Congress Takes Aim at Yemen War

by Derek Davison

In a legislative milestone on Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 247-175, largely along party lines, to end the U.S. role in the war in Yemen under the 1973 War Powers Act. This is the second time this year the House has taken this vote—an earlier War Powers vote in February had to be set aside for technical reasons. This time around, the House approved the same resolution that the Senate approved last month, sending the bill to the White House for what is virtually certain to be a veto from President Donald Trump. It is the first time since the passage of the War Powers Act that both houses of Congress have voted to end a U.S. military effort.

Groups calling for the U.S. to stop supporting the Saudi Arabia-led war effort in Yemen hailed the vote. Win Without War Director Stephen Miles described it as “historic.”

Today’s vote is truly historic, marking the first time since the War Powers Act of 1973 that both chambers of Congress made a unified and bipartisan call to rein in the executive branch from an unauthorized war.

 

This victory also shows that we can democratize foreign policy decisions and that Americans believe that these crucial policies should not solely be in the jurisdiction of the powerful few and well-connected. Indeed, this outcome would not have been possible without the millions of Americans who mobilized throughout the past few years to join congressional champions in calling to finally end U.S. participation in war crimes and fueling the largest, man-made humanitarian crisis in the world.

Describing the war in Yemen as “indiscriminate slaughter,” VoteVets Chair Jon Soltz called for U.S. involvement in Yemen to “end.”

The unauthorized US support for the Saudi’s illegal war in Yemen must end. This is as much about our national security, as it is about our humanity.  War is hell.  As veterans, we know that from first-hand experience.  But there is also a difference between war and indiscriminate slaughter.  The war on Yemen is the latter.  It cannot, and must not, continue with US support.

Despite the vote, the Yemen war and the U.S. role in it are likely to continue unchanged. President Trump, who has taken U.S. obsequiousness toward the Saudis to new levels in his two-plus years in office, will in all likelihood veto the measure. Since the resolution did not pass in either house by a large enough margin to override that expected veto, the practical effect of Thursday’s vote is likely to be minimal.

The Yemen war, which began in March 2015 when Houthi rebels from northern Yemen seized control of the country’s capital, Sana’a, and its government, has deteriorated into what the United Nations has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Some 24 million people—80 percent of Yemen’s population—is believed to require some form of humanitarian assistance. Roughly 20 million Yemenis are considered food insecure, with around half of them in “extreme” hunger and just over 3 million suffering from acute malnutrition. Nearly 18 million Yemenis lack access to proper sanitation or clean water and almost 20 million cannot get adequate healthcare. The combination has led to the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, with over one million Yemenis afflicted by the disease at its height in 2017.

Responsibility for most of this devastation rests with the Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, which entered the conflict in support of the Yemeni government just days after the Houthis seized control of Sanaa. Through a combination of airstrikes and a naval blockade, the coalition has decimated Yemen’s infrastructure and made it difficult at best to bring humanitarian aid into the country.

The coalition has also killed thousands of Yemeni civilians directly via its air campaign. The United Nations has estimated that at least 16,000 civilians have been killed in the war. Given the challenge in getting accurate information out of Yemen, that figure is likely far too low. Independent estimates of the number killed range into the tens of thousands or more. The majority of those deaths have been caused, either directly or indirectly, by the Saudi-led intervention—and that intervention has been enabled by considerable U.S. logistical support, without which the Saudis would not have been able to sustain their war effort.

Despite the suffering this conflict has caused, the Saudis and the Trump administration continue to insist, in true “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes” fashion, that they’ve been saving Yemeni lives. The Saudis and their partners in the United Arab Emirates like to note that they’ve given more humanitarian aid money to Yemen than any other international parties, eliding the fact that their military campaign has created humanitarian harm that far exceeds the benefit of their financial support. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insists that U.S. involvement in Yemen “has led to a significant decline in civilian casualties,” which crosses the line from cynical to absurd. The U.S. government has also said that ending its role in Yemen would make it harder for the United States to support negotiations on a potential settlement of the conflict, an argument that was flimsy four years ago and is laughable today.

With Trump’s expected veto, nothing about the U.S. role in Yemen is likely to change, but antiwar groups say they’ll continue the fight. Friends Committee on National Legislation Legislative Director Kate Gould said, “The grassroots movement that propelled this landmark legislation through Congress has generated momentum that can’t be stopped by the President’s anticipated veto, and it won’t stop until American complicity in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis ends.”

If there is an effect from Thursday’s vote, it will likely be more symbolic than tangible. The vote represents the first serious attempt by Congress to claw back some of its constitutional authority in foreign policy, and particularly in military affairs, since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and arguably going back decades before that. Whether or not this resolution is vetoed, it could still become the first step in a bigger legislative process that might include, for example, revisiting the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force that has given subsequent presidential administrations a blank check to carry out military interventions around the world with little oversight.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

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