Amazingly, after nearly eight years of relentless war, the U.N.-negotiated ceasefire has held up in Yemen for the last two months. As the U.N. Special Envoy begins his effort to extend this temporary truce into a longer-term deescalation, Congress once again has the opportunity to retake its war powers authority and provide the president with a tool to end U.S. involvement.
Today, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, led by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), introduced a measure to invoke Congress's war powers "to end unauthorized United States military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen." Sen. Bernie Sanders will introduce a companion bill when the Senate reconvenes. With the administration and some of its congressional allies toadying to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a shameless attempt to stabilize international energy markets, this war powers resolution on Yemen couldn’t be more timely.
Prior to the current war, most lawmakers (mistakenly) saw Yemen solely through the lens of counterterrorism. Although the conflict is a result of a coup during Yemen’s post-revolutionary transition in September 2014, Washington has largely bought into the false Gulf narrative that the war was instigated by Iran. The Obama administration began backing Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s military coalition, after it intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015. Since then, Washington has provided aerial refueling, targeting intelligence, and U.S. advisers without authorization from Congress.
Since the March 2015 intervention, the Saudi and Emirati-coalition has conducted an aerial and ground military campaign that has relied heavily on U.S. weapons, as well as American logistical and intelligence support. The coalition has also enforced a siege against rebel-held territory in Yemen by blocking its air and sea ports, which has severely hampered the import-reliant economy and catalyzed the spiral of Yemen’s pre-existing humanitarian crisis into what the United Nations has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
While Houthi forces abuse those living under their corrupt rule, forcibly recruit child soldiers, and launch mortar shells and missiles into civilian areas, the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led coalition has also engaged in a consistent pattern of airstrikes targeting civilian objects and civilian infrastructure, including a school bus full of children, public markets, weddings, port docks and cranes, funerals, Doctors Without Borders hospitals and other medical facilities, camps for internally displaced people, and boats filled with African refugees.
These attacks have a direct correlation to the humanitarian crisis, as the destruction of such vital civilian infrastructure has directly hampered humanitarian and commercial import access to the country, which before the conflict imported nearly 90 percent of its food supply. Civilians have borne the brunt of this crisis, with an estimated 337,000 dead as a result of the fighting, starvation, and disease. Despite progress in gaining humanitarian access to previous frontlines during the current truce, three-quarters of the population, nearly 20 million people, are acutely food insecure.
For years, under three administrations, State Department officials have voiced concern about U.S. complicity, and the potential legal culpability of U.S. personnel in aiding and abetting the coalition’s apparent war crimes. Yet despite the clear humanitarian, strategic, and moral imperatives, three presidents have failed to make meaningful changes to U.S. policy that could help end Yemen’s suffering.
President Trump had to issue four vetoes to override Congress’ attempt to assert its war powers and to oppose weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE. Among these congressional actions was the first successful invocation of the War Powers Resolution of 1973 for Yemen. Congress passed S.J.Res. 7 in early 2019, directing the president to end all U.S. support for the coalition. It marked the first war powers resolution Congress sent to the president’s desk since the law was passed over President Nixon’s veto in the immediate wake of the U.S. military withdrawal from Vietnam. Congress’s actions throughout the Obama and the Trump administrations effectively made ending U.S. military involvement and support for the coalition’s war in Yemen the unified position of the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primary candidates.
In passing its first war powers resolution under Trump, Congress forced a showdown with the executive branch about what actually constitutes war; in passing the Yemen WPR, Congress again concluded that war constitutes much more than just American boots on the ground, but also includes the deployment of advisers, trainers, and intelligence personnel that are helping coordinate the movement of other foreign militaries engaged in active combat. As the Biden administration looks to outsource the forever wars, redeploys troops to Somalia, and ramps up U.S. military involvement in Ukraine, Congress has plenty of opportunities to continue weighing in on the executive branch’s unauthorized wars and start to right-size the balance of powers between the two branches on matters of war and peace.
Those votes on Yemen didn’t materialize out of nowhere, nor were they solely a reaction to the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, reportedly on orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi’s murder and Trump’s attempt to help the `Crown Prince escape accountability certainly contributed to the congressional vote to end U.S. support for the coalition. But years of civil society and activist organizing prompted influential media outlets to start investigating the U.S. role in the conflict and members of Congress to start asking questions and demanding answers. That organizing has not let up, as evidenced by the renewed war powers initiative.
Much about the war in Yemen has changed since Congress last passed a war powers resolution on Yemen in 2019. The war, while still basically a stalemate, has continued to escalate with increasingly sophisticated Houthi ballistic missiles further antagonizing Riyadh, and the coalition predictably responding with disproportionate airstrikes and more apparent war crimes. Rather than face accountability, however, the international community, including some top officials in the Biden administration, have continued to focus on military tactics to manage these tit-for-tat escalations, risking regional stability for an unwinnable war.
Many civil society activists and members of Congress weren’t expecting to have to rehash this fight with President Biden. On the campaign trail, he promised to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah.” The president used his first foreign policy speech in office to announce that he was ending U.S. military support, including relevant arms sales, for “offensive operations” in Yemen.
Although arms control experts noted that that announcement should have included nearly $36.5 billion in pending weapons sales and transfers to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Biden has only placed an informal prohibition on the transfer of air-to-ground munitions dropped from fixed wing aircraft. It allowed Trump’s bogus emergency sales to be delivered; Biden failed to reverse the former administration’s 11th-hour transfer of billions more in weaponry to the UAE as part of the Abraham (Arms Deal) Accords. It has even authorized new sales, including the same type of maintenance contracting that a majority in the House of Representatives has voted to restrict multiple times.
As Team Biden apparently pushes to rehabilitate the very pariah (and Trump family benefactor) he promised had no place being a U.S. ally, this renewed war powers push gives Congress another opportunity to finish the job Rep. Ro Khanna began in the fall of 2017 when he introduced the very first Yemen war powers resolution, H.Con.Res.81. While the United Nations continues its diplomatic push for a longer ceasefire and broader negotiations, this war powers resolution is a means to, once again, pressure both the administration, as well as the Saudi and Emirati monarchies, to seek a final diplomatic resolution to the intervention and broader war.