In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Donald Trump signaled to Saudi Arabia that he would avoid criticizing its destabilizing actions in the Middle East. Instead, he blamed only Iran, the kingdom’s regional rival, for funding “havoc and slaughter.” Trump praised Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for pledging billions in aid and “pursuing multiple avenues to ending Yemen’s horrible, horrific civil war.” He failed to mention that Yemen’s current conflict escalated dramatically in early 2015, when Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab countries to intervene in the war.
That war has long since devolved into a humanitarian catastrophe. The United Nations stopped counting its civilian death toll two years ago, when it hit 10,000. An independent estimate by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which tracks conflicts worldwide, found that nearly 50,000 people, including combatants, died between January 2016 and July 2018. The war has also left more than 22 million people—75 percent of the population of Yemen, already one of the poorest countries in the world—in need of humanitarian aid.
As public anger over America’s role in the Saudi-led war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen has grown, Congress has slowly tried to exert pressure on America’s longtime allies to reduce civilian casualties. Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers included a provision in the defense-spending bill requiring the Trump administration to certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking “demonstrable actions” to avoid harming civilians and making a “good faith” effort to reach a political settlement to end the war. Congress required the administration to make this certification a prerequisite for the Pentagon to continue providing military assistance to the coalition. This assistance, much of which began under the Obama administration, includes the mid-air refueling of Saudi and Emirati jets, intelligence assistance, and billions of dollars worth of missiles, bombs, and spare parts for the Saudi air force.