The Democrats' Pop-Up Foreign Policy Problem.

AuthorCortellessa, Eric


Last March, three U.S. senators undertook a seemingly quixotic task. Democrat Chris Murphy, Independent Bernie Sanders, and Republican Mike Lee demanded a vote on their resolution calling for the U.S. government to end its support for Saudi Arabia's war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The offensive, they argued, was creating a humanitarian nightmare: the war had already killed thousands of civilians through air strikes and caused a famine resulting in more than 50,000 children's deaths.

But the senators' efforts went nowhere. Republicans sided with the Trump administration's view that support for Saudi Arabia was vital to counter Iran, which backs the Houthis. Democrats, meanwhile, were conflicted: it was the Obama administration that had first argued for supporting the Saudis in Yemen. With ten Democrats voting against it, the procedural vote was defeated on the Senate floor.

Eight months later, the same three senators pushed for another vote on the same resolution. This time, the results were different. Every Democratic senator voted to advance the measure to the full chamber, as did fourteen Republicans, defying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's attempts to bury the resolution. Two weeks later, it passed 56-41.

What changed? The main reason for the turnaround was the grisly murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a fifteen-member "assassination squad." Equally disconcerting to senators was Donald Trump's refusal to admit that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the hit, despite overwhelming evidence, including from the CIA, that he had.

But while the killing of Khashoggi was the precipitating event, the Senate vote got an important assist from a group almost no one had previously heard of: National Security Action. Founded last winter by Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to President Obama, and Jake Sullivan, former senior foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, the organization boasts an advisory board made up of national security bigwigs from the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations-including former CIA Director John Brennan, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power.

For months leading up to the vote, National Security Action (which lends itself to an unfortunate initialism) had been quietly mobilizing support around getting the U.S. out of the Yemen crisis through Capitol Hill briefings and cooperation with progressive advocacy networks. Then, on November 11, a month after Khashoggi's murder, the group released a statement signed by thirty top Obama-era officials calling for an end to all American involvement in Yemen. Central to their argument was admitting their own role in the policy they were asking to be reversed. "We did not intend U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check," they wrote, referring to the Saudi-led forces fighting the Houthis. "But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened." The successful procedural vote came two weeks later. A senior Democratic Senate aide told me that, while "a number of contributing factors" led to the resolution's success, "that letter certainly helped galvanize the Democratic caucus." It also became a selling point for Democrats in the House; Nancy Pelosi cited...

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