Congress’s war powers must be made a reality
What does it take to get Congress to act on vital questions of war and peace? The catastrophe in Yemen may test whether Congress is finally prepared to exercise its constitutional responsibility. Four legislators — two House Democrats and two Republicans — have introduced a resolution under the War Powers Act demanding a vote in 15 days to end U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s devastation of Yemen.
The resolution, co-sponsored by Democrats Ro Khanna and Mark Pocan (the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) and by Republicans Thomas Massie and Walter Jones, requires the “removal” of U.S. forces from the war in Yemen unless Congress votes to authorize American involvement. Beginning under President Barack Obama, the U.S. military has assisted the Saudi campaign in Yemen, providing tankers for aerial refueling and targeting intelligence against the Houthi rebels said to be backed by Iran. U.S. support was reportedly part of a deal to get Saudi Arabia to be more supportive of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen has been central to creating what U.N. officials call the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The carpet-bombing of civilian areas has helped produce borderline famine for 7 million, 20 million in need of humanitarian aid and a spreading cholera epidemic that has already reached 700,000 cases and killed more than 2,000.
Saudi Arabia has faced growing global protests over the bombing of civilian areas and other alleged violations of international law. Most recently, the Saudis have barred relief flights from access to Yemen’s airport and blocked delivery of four cranes financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that are vital to unloading medicine and food at Port Hodeida. Saudi influence managed to quash efforts by the Netherlands to force an international inspection of war crimes two years ago. Finally last month, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a compromise resolution calling for the appointment of independent international experts to investigate humanitarian abuses and identify those responsible.
During his campaign, Donald Trump expressed skepticism of failed U.S. interventions across the Middle East. Since coming to office, however, he has ratcheted up U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. The pace of U.S. bombing and interventions by special forces aimed at al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has increased dramatically. Trump made no mention of Saudi Arabia’s brutal attacks on Yemen in celebrating its cooperation in the war on terrorism at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh. In spite of generally opposing all things Obama, Trump appears to be doubling down on his predecessor’s policy toward Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Although a reactionary monarchy, Saudi Arabia has long enjoyed a special relationship with the United States. A blind eye has been turned toward its support for spreading extreme fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine and its extensive financial ties to extremist organizations. The fact that the 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens has been virtually ignored. A document on Saudi connections to the attackers (from a larger congressional inquiry into the attacks) was released only last year.
Now that impunity is starting to wear thin. In his foreign policy speech at Westminster College, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) courageously called out our support for Saudi Arabia’s “destructive intervention in Yemen,” arguing that “such policies dramatically undermine America’s ability to advance a human rights agenda across the world.”
Later, in an interview with the Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, Sanders elaborated, arguing that Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be considered “an ally,” because “it is an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism across the world.”
The congressional resolution cites the State Department 2016 Country Reports on Terrorism’s conclusion that the Yemen conflict is “counterproductive to ongoing efforts . . . to pursue Al Qaeda and its associated forces.” The Saudi intervention is creating yet another failed state in which terrorists can take root.
As lead co-sponsor Khanna (D-Calif.) argues, the war powers resolution is long overdue: “Congress and the American people know too little about the role we are playing in a war that is causing suffering for millions of people and is a genuine threat to our national security.”
The resolution will force Congress to debate this truly deplorable policy that has implicated the United States in Saudi war crimes while fueling the spread of terrorism. The establishment default about the endless wars without victory or sense in the Middle East must end. Indeed, the bipartisan nature of the co-sponsor list for the resolution indicates interest on both sides of the aisle in revitalizing Congress as an effective constitutional check on a long-out-of-control executive branch. Khanna is hopeful that the debate on our support of the Saudi coalition in Yemen will serve as a belated but necessary first step, demonstrating growing bipartisan concern about continued foreign intervention.