Obama, Trump and Saudi Arabia Devastated Yemen. Congress Is Acting. Slowly.
The U.S. House voted, 366-30, on Monday night to pass a resolution condemning civilian deaths, starvation and the spread of disease in Yemen, admitting that much of the responsibility for that humanitarian crisis rests with the U.S. because of its support for a Saudi-led military intervention and noting that the war has allowed al Qaeda, Islamic State and other groups to thrive.
The resolution, which passed with the support of several normally reliably pro-Saudi members of Congress, has no practical consequences. The U.S. will continue refueling Saudi and United Arab Emirates planes bombing Yemen and providing the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence, a policy launched by former President Barack Obama and continued under President Donald Trump.
But for the handful of lawmakers trying to end 2½ years of U.S. support for the Yemen war, and the antiwar activists and humanitarian groups aligned with them, it’s a seminal moment — a sign even the most reluctant in Washington can be pushed to consider Yemen, where close to 21 million people need some form of aid, and acknowledge the ugly truths about Saudi and American actions there.
“The shift in our foreign policy is not going to happen overnight,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has led the House fight against the U.S. role in the war, told HuffPost prior to the debate. “I think that this debate has made many more members of Congress aware that we are engaged in refueling, made them aware that there is a civil war going on in Yemen. If I’m looking at something from a scale of 1 to 10, in terms of shifting U.S. foreign policy, maybe this is a 2. But it is a 2.”
To Khanna, the vote is important for two reasons: It is the first time the House has acknowledged the U.S. role in the conflict, and it notes that U.S. involvement against parties in the Yemeni civil war is not permitted by either of the two military force authorizations Congress passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Activists spotted another win in the hourlong debate before the vote: Hawks, particularly Republicans, not only spoke in favor of the resolution but also began to echo some of the criticisms of the U.S.-backed coalition.
“The purpose of this resolution is to pressure the Saudis to take those steps to reopen access to those ports,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the reliably pro-Saudi chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said of the Saudis’ decision last week to block all humanitarian and commercial transport to Yemen, where more than 20 million people need some form of aid, and then only partially lift the ban Monday. “That is what we’re doing.”
Royce swiftly moved on to criticism of the Houthis, who have their own record of tampering with aid. And the resolution extensively comments on those rebels’ ties to Iran, a favorite bogeyman for Saudi and U.S. leaders. But he said what he said.
The resolution is the product of a long fight for Khanna. In September, he launched an effort with Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) to force a House vote on the U.S. role in Yemen using the War Powers Resolution — a move that could actually compel the executive branch to pull out of the conflict and would at the very least force lawmakers to consider the war in high-profile, high-stakes fashion. The plan attracted support from a range of bedfellows: liberal darlings like Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe and actor Mark Ruffalo came on board with the conservative powerhouse FreedomWorks. But it was too radical for House leaders wary of appearing weak, particularly toward Iran, or of highlighting questions about potential U.S. culpability in war crimes.
“The Republicans at the outset … had an agreement among themselves to bury this, and they weren’t clear about how to do it,” a senior congressional aide told HuffPost.
GOP House leaders pushed back the binding vote scheduled for the resolution in October and began negotiations with Khanna, top Democrats and others. As the next date for a vote, in early November, neared, internal frustrations became public. One advocate of the measure told The Intercept that Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland was working with the GOP to discourage lawmakers from becoming co-sponsors of the effort. Hoyer’s defenders, Khanna among them, say he and others, including Republicans, simply had different interpretations of the War Powers Resolution and whether it applied.
Activists were less convinced of good faith in the talks. The War Powers Resolution had to apply to Khanna’s original effort because it compels congressional approval when U.S. forces help coordinate or move foreign forces, Kate Gould of the Friends Committee on National Legislation wrote in an email to HuffPost. She called claims that it did not apply “outrageous.”
Eventually, the GOP scored its win. On the afternoon of Nov. 1, with little fanfare or notice to some activists and lawmakers following the effort, the House Rules Committee decided that the War Powers Resolution did not apply and rendered Khanna’s legislation just one more proposal that might never come to a vote.
But leadership promised Khanna his debate and a new resolution ― while the old one stayed alive and even attracted more co-sponsors once it became clear it was only symbolic. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, signed on the same day.
“The goal was to have a debate on Yemen because we have never had a debate on Yemen,” said the senior congressional aide. “We knew that there would be a price to pay for that, and not everyone was going to get what they wanted.”
Even watered down, the effort was successful enough to spook the Saudis and their supporters. The senior aide and another source familiar with congressional deliberations told HuffPost that Saudi-linked lobbyists passed talking points to friendly House members before Monday’s debate; a sample provided to HuffPost included points Republicans raised in the session, such as the idea that Iran wants to turn Yemen’s Houthi group into another version of Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization.
And it has left skeptics of the war energized for more. Multiple supporters of Khanna’s original resolution voted against the compromise measure to signal that they would like to see stronger legislation, Khanna and Gould told HuffPost. Those supporters included prominent figures in the House Progressive Caucus, which Khanna belongs to, including Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).
Activists are now turning their attention to the Senate, where they hope to see a measure similar to Khanna’s initial effort. Senators have already signaled their growing disapproval with the Saudi-led coalition’s actions with votes on arms sales and other measures.
“My message to activists would be let’s get more people,” Khanna told HuffPost, referring to both co-sponsors for his original bill in the House and senators. “Look at what we’ve achieved in three months.”