WASHINGTON ― A group of prominent human rights groups is asking senators to use a Thursday vote to block President Donald Trump's plan to sell Saudi Arabia a weapon shipment to be used in its controversial U.S.-backed campaign in Yemen.
A letter signed by Oxfam, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, CREDO, the Yemen Peace Project and more than 30 other humanitarian groups went to each Senate office Thursday morning. The message, provided exclusively to HuffPost, excoriates Trump's approval of a $510 million munitions deal that had been blocked by the Obama administration. It is a small part of the $110 billion arms agreement with the Saudis that Trump announced last month.
"Moving forward with this sale will exacerbate the already dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which has left more than 7 million civilians on the brink of famine, at least 8,000 dead and 44,000 injured from conflict, nearly 20 million people facing extreme hunger, and 19 of the country's 21 governorates facing an unprecedented cholera epidemic that is spiraling out of control," the letter says. "At a time when the president appears to have solidified a transactional approach to foreign affairs, it is incumbent upon Congress to ensure that moral concerns, particularly America's commitment to defending human rights, remain a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy."
The letter cites a legal analysis sent to the Senate by former military judge advocate Michael Newton. Further arms shipments to the Saudis would be illegal because of U.S. laws governing weapon sales, Newton wrote.
And the message says the supporters of the deal are being misleading when they say offering the Saudis more of the precision-guided munitions in the $510 million deal will lead to reduced suffering in the two-year conflict. "Despite increased U.S. support in the form of training and smarter weaponry to lessen civilian casualties, it has become clear that several unaddressed flaws in Saudi Arabia's targeting process, not the precision of the munition or targeting skill, are the principal cause of harm," the letter continues.
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) set up the resolution that would force a Senate vote on whether to block the precision-guided arms sale after the Trump administration told the Senate it would go ahead with the package last month.
"It is time we pause and consider the repercussions before we continue to fuel arms races around the world," Paul said at the time.
The same group forced a vote last fall on the sale of $1.15 billion worth of tanks. Back then, 24 other senators joined them to vote against the sale.
Now, with the Trump administration pulling the Saudis closer and amid greater worry about what they might do with more impunity, the measure's opponents see an opportunity.
Murphy struck an optimistic tone in a Thursday afternoon call organized by Oxfam.
"I think it's going to be a close vote. I don't know if it's going to prevail, but it's going to be a closer vote ― a much closer vote ― than the resolution that was before the Senate last fall," Murphy said. "Senators are increasingly worried that the United States is participating in the creation of a famine inside Yemen."
Even senators supportive of the Saudis' argument that they must fight in Yemen to tame Iran-backed militants now seem to see the value in imposing some limits, Murphy added. He said he expects many Democrats and some Republicans to vote against the arms shipment.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Mo.) is expected to be among the critical votes. Young exemplifies a more moderate position on the GOP side than Paul and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah): He wants to maintain the relationship with Saudi Arabia, but he believes there are strong humanitarian reasons to urge greater Saudi caution, he told reporters last month.
On Wednesday, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, announced that he would vote with Murphy and Franken ― giving them one high-profile supporter they did not have last fall.
Trump's decision on the precision-guided munitions came a day before he arrived in Saudi Arabia and inked what he called a $110 billion package for the kingdom. On Monday, Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel wrote that Trump overstated his claim. "What the Saudis and the administration did is put together a notional package of the Saudi wish list of possible deals and portray that as a deal. Even then the numbers don't add up. It's fake news," Riedel wrote.
The vote comes at a time when the Saudis are especially sensitive to criticism from Washington. On Sunday, Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-aligned countries, including the United Arab Emirates, unexpectedly cut ties with Qatar, the U.S. partner nation that hosts the region's largest American military base.
Experts on the region believe the Saudi-UAE move may have convinced more decision-makers in the U.S. that they need to hedge their bets ― and avoid being too wedded to the Saudis' often controversial foreign policy.
Murphy stressed that point Thursday.
"I think it's a mistake for the United States to weigh in so heavily and so definitively on the Sunni side of the growing set of proxy wars between the Saudis and their allies and the Iranians and their allies," he said. (The Sunni branch of Islam is the majority group worldwide but a minority in Iran; the Saudi leadership is Sunni, while that of Iran follows the rival Shiite branch.)
"President Trump just has a total lack of a nuanced understanding of the region. The Qataris are not perfect actors. But neither are the Saudis. Qataris have positioned themselves as one of the few countries that can act as a bridge between the Saudis and the Iranians," Murphy added. "Ultimately, it's in the U.S. national security interest for there to be an end to hostilities between the Saudis and the Iranians."