Long referred to as “the forgotten war,” Yemen has emerged at the forefront of discussions in Washington. Longstanding opponents of the United States’ role in the conflict won their first major victory on the November 28th when the senate voted to allow a measure calling for an end US support for the war in Yemen. This marked the most significant rebuke to the Saudis since the start of the conflict—and just the latest sign of increasing tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia following the murder of Jamal al-Khashoggi in Istanbul.
In some regards, Khashoggi’s death is an odd event to draw attention to the conflict in Yemen. The ate Saudi columnist was, broadly speaking, a supporter of the Saudi war on Yemen—he penned numerous columns hailing it prior to his self-imposed exile from Saudi Arabia—and a staunch opponent of the Houthis. Nonetheless, its served as a catalyst to for increasing attention to Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and, specifically, the conflict in Yemen, particularly among the democratic party and their allies. This is only likely to continue in January, when the newly elected congress—which includes a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives—is seated.
In some sense, it’s as much about domestic politics as it is about foreign policy. Particularly following the Khashoggi affair, Trump’s domestic opponents have focused in on the administration’s alignment with Saudi Arabia as a potentially fruitful means of applying pressure on the president. There’s a deep irony when it comes to the critiques of Trump’s Yemen policy: US support for the Saudi-led coalition began under the Obama administration, and many Obama allies who are now sharp critics of the Trump administration’s support for the Saudis provided crucial diplomatic cover for the coalition, particularly at the UN. That’s not to say that the increasing congressional activism isn’t genuinely rooted. The past few years have seen the emergence of a bipartisan grouping of critics of the United States’ Yemen policy, pulling in figures ranging from Republicans like Todd Young and Rand Paul to left-leaning politicians like Chris Murphy and Bernie Sanders.
It remains unclear whether this will have any substantive effect on the Trump administration’s positioning. It remains difficult to imagine Trump making any dramatic shifts here: Saudi Arabia has been a cornerstone in the Trump administration’s policy and was, indeed, the first country he visited as president. If anything, Trump and key administration officials like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appear to have dug into their position, even as the United States has pledged support for peace talks. Numerous US officials have made the case that continuing support for the coalition provides them with a greater degree of leverage; simultaneously, the United Arab Emirates has come to function as an important US partner in the battle on counterterrorism matters in Yemen.
Even if the US pulls all support for the coalition, its hard to see the conflict suddenly wrapping to a halt. The war in Yemen is multifaceted and has numerous foreign and domestic logics: US aid to the Saudis is just one aspect of a single part of the Yemeni conflict. Nevertheless one thing is clear: four years after the start of Operation Decisive Storm—and 16 years after the first American drone strike in the country—US policy in Yemen has finally begun to get some attention.