Trump, Congress clash over Yemen war. What to know about America's role in the Mideast conflict

Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON – Even before President Donald Trump vetoed legislation Tuesday that would have forced him to end the U.S. military’s role in Yemen’s horrific war, lawmakers were already looking for other ways to confront the administration over this controversial policy.

Trump's veto, only the second of his presidency, sparked outrage from charity and human-rights groups seeking a resolution to the four-year conflict. The war in Yemen has ravaged that Arab country – already one of the poorest in the region – killing more than 60,000 civilians and combatants dead and leaving millions of Yemenis without access to food, medicine and clean water.

Here’s why Republicans and Democrats alike are increasingly willing to push back against the White House on an issue that is not front and center for many Americans.

This isn’t just about Yemen

The war in Yemen created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. But that’s not the only reason that America’s role in the conflict has become such a flashpoint.

This is also about U.S.-Saudi relations in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed by a team of Saudi operatives last fall. Many lawmakers believe, based on a briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel, that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and defacto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered that extrajudicial killing of a journalist and legal U.S. resident.

Despite intense pressure, Trump has refused to penalize the Saudi government over the murder and suggested that U.S. arms sales to the kingdom are too lucrative to risk any rupture in the relationship.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Manama, Bahrain in December 2014.

But even some of Trump’s most ardent GOP supporters disagree with that approach, arguing that it risks giving the Saudis – and other authoritarian governments – carte blanche to commit egregious human rights abuses.

“It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters in February.

More: Saudi crown prince ‘complicit’ in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, key GOP senator says after CIA briefing

What is the U.S. military role in Yemen and why is it controversial?

Khashoggi’s murder shed an international spotlight on the war in Yemen – and specifically the Saudi-led coalition’s deadly bombing campaign there. With the help of American weapons, tactical support and intelligence information, the Saudi’s have conducted nearly 20,000 air raids over the last four years – an average of 14 per day, according to data compiled by Crisis Action, a nonpartisan group that seeks to protect civilians from armed conflict.

Those bombing campaigns have killed or injured at least 17,000 civilians, including thousands of women and children. In one horrific incident that particularly alarmed members of Congress, an American-supplied bomb dropped by the Saudi coalition hit a school bus and killed 40 children who were on a field trip.

Now, the war is causing a massive humanitarian crisis. At least 10 million Yemenis are “a step away from starvation,” according to the United Nations. Save the Children estimates that as many as 85,000 children have already died of starvation. The fighting has forced hospitals to close even as a cholera epidemic has started to “spread like wildfire,” Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in March.

"The United States … has been Saudi Arabia's partner in this horrific war," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said during the Senate debate over the Yemen measure in March. "We have been providing the bombs the Saudi-led coalition is using. We have been refueling their planes before they drop those bombs … In too many cases, our weapons are being used to kill civilians."

Why is the U.S. involved another country’s civil war?

The war in Yemen is a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two bitter rivals vying for influence in the Middle East. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, want to drive the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels out of Yemen, to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in that country and spreading their version of Islam across the region.

The Trump administration has made countering Iran a centerpiece of its foreign policy. American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen began under the Obama administration, but Trump has doubled down on it.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued that withdrawing U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen would “do immense damage to U.S. national security interests and those of our Middle Eastern allies and partners." He and other Republicans say it would embolden Iran and the Houthi rebels, reducing their incentive to participate in a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Critics say the opposite is true.

“Every time Congress acts, the diplomatic process moves more quickly forward,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told USA TODAY on Wednesday. “One of the reasons why it’s important for us to keep this issue on the floor of Congress is that our debate puts pressure on the Saudis and the Houthis to come to the negotiating table.”

Murphy said it shows the Saudis that America’s commitment is not “open-ended” and signals to the Houthis that the U.S. can serve as an honest broker instead of an “unconditional supporter of one side of the conflict.”

So will Congress override Trump’s veto?

Lawmakers will almost certainly come up short on a veto override. Although both the House and Senate easily passed the Yemen measure, supporters do not have the two-thirds super-majority needed in each chamber to overturn Trump’s veto.

“I’m more than happy to put the Senate back on the record, but I know where the votes are,” said Murphy.

But he and other lawmakers noted there are many other avenues for Congress to push back against Trump’s policy.

“First we can consider specific sanctions on (Mohammed bin Salman),” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a leading proponent of ending the U.S. role in Yemen, told CNN on Wednesday. “And second, we can consider restricting arms sales.”

Saudi Arabia has purchased almost all its weapons from the U.S. as a way to cement the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Trump has said he doesn’t want to jeopardize that financial boon for the U.S. defense industry.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has blocked any future U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. If the Trump administration tries to go through with such a transaction, it would spark a major showdown with Congress.

“At some point the Saudi’s are going to need get a resupply of precision-guided missiles,” said Murphy, providing the House and Senate another opportunity to weigh in on the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he is working on a bill that would address Saudi Arabia's recent actions but in a way that could win Trump's support.

“I have been steadily crafting legislation that can garner significant support and could actually become law," the Idaho Republican said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Related stories:

'An unnecessary, dangerous attempt': Trump vetoes resolution to end US support in Yemen

New hope emerges for end to war in Yemen in wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing

Senate approves measure to force US withdrawal from Yemen despite Trump's veto threat

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump, Congress clash over Yemen war. What to know about America's role in the Mideast conflict