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Lawmakers Demand U.S. Withdrawal From Saudi-led War in Yemen

September 28, 2017
In The News

Four lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan bill that would halt U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen on grounds that Congress has never approved the American role in the war.

Two House Republicans and two Democrats submitted the bill on Wednesday evening, but other lawmakers have already conveyed their support for the measure, congressional aides told Foreign Policy.

The bill requires “the removal” of U.S. forces from the war in Yemen unless and until Congress votes to authorize the American assistance. For more than two years, the United States military has provided aerial refueling tankers and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

“We aim to restore Congress as the constitutionally mandated branch of government that may declare war and retain oversight over it,” two sponsors, Democrats Rep. Ro Khanna of California and Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, wrote in a letter to colleagues that was obtained by FP.

Although the bipartisan bill is unlikely to secure a majority in the House, it underscores growing concerns over Saudi Arabia’s handling of the war that is now at a stalemate on the battlefield. And it reflects growing unease at Congress over the U.S. role there, following previous attempts by lawmakers this year to rein in arms sales or other military assistance to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their Gulf partners backing the Yemeni government.

Both Republicans and Democrats have accused the Gulf coalition of delaying or blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemen and criticized the Saudi-led states for bombing raids that have hit schools and hospitals and killed and wounded large numbers of civilians. As a result of the war, more than 7 million people are on the verge of starvation in Yemen, United Nations officials say, and the country faces an unprecedented cholera outbreak that has spread at an alarming rate in only seven months.

“It’s beyond time for the country to stop conducting refueling for missions over Yemen,” Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told FP in an email.

“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,” he said. 

The two Republican co-sponsors of the bill, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, are both conservatives who have called for upholding Congress’s constitutional authority to declare war.

Pocan, the Wisconsin Democrat, said it was time for Congress to end the U.S. role in “this senseless, unauthorized conflict. “

The authors of the bill also argued that assistance to the coalition bombing in Yemen was harming U.S. security interests by creating conditions that enabled al Qaeda and Islamic State to bolster their presence in the country.

The proposed legislation will help “in reducing a genuine threat to national security posed by the expansion of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and promises to assist in ending the senseless suffering of millions of innocent people in Yemen,” according to the text of the bill.

The bill cites a 2016 State Department report on terrorism in Yemen, which found that al Qaeda and Islamic State militants have benefited from the country’s “security vacuum” and exploited sectarian tensions between the Sunni Yemeni government and the Shiite Houthi rebels.

The bill does not seek to end U.S. counterterrorism operations — including drone strikes — against al Qaeda or Islamic State branches in Yemen, which date back to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The Saudi-led coalition launched its air war in Yemen in March 2015 after Houthi rebels backed by Tehran ousted the government led by president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Anxious over its image, Saudi Arabia has invested in an extensive public relations effort in Washington to counter criticism of the air war in Yemen and its obstruction of humanitarian aid deliveries to Sanaa airport and the country’s main port in Hodeida.

Riyadh has argued that it had to intervene to defend itself against Iranian-backed and armed Houthi rebels who have fired rockets across its border. And it accuses Houthi forces of diverting aid from the Hodeida port, though international relief organizations have not confirmed those allegations.

The Saudi-led coalition has come under intense scrutiny in Congress over its refusal since January to permit the delivery of four cranes financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development to the port of Hodeida. The World Food Programme and other aid groups say the cranes are crucial for unloading emergency food and medical supplies from ships arriving at the port amid a mounting humanitarian catastrophe.

The blockade on the cranes violates international law and the Geneva Conventions, human rights groups say. And by continuing to provide military assistance to the coalition, the United States could be violating U.S. law, according to a legal opinion from the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights.

The Foreign Assistance Act prohibits aid to governments that directly or indirectly block the transport of U.S. humanitarian assistance, unless the president certifies to Congress that it is in the security interests of the United States, it said.