Chris Murphy’s Cynical, Nonsensical Betrayal on Yemen
Murphy’s “defensive weapons” sophistry makes zero sense. By his logic, he should have no problem selling air-to-air missiles to Iran, Hamas, Russia, and China.
A few hours ago, the Senate voted 67-30 against a resolution that would have prohibited a $650 million sale of air-to-air missiles and missile launchers to Saudi Arabia. The outcome gives the green light to President Biden, who not only approved the weapons sale, but came out publicly against the Senate effort to block it, which was led by Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Mike Lee. More than six years into the Saudi-led war on Yemen, which has killed at least 233,000 people, this arms transfer is just one more form of ongoing U.S. participation, on top of intelligence sharing, spare parts maintenance for Saudi war planes, and training for the Saudi navy as it enforces a brutal blockade. Biden cast himself as an opponent of the war on the campaign trail, and made vaguely-worded promises in February that he would end U.S. support for “offensive operations.” But we are seeing now that rhetoric alone will not stop the bombs from falling and people from dying: Material reality must change.
This Senate vote marks a stunning contrast with the Trump years, when the Democratic Party was able to—for the most part, but with unfortunate delay—muster the will to unite behind a War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support for the war (which was vetoed by Trump in 2019.) This political effort saw strident denunciations from prominent members of Congress, including Sen. Chris Murphy, a leader on efforts to end the U.S. role. “President Trump had a chance to listen to the overwhelming number of Americans calling for the United States to get out of the Saudi-led civil war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and hold the Saudi government accountable,” Murphy declared on May 2, 2019, in the aftermath of a failed Senate attempt to override Trump’s veto. “We did not have the votes to override his veto, but that won’t stop me from continuing to work with my colleagues, like I have for the last four years, to bring an end to our involvement in this humanitarian disaster.”
To be clear, Murphy and other members of his party were right to lead this effort, and strident tones were certainly justified. Trump did oversee an escalation of the war, with the brutal attack on the port city of Hodeidah, the gateway for much of Yemen’s food and medicines imports, occurring on his watch. But the war itself is fundamentally bipartisan, with the Obama-Biden administration initiating U.S. participation and overseeing its share of atrocities—the bombing of clinics, economic infrastructure, and weddings—and the Biden administration refusing to actually end this war. Yet the leadership of Murphy appears to be dependent on his ability to frame opposition to the war in partisan terms. We already suspected this because he has been conspicuously silent since the Biden administration took office, even amid signs that the war is continuing. And now we know this for certain, because Murphy voted against the joint resolution—siding with Biden, hawks in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and, ultimately, with continuing the war.
Murphy’s betrayal of his May 2019 promise to keep working to end the war is not an isolated case: Others were caught in an embarrassing 180 from their Trump-era positions. In September 2019, Sen. Robert Menendez wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he denounced “the reckless and likely criminal military campaign in Yemen, where evidence suggests the Saudi-led coalition has deliberately targeted hospitals, weddings and even a school bus full of children.” Yet Menendez joined 19 other Democrats in voting against the resolution to block the arms sale.
It’s worth taking a moment to examine the justifications of erstwhile opponents of the war who voted in favor of the arms sale. Biden has sought to frame the sale as “defensive”, because air-to-air missiles are ostensibly aimed at protecting Saudi Arabia from Houthi rockets. Both Murphy and Menendez have echoed this talking point, claiming that it’s only offensive weapons they opposed. “I along with most members of this body have always supported the use of weapons systems in defense of civilian populations,” Menendez said on the floor, in opposition to the joint resolution. “My position generally has been to support truly defensive weapons sales to the Saudis, while opposing sales that could be used in offensive operations, particularly in Yemen,” Murphy recently told The Intercept.
I recently argued for In These Times that such claims of “defensiveness” are morally vacuous. The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the vast, vast majority of civilian deaths, a fact that has been acknowledged by the UN Human Rights Office and virtually no one is disputing. Saudi Arabia is also leading a deadly blockade that is choking off vital shipments of humanitarian goods, fuel, food, and medicines, the almost total closure of the Sana’a airport being a key component. Air-to-air missiles can be used to shoot down airplanes, and Saudi Arabia possessing more of them will only reinforce the climate of fear and intimidation that is preventing humanitarian workers from even trying to get to the country, and preventing deathly ill people from leaving in order to obtain care.
But there’s a deeper political reality to the shipments. If the air-to-air missiles are truly “defensive,” then why isn’t Biden also greenlighting their sale to the Houthis? After all, it is Yemen where a majority of people are dying. Of course, this notion is laughable, because okaying such shipments obviously constitutes backing an offensive war. By Murphy’s logic, he should also support shipping $650 million in “defensive” weapons to Iran, Hamas, Russia, Syria, and China, because, after all, not doing so isn’t supporting these countries’ wars, no? But of course he wouldn’t, because doing so would be an endorsement of those governments and their ongoing military operations. Just as supporting another massive shipment to Saudi Arabia as it continues to destroy and starve Yemen is an endorsement of the government and its ongoing military operations. This is morally obvious to everyone, no matter how many clever word games or how much feigned concern for civilian deaths in Saudi Arabia Murphy tosses to progressives. Murphy no doubt knows this excuse doesn’t make any sense. More than likely, he’s simply doing the bidding of the Biden White House, taking one for the “team” and providing a thin veneer of anti-war sanction to this cowardly vote.
The U.S. isn’t even willing to meet the low bar of using such shipments as leverage to force the end of the blockade. All evidence suggests that the Biden administration is contributing to a prolonging of the war, by giving Saudi Arabia what it needs so that it can hold out for the best possible deal, at the expense of Yemeni lives.
It is heartening to see some members of the Senate reject this notion that there is such a thing as “defensive” weapons in such an asymmetrical, violent war; that some have chosen to loudly and unambiguously slam such a claim. “Why in the world would the United States reward such a regime, which has caused such pain in Yemen, with more weapons,” Sanders said on the floor today. “My friends, the answer is we should not.” The fact that there is at least some political awareness of the absurdity of defensive claims, and the Democratic Party split on the vote, can be attributed to the dogged and heroic work of anti-war agitators, who have been organizing since the Obama administration to end the war, working hard to turn political opinion even when it looked like this was a lost cause.
But it also underscores just how far former anti-war leader Chris Murphy has fallen. He has chosen to throw in his lot with the more hawkish wing of his party, now that the political expediency of a strong, principled position has evaporated. This betrayal of people in Yemen is vast in its cruelty. The country is in the grips of what is widely viewed as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. In addition to the cholera and dengue fever outbreaks worsened by the war, which saw Yemen’s medical systems decimated by U.S.-Saudi bombings, the country now faces a Covid outbreak. Rhetorical backflips about “defensive” weapons won’t change this: The reality Yemenis face is brutal and stark, and so is the betrayal of their erstwhile champion.