Senate Democrat Says It's Time To Cut Off Support For Saudi Arabia's War In Yemen

America shouldn't "just back our friends' play," Chris Murphy argues.

02/05/2016 08:00 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2016
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press
The senator is worried about the already devastating consequences of Saudi airstrikes.

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called for the U.S. to cease military involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, doubling down on his critique last week of America's relationship with Saudi Arabia. 

Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told HuffPost's Friday podcast of "So That Happened" that he hasn't yet heard a legitimate defense of the Obama administration's policy of providing military assistance to the Saudis in their aerial war in Yemen. That war has killed thousands of civilians and deteriorated conditions in an already unstable country.

Tune in at the 31:00 mark to hear Murphy's full interview with HuffPost on the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

"We're sort of still grounded in this world in which we just back our friends' play, no matter the consequences to the United States. The Saudis are in a fight, then we're going to be in a fight with them," said Murphy of what seems to be the prevailing logic behind U.S. support.

As Murphy sees it, the consequences of backing Saudi Arabia in this particular fight are devastating: collateral damage and chaos that has allowed extremist groups to expand their presence in Yemen.

"I just don't see any evidence right now that the Saudis are conducting that military exercise in a way that's responsible. It's just feeding the humanitarian crisis inside Yemen," the senator said.

He argued that Congress should block future sales to Saudi Arabia of weapons that likely would be used offensively in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia began airstrikes on Yemen last March at the request of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been driven out of the capital city of Sanaa by a separatist rebel group called the Houthis. The U.S. immediately confirmed its support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign.

Because the Shiite Houthis receive some support from Iran, the Saudi government has managed to frame the war in Yemen as an effort to curb the spread of Iranian influence -- an idea that is popular with some congressional lawmakers. White House and intelligence officials dispute the notion that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, and HuffPost previously reported that the Iranians actually warned the Houthis against an aggressive takeover of Sanaa.

By Murphy's calculus, the potential to curb Iran's influence in Yemen doesn't outweigh the catastrophic reality of the Saudi war. "Even if we do forestall the growing Iranian influence in the region ... the growing footprint of al-Qaeda and ISIS inside Yemen is much more damaging to U.S. interests," he said, using one of several names for the Islamic State group. The Houthis fight against both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Hani Mohammed/Associated Press
Men inspect a house destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 25, 2016. The missile also killed eight people, security officials said.

Murphy's call for the U.S. to exit the war in Yemen is one of the first to come from Capitol Hill. Whereas lawmakers regularly slam the Obama administration for its failure to elucidate a plan to defeat the Islamic State, few publicly question the absence of a coherent strategy in Yemen.

"This has largely gone under the radar screen," Murphy said. "For all the attention on the U.S. campaign against ISIL and whether or not we put troops or resources into that fight ... the United States is, in many respects, at war against certain forces inside Yemen funded by the Iranians."

Since raising questions about the U.S.-Saudi relationship last week, Murphy said colleagues from both sides of the aisle have privately expressed support. He said he expects some will eventually join him in speaking out.

The White House has defended its support of Saudi Arabia, saying American logistical and intelligence support helps the Saudis target militants more accurately and minimize civilian deaths. At the same time, administration officials told HuffPost that they don't make the final call when it comes to targeting decisions -- which could explain why the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of regularly bombing hospitals and schools.

When asked about the White House's line of logic, Murphy flatly rejected it.

"The defense that your involvement is simply limiting the casualties is really no defense at all," he said. "That would be an argument for the United States to get involved in virtually every conflict on every side, if our argument was simply that U.S. targeting can more precisely kill the other side while limiting civilian casualty. You actually have to have a little bit higher bar for U.S. involvement."

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