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U.S. Downplays Its Military Support For The War In Yemen, Kaine Says


The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to end U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. The vote was 63-37 across parties. This is not the final vote. It's a procedural first step. But it came as a major blow to the Trump administration, which had lobbied hard to kill the bill. Republican Mike Lee of Utah is one of the bill's sponsors. He acknowledged that this vote partly grew out of frustration over the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


MIKE LEE: This is an instance in which one man has died. And that's one man who has died compared to many, many, many more who have died in connection with this war. It's brought the eyes of the American people and turned them toward us and turned them also toward Saudi Arabia. In any event, regardless of what may have happened with Mr. Khashoggi, we're fighting a war in Yemen that we haven't declared, that has never been declared or authorized by Congress. That's not constitutional.

GREENE: All right. Now, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia cosponsored this bill. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long fought to end support for the Saudis in the conflict in Yemen. And the senator joins us this morning. Welcome back to the program.

TIM KAINE: Great to be with you. Thanks.

GREENE: Senator, can you just walk me through how you interpret what Senator Lee just said there? I mean, essentially saying the killing of a journalist turned the eyes of Americans toward Saudi Arabia. Is he basically acknowledging that this is a conflict that has been horrific, I mean, with millions of people facing starvation, but it took the killing of a journalist to put enough political pressure on more lawmakers to act?

KAINE: In a way, Mike is right. This is a conflict that - with the U.S. actively engaged in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans and even policymakers here on the Hill have paid less attention to it. The Saudi government has intervened in the civil war in Yemen with U.S. support. The U.S. has been trying to kind of downplay the level of support it's providing. Oh, we're helping the Saudis better target their military activity to reduce civilian casualties - but civilian casualties are going up. We've - the military was making the case to us that refueling Saudi planes on the way to bombing runs was not participating in the bombing runs. So there's been a real credibility issue.

But Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident with children who are U.S. citizens, who wrote for The Washington Post, which is the biggest newspaper that people read in my state, he was dramatizing in his writings the complete atrocity of this war in Yemen and the Saudi role in it. And so his death, which was probably largely caused by his advocacy against the Saudi involvement in the war, was a spark that has really made the Senate stand up and just say, enough is enough.

GREENE: You say a spark and saying enough is enough, but as I mentioned, this is a procedural vote. I mean, the Trump White House is - the Trump administration is suggesting that the president might veto it. If it - if a lot of Republicans and others who came around on this - I mean, you have been supporting a vote like this for some time - but members who came around because of the killing of Khashoggi, do you feel like you have their long-term support to end this conflict or is it just - is this just a symbolic act in a way?

KAINE: Well, you're right, it's a procedural vote. Basically, the vote yesterday was to discharge the bill from the Foreign Relations Committee, where I serve, and take it up on the floor. It's very rare that the chairman of the committee - in this case, Bob Corker, Republican - who would say, yeah, discharge the committee. We should take this up on the floor right now. And so we will be taking it up on the floor likely through next week. There could be amendments. There could be changes.

But I think the important message that's already been sent is this - we have a White House and a president that's sending a message to the Saudi Arabias of you can do whatever you want and it's fine with us. If you buy arms from us, we'll turn a blind eye to human rights violations. If you'll help us with Iran, we won't raise questions about women you've thrown in jail for their political activism. And you can murder a journalist because, hey, the American president calls the press the enemy of the people and we could care less.

That's the signal that the Saudis are getting from this president - complete impunity. And it was really important for the Senate to send a message to Saudi Arabia - you do not have a free pass. The president's signal of complete impunity is not in accord with American values. That's the message that was sent yesterday. And I believe that we'll work on this over the course of next week. And the Senate will continue and pass a strong resolution against U.S. participation in the war in Yemin.

GREENE: So there's a lot more debate...

KAINE: Could the president veto it? He could. But we're sending a message that Saudi Arabia doesn't get a free pass.

GREENE: Let me just ask you about the administration's argument here. I mean, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has essentially said that if this vote goes through, it could end the U.S. role in Yemen. It could encourage the Houthis, who are the Iran-backed rebels in this conflict. Does the administration have a point that if the U.S. does not play a role, they lose leverage to actually bring peace here?

KAINE: I think to the contrary. I think us sending a strong message to the Saudis that we're not giving you a free pass anymore will encourage the Saudis to be serious about trying to find a peace deal rather than expanding this humanitarian disaster in the civil war.

GREENE: The U.S. relationship with the Saudi crown prince, I mean, it goes back to the Obama administration. Should President Obama have worked harder in all of this and in ending the conflict in Yemen?

KAINE: Look. The crown prince came in recently, and it's taken some time for us to judge his character. But in the last year, he essentially kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister. He's put a blockade on Qatar. And he has deepened this significant atrocity. I think yes, look, we should have seen the Yemen war as the humanitarian disaster that it is earlier. I think we all should have seen it earlier. But this Khashoggi murder - state-sponsored murder - followed by all these lies by the Saudi government about it is what's finally created this last-straw scenario where we're going to do what we think is right.

GREENE: Democratic Senator Tim Kaine. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

KAINE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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