WASHINGTON — When challenged over why the United States has continued to assist Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations in a bombing campaign that has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen, Trump administration officials have often responded that American involvement is helping to hold down unnecessary casualties by advising the Saudis and their allies on targeting and rules of engagement.
But with infants, mothers, the elderly and other noncombatants continuing to die under a rain of American-made bombs, the administration’s rationale is fraying and becoming a new election-season political flash point.
A growing group of lawmakers from both parties and current and former administration officials, as well as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, say American involvement must end.
They assert that rather than helping halt the killing of civilians, the United States is getting its hands bloodier in the quagmire. Since 2015, more than 127,000 people have died by violence, including 13,500 civilians in targeted attacks, the vast majority by the Saudi-led coalition, according to an estimate from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
“They have precisely continued to strike targets that we have precisely identified to them as being on a no-strike list,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a former top State Department official overseeing human rights in the Obama administration. He was speaking at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week with R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state in charge of weapons sales, and two other senior department officials.
“If you were teaching me to drive for five years and I continued to hit passers-by, continued to total my car, would you continue to give me the keys?” Mr. Malinowski said.
The rationalization offered by Trump administration officials is one that has occurred throughout the history of American foreign policy: When a partner or an ally is found to be committing horrific acts, U.S. officials say they must continue the relationship in order to curtail the damage. This was one justification past administrations put forward for supporting the South Vietnamese government and Latin American dictatorships.
But the Yemen war has again shown the limits of that thinking.
And as the failures of so-called mitigation efforts to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen become more evident, the risk is growing that American officials could be charged with war crimes by a foreign court or an international tribunal.
Mr. Malinowski said that as a former assistant secretary, he had seen a 2016 memo from the State Department’s legal office that stated that top agency officials, including the secretary of state, could plausibly be charged with war crimes in Yemen because of their knowledge of the pattern of civilian killings. Before the congressional hearing last week, a New York Times investigation documented in detail the secret legal finding and the anxieties of U.S. officials arising from the legal risk, which has grown over two administrations, as well as the State Department’s efforts to conceal the finding.
Mr. Malinowski pressed the agency’s top lawyer, Marik String, on the issue, asking, “Is it still the view of the office of the legal adviser that State Department officials potentially face personal legal liability if they provide weapons to a partner country without adequate safeguards as to mitigating civilian casualties, when you have this five-year record of war crimes being committed, and documented, by our partner?”
Mr. String avoided answering.
Criticism of Saudi Arabia in Congress comes from both Democrats and Republicans. In April 2019, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war, but President Trump vetoed the measure.
Over five years, efforts by the Obama and Trump administrations to work more closely with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to reduce civilian casualties have lashed the United States tighter to the war effort.
After Mr. Trump decided in early 2017 to restart arms sales to the Gulf Arab nations that President Barack Obama had halted in late 2016, State Department officials in charge of shepherding the sales came up with a broad plan for the Saudis and the Americans to reduce both civilian casualties and legal risk for U.S. officials.
But diplomats eager to push through the sales and please the Saudis whittled down the strategy. Later efforts also failed, according to a major finding in an inspector general report released in August — a report in which Mr. Cooper and State Department lawyers under Mr. String tried to hide almost all discussion of civilian casualties by insisting on redactions and labeling important information as classified.
The Saudis, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, did comply with some demands in the mitigation strategy. After much cajoling, the U.S. military got Saudi officials to allow American and British officers to be present in a command-and-control center where airstrike targets in Yemen are selected. And the Saudis began taking part in a $750 million training program run by the American military.
But critics say the program has fallen short. And it inadvertently led to a startling outburst of violence against Americans — the first deadly terrorist attack in the United States done in coordination with a foreign organization in the country since Sept. 11, 2001.
Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani of Saudi Arabia, a 21-year-old Al Qaeda loyalist, shot dead three U.S. sailors last December in a classroom at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla. He had been enrolled in the program developed to teach Saudi pilots how to reduce civilian casualties, U.S. officials said — a fact that has not been reported previously. The vetting systems put in place in the United States and Saudi Arabia after the Sept. 11 attacks had failed to detect warning signs around Lieutenant Alshamrani.
Separately, the State Department, starting in the Obama administration, sent a senior official, Larry Lewis, on frequent trips to Saudi Arabia to advise on civilian harm. But the Obama administration halted his trips in late 2016, after it had begun a policy review on Yemen, and the next year Trump administration officials pushed him out of the agency.
In 2017, American officials prodded the coalition to expand to 33,000 a list of “no strike” sites in Yemen, including hospitals and refugee camps. Yet Saudi officials failed to consult the list, a United Nations report found in 2018, and pilots have continued hitting the sites, as Mr. Malinowski pointed out.
Even Mr. Trump previously acknowledged the shortcomings of Saudi pilots who were being entrusted with the lethal weapons.
“That was basically people who didn’t know how to use the weapon, which is horrible,” he said after an American-made bomb hit a school bus in August 2018, killing at least 54 people, 44 of them children.
But American officials are doubling down on the Saudi partnership as their answer for how to address the moral and legal pitfalls of the civilian killings.
“We do use our leverage and our strong relationship with Saudi Arabia to provide training, to provide coursework,” Timothy Lenderking, the deputy assistant secretary for Gulf Arab affairs, told reporters last Thursday, while acknowledging that the use of American weapons in the killings was a “major concern.”
Mr. Lenderking also reiterated another reason that American officials commonly cite for their continued involvement in the Yemen war: The desire to roll back Iranian influence in the region.
The officials argue that the Houthi rebels whom the Saudis oppose are a proxy force of Iran, bent on spreading violence across the Arabian Peninsula on behalf of Tehran’s ayatollahs.
Yet Middle East experts, including former American officials, say the Houthis are not like Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has intimate ties to Tehran. Although the Houthis get military aid from Iran, they are not motivated by acting on behalf of the ayatollahs, but rather by the desire to hold power in Yemen.
Mr. Trump has offered a more transactional rationale: that the United States should continue selling weapons for the money.
“They have nothing but money, nothing but cash, and they pay us now for services and protection and other things,” he said of the Saudis in a February interview with Geraldo Rivera.
But most federal officials and American politicians, whether Republican or Democratic, seek less mercenary reasons to rationalize American foreign policy. And for some, the moral weight of outcomes appears to matter.
Representative Abigail Spanberger, Democrat of Virginia and a former C.I.A. officer, said to Mr. Cooper at the House hearing last week that if the State Department had “done the due diligence to make sure these weapons weren’t being used to slaughter civilians, it seems like you all could have saved yourselves a lot of time trying to cover up the fact that you were not preventing these needless deaths.”
“But it doesn’t appear that was important to you,” she said. “Instead, families have suffered.”
Michael LaForgia contributed reporting from Spokane, Wash.
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