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Bipartisan disgust over US role in Yemen could incite early 2021 action

Bipartisan disgust over US role in Yemen could incite early 2021 action

Democrat and Republican sponsors say they hope Biden will sign a new War Powers Resolution early next year.

Analysis | Middle East

Congress made history last year when the House and the Senate collaborated to adopt a War Powers Resolution for the first time, seeking to remove U.S. Armed Forces from Yemen. With a Republican majority in the Senate and the Democrats dominating the House, the bill required a bipartisan consensus to stay afloat. It passed easily, drawing together figures as ideologically divergent as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.). 

Though President Trump vetoed the measure and the Senate was unable to muster up the supermajority necessary to keep the bill alive, the sentiment behind it clearly hasn’t vanished. Just last month, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D–Ore.) — along with three Republicans (Reps. Andy Biggs, Matt Gaetz, and Francis Rooney) and four Democratic cosponsors — introduced a concurrent resolution once again calling for the removal of U.S. Armed Forces from Yemen. 

At this point, the bill has been agreed to in both the House and the Senate. Unfortunately, given the reality of the calendar, the measure may never receive a vote and die at the end of this legislative session. But even so, it represents critical momentum on both sides of the aisle and a growing movement to end the war in Yemen. 

That means there will likely be similar legislation, perhaps in both chambers, early on in the new session. But the likely reception in the Oval Office could not be more different. There, it will meet a president-elect who has sworn that he will end U.S. support for the war in Yemen. After five years of questionable involvement in the Yemeni civil war, the U.S. could finally do its part to put an end to the humanitarian crisis it has helped create. 

Rep. Ro Khanna, (D-Calif.) who helped to spearhead the War Powers Resolution bill that Trump vetoed in this Congress, said he is confident that new legislation will move quickly early next year. "Once it passes both chambers, the president would need to sign it and then Secretary [of State Tony] Blinken can convey to the Saudis that time is up; that they need to end this war and they need to make amends, and they need to pay reparations for the damage they've done," Khanna told Middle East Eye in December.

To call the situation in Yemen urgent would be a gross understatement. As the war rages on, Yemen is teetering on the edge of a famine so catastrophic that “millions of lives may be lost,” according to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. This is on top of thousands of cholera cases every week, the undetected spread of COVID-19, roughly 3.6 million displaced Yemenis, and nearly 20,000 civilian casualties of war. 

DeFazio’s current resolution cites a number of activities the U.S. has conducted in support of the Saudi-led coalition, including training Saudi pilots, providing spare airplane parts, and sharing combat-related intelligence. These activities, the resolution argues, violate the 1973 War Powers Resolution. 

The U.S. government, for its part, has denied that any of these activities are out of step with the WPR. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, “ending the conflict in Yemen is a national security priority.”

But both of those justifications are dubious. The WPR clearly states in section 8(c) that U.S. Armed Forces may not be involved in hostilities or situations “where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances” without the approval of Congress — and that includes coordinating support. Given that the U.S. has provided war-related logistical, material, and intelligence assistance to the Saudis for years, the laundry list of War Powers Resolution violations is lengthy. 

As for Pompeo’s view that ending the Yemeni civil war is in the national interest, his logic is questionable. The war began as a domestic power struggle, and forecasts by Saudi experts that it would be over in mere weeks have proven shamefully wrong. American politicians and citizens alike see little reason for the U.S. to remain tied to this tragedy. 

Furthermore, many scholars and foreign policy experts argue that without critical U.S. support, Saudi Arabia would likely end the conflict. By continuing to funnel munitions to the Kingdom, and by aiding the Saudis on other fronts — no matter how much we fool ourselves into thinking our engagement is remote — the U.S. is pushing Yemen further from peace. 

There remains the issue of arms sales, of course. Trump has signed a number of lucrative deals with the Saudi government, providing the kingdom weapons that have been implicated in devastating strikes on civilian targets and have landed in the hands of militias fighting American allies. Such deals aren’t explicitly addressed in the recent bill. But this legislation could mark a new era of scrutiny on Riyadh — one that should compel Biden and Congress to cut off weapons sales to the kingdom.

U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition has kept the war roaring, and at long last, there’s a clear exit in sight. The current resolution is directly in line with the wishes of Congress and the American public. It could put an end to the U.S.’s illegal support for the Saudis, and it could begin to mitigate Yemen’s woes. For the incoming Biden administration, the choice should be clear: It’s time to close this shameful chapter in our foreign policy for good. 

Abdullah al-Khawlani puts roses on the grave of his son, Waleed, who was killed in a Saudi-led air strike that killed dozens including children in Saada, Yemen, in September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma|
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