Senate hearing showcases America's ambivalence

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing today titled "The U.S. Role and Strategy in the Middle East: Yemen and the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council." Chaired by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the hearing featured Stephen Seche and Mary Beth Long as expert witnesses. Seche served as the US ambassador to Yemen from 2007-2010 and currently serves as the VP of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a think-tank funded by GCC governments but staffed by some credible DC thinkers. Long served for several years in the Department of Defense, and is now the head of a private security firm with a Middle East focus.  The senators present started out with questions on the current war in Yemen, the nature and purpose of American support for the Saudi-led coalition, and the role of Iran in the conflict. From there the hearing flailed into a discussion of Russia's relationship with the GCC states, with both committee members and witnesses undecided as to whether the GCC is wooing Russia to replace the US as their Most Important Ally, or planning to go to war against Russia in Syria. There was much talk of the "Russia-Iran alliance" as well. In fact, in some ways this was actually a hearing on Iran and what the US can and should do about Iranian influence in the region.

Those parts of the hearing that focused on Yemen were worth watching, however. Senator Corker and others on the committee pressed the witnesses on whether the US actually has any interests that are served by bombing Yemen, or whether America's involvement is purely motivated by Saudi/GCC interests. The eventual concensus seemed to be that the US was dragged, largely unprepared, into this conflict by Saudi Arabia, but that it is in America's interest to limit Iranian influence in Yemen. The witnesses disagreed on the actual extent of that influence, with Seche expressing the conventional wisdom of Yemen-watchers--that Iran isn't in charge of the Houthi-Saleh campaign for domination, or in his words, that "the Houthis are their own boss," but that Iran would benefit from a Houthi victory--while Long claimed that the Houthis are an outright Iranian proxy. Moreover, according to Long, Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah fighters are already on the ground in Yemen (she at one point said, with a straight face, "we don't know how many there are, but we know it's increasing.").

Ms. Long's testimony was essentially a set of Saudi-authored talking points, with her Main Point being that, if the US wants to see this war come to a positive conclusion with decreased civilian casualties, it needs to hurry up and sell Saudi Arabia a lot more smart bombs, OR ELSE. Seche's testimony was much more balanced, without a clear political or economic agenda, which was refreshing.

Toward the end of the hearing, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) raised quite forcefully the issue of Yemen's humanitarian catastrophe, and the fact that the Saudi-led bombing campaign and naval blockade have contributed to it, a point to which Seche agreed. Senator Markey went on to say that "our silence is complicity" in Saudi Arabia's violations of international humanitarian law. He further pointed out that US law forbids military assistance to military entities that have committed "gross violations" of international law and human rights, and suggests that KSA's actions in Yemen put it within the bounds of such prohibitions.

If Senator Markey defined one end of the spectrum of arguments presented at today's hearing--the empathetic, humanitarian, reasonable end, Mary Beth Long positioned herself firmly at the other. According to Long, the fact that Houthi-Saleh forces used a Russian-made missile against coalition forces proves that Russian and/or Iranian military advisors are on the front lines in Yemen, and that Iranian weapons shipments are practically pouring into Yemen on a daily basis. This disregards the fact that the missile in question was, as far as anyone can tell, part of the arsenal of the Yemeni army, and that the pro-Saleh military includes units trained in the use of such missiles.

The take-away: though both witnesses represent institutions with ties to GCC powers, Ambassador Seche offered thoughtful and earnest opinions based on his own experience, while Ms. Long parroted propaganda. When forced to boil down their recommendations for US policy, Seche urged US policy makers to make sure that any further arms transfers to Saudi Arabia come with "significant strings" in the form of commitments to engage productively in peace talks. Long, on the other hand, urged the US to deliver more and better munitions to Saudi Arabia as quickly as possible.

And one final exchange that I found very interesting: Senator Markey asked the witnesses if the US administration should be making more of a fuss about Saudi violations of international law. Seche said no; calling out the Saudis in public would be counterproductive, but the administration should speak to KSA "privately" about this. Markey then asked if the Senate, and specifically the FRC, should speak out publicly on the issue since the administration can't. Seche enthusiastically said yes, that a vocal Congress could be helpful in international negotiations. He even said that he had used the "help me get this pesky Congress off my back" approach in his own dealings with intransigent foreign governments in the past.

You can watch the full video of the hearing, or download the witnesses' written testimony, right here.

Below I've Storified just some of the livetweeting of the hearing, by myself as well as Beka Feathers of PILPG and Kate Kizer of ADHRB.