE in Yemen were being illicitly diverted to unaccountable militias fighting in Yemen's ongoing conflict.

A wide variety of US-supplied armoured vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, including M-ATV, Caiman and MaxxPro models, have been documented in the hands of UAE-backed militias named Security Belt, as well as Shabwani elite forces and "The Giants" by a major investigation entitled When arms go astray: Yemen's deadly new threat of arms diversion to militias.

This humanitarian crisis is man-made and is a direct result of the Saudi-led air bombing and blockade, which the US both supports and profits from
- Jehan Hakim, chair of Yemeni Alliance Committee

Some of the militias are accused of war crimes and other serious violations, including during the recent offensive on the port city of Hodeidah and in the UAE-backed network of secret prisons in southern Yemen.

Needless to say, the war in Yemen is complex and many foreign governments, leaders and groups have used the Middle East's poorest nation as a battleground for proxy regional wars.

While Saudi Arabia has been relentlessly blamed for the rising death toll, many have also pointed the finger towards Iran, which has backed to varying degrees the Houthi rebels throughout the conflict. Others have implicated the West, including European countries such as France, which was recently exposed for providing weapons to the coalition that are frequently used to kill civilians.

But despite the layers of turmoil, Hakim believes starting at home ground should be the first step:

"As Americans, we have the right to hold our government accountable to the policies and relations we engage in at home and internationally. We feel it is necessary to start with removing the external, foreign actors from the poorest nation in the Arab world-the Saudi-led coalition and its supporters."

'Find an exit'

Last week, the International Crisis Group, which researches ways to end conflicts, also suggested the US help its Middle East ally to exit the war in Yemen.

The group said the kingdom's stalwart ally should appoint a special envoy and suspend most arms shipments to the Saudis with a promise to resume them once the kingdom ends its four-year offensive.

The Saudi-led coalition "needs to stop thinking about how to eke out some notional victory and instead commit itself wholly to finding a political exit, regardless of whether that means empowering the Houthis more than it is comfortable with in the short term", the group said in a study based on interviews with current and former officials in the US and elsewhere.

"The US should lead the way by finding its own exit," it said.

Hakim echoed similar sentiments for her home country which she believes "should have the full autonomy to handle its internal factions independent of foreign intervention.

"This humanitarian crisis is man-made and is a direct result of the Saudi-led air bombing and blockade, which the US both supports and profits from.

"Time and time again we see a common thread in history and how it relates to the US-MENA dynamic; intervention is profitable. We've seen that happen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and now in Yemen. The human costs of such decisions are catastrophic," Hakim concluded.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino