April 17, 2018

Menendez Opening Statement at Hearing Examining U.S. Policy on Yemen

WASHINGTON, DC –  U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the below statement, as prepared for delivery, at today’s hearing on “U.S. Policy on Yemen.”

“Thank you, Chairman Corker, for convening this important hearing and inviting witnesses from the State and Defense Departments, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, to testify. 

Given our Committee’s jurisdiction over the execution of U.S. foreign policy and the State Department in particular, it is fundamentally necessary that we receive testimony from the very Administration officials executing that policy, and not just outside experts.

Last month marked the third anniversary of the current conflict in Yemen.  Statistics of the scale of the human suffering defy imagination:

  • 22.2 million Yemenis – more than 80% of the entire population – require humanitarian assistance
  • The loss of more than 50% of Yemen’s nighttime electricity, a key condition for maintaining hospitals, water supply systems, and communications
  • 8 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation
  • The largest cholera outbreak in modern history

This hearing is particularly timely given the debate the Senate recently held on U.S. military support to the Saudi-led Coalition.  This is hearing is also relevant given the visit of the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to the UN Security Council yesterday to brief on Yemen; as well as reports of a new Saudi Coalition offensive.

As we consider U.S. policy on Yemen, we do so in a regional context and acknowledging U.S. relations with critical partners. Saudi Arabia has endured SCUD and ballistic missile attacks from Yemen on a scale that no American would ever accept. Iranian-backed Houthi fighters have launched attacks aimed at Saudi population centers, economic infrastructure, and defense installations.  There have also been attacks aimed at U.S. naval craft.  This is unacceptable, dangerous, and counter to U.S. interests.

The threats coming from Yemen did not suddenly appear, but after years of brewing tensions between various factions within Yemen – Iranian fingerprints are all over the escalation in the Houthis’ illicit, terrorist activities. 

To be clear, the terrorist threat in Yemen does not excuse the conduct of the Saudi Coalition, which bears significant responsibility for the scale of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.

But there are other actors and stakeholders in this conflict, including Iran, Al Qaeda, and ISIS, and all are implicated in violations of the law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law, and human rights abuses.

Instead of a comprehensive strategy to push back on Iranian malign interference in Yemen and the spoiler role that Russia is playing, as I have pointed out in numerous other contexts, this Administration is actively dismantling the State Department, underfunding our assistance programs, and antagonizing the United Nations – the very entities that have the potential to play the critical roles in moving toward a political settlement and addressing the humanitarian crisis. 

Last month, the Senate debated one element of U.S. policy: the provision of limited military support including refueling, intelligence, and advice to the Saudi Coalition. 

I appreciate the commitment of Senators Lee, Sanders, and Murphy in calling for a debate, and vote, on that one element.

In explaining my vote against discharging the resolution from Committee, I encouraged my colleagues to expand the aperture of the debate. I want to understand our broader operations and policy objectives before seeking to end or change just one element.  

Absent a compelling articulation of how continued U.S. military support to the Coalition is leveraging movement towards a political track to negotiate an end to the war, it is reasonable to expect that the next vote on U.S. military support may have a different outcome.

Specifically:

  • What steps is the Administration taking diplomatically and politically to end the war?
  • What types of assistance are appropriate in assisting our partners in their legitimate defense needs?
  • What is the Administration doing to alleviate the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and what more can the Saudi-led Coalition do?
  • Given the increasing lethality and sophistication of Iranian support to the Houthis in Yemen, how does the conflict in Yemen factor into the Administration’s strategy to counter Iran? 

Finally, I want to hear clear statements from our witnesses as to whether there is a military solution to this conflict.  Unless our witnesses are going to surprise us with a new announcement, the answer has been for years and continues to be, “no.” 

Finally, Mr. Chairman, it would be difficult to consider this hearing without addressing the Administration’s actions in Syria over the weekend.

In my view, what connects this weekend’s military strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons facilities and this Administration’s approach to Yemen is the alarming absence of strategy.  President Trump’s over-reliance on the military arm of our government, coupled with his antagonizing, defunding, and dismantling of our diplomatic and assistance arms will lead to only one dangerous outcome – that we will have nothing left other than military force to address conflict and promote our interests.  I am not opposed to the appropriate and authorized use of military force. 

But before we send our uniformed men and women into battle, and ask them to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, we should always be able to tell them and the American people what the stakes are and that we have exhausted our diplomatic tools. 

I am still waiting for that broad articulation of strategy in the region and understanding how U.S. military support to the Saudi Coalition is helping us in moving toward the ultimate goal of a negotiated settlement that prioritizes saving lives and ending the suffering of innocent Yemeni civilians.”

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