Historic Senate Vote Sets Stage for End to U.S. Role in Yemen

U.S. Senators Mike Lee and Bernie Sanders (YouTube)

by William Hartung

Last week’s 56 to 41 Senate vote to end U.S. support for the brutal Saudi/UAE war in Yemen was historic on several fronts. It marked the first time the Senate used the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to oppose U.S. involvement in an overseas conflict. And it signaled an unprecedented level of Congressional opposition not only to the Yemen war, but to a far too cozy U.S.-Saudi relationship in which the regime’s blatant human rights abuses at home and abroad had been largely overlooked in the name of the alleged strategic benefits of the alliance. Last but not least, Donald Trump’s assertion that the financial benefits of the U.S.-Saudi arms trade should override the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi/UAE war crimes in Yemen was roundly rebuked.

While acknowledging the importance of the vote, much of the press coverage accompanying the measure took a far too narrow view of its significance. Some news outlets suggested that the Senate vote was “symbolic” because a parallel measure in the House was sidelined via a parliamentary maneuver that blocked it from coming to a vote. Others cast it narrowly as a rebuke to President Trump or solely as a reaction to the heinous murder of U.S. resident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While these were certainly factors, opposition to U.S. support for the Saudi/UAE war was already on the rise in Congress. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) noted, “this resolution was going to pass even if Khashoggi was never murdered. I think the momentum was growing.”

On the House side the margin of defeat for the War Powers initiative was aided by the votes of five Democrats: Jim Costa (CA), Al Lawson (FL), Collin Peterson (MN), Dutch Ruppersberger (MD) and David Scott (GA). The five—along with scores of Republicans who likewise acted to block the House’s ability to vote on the U.S. role in the Yemen war—are now members of a political hall of shame. They should be made to pay a political price for blocking immediate progress towards ending a war that has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis—many of them children under the age of five—through air strikes, disease, starvation, and lack of adequate medical care. 

The Senate vote on Yemen was reminiscent of past Congressional efforts to stand up to ill-conceived presidential wars, from the prohibition on aid to the Nicaraguan contras during the Reagan years to Congressional efforts to end the war in Vietnam. The difference is that this month’s Senate action is a first step in a process that must be finished by the new Congress when it takes over in January. A Democratic House should quickly move to end U.S. support for the Saudi/UAE war, using the War Powers Resolution as a tool. And even with the loss of a few Democratic seats, a parallel measure should be able to make it through the Senate, particularly given the determined and growing network of organizations from across the political spectrum that have successfully moved Congress in the right direction on the Yemen issue in the past few years.

Meanwhile, a new bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Todd Young (R-IN), joined by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jack Reed (D-RI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Susan Collins (R-ME), would, under a strict set of conditions, cut off the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. The ban on precision-guided munitions would be unconditional, including bomb exports already in the pipeline, and the bill would directly prohibit any future aircraft refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition.

The ultimate goal should be to end all forms of U.S. support for the Saudi/UAE war in Yemen, from aerial refueling to arms sales to maintenance and support of existing weapons systems. Taking action in this direction should meet with broad popular support. As Josh Rogin of the Washington Post pointed out at a panel at this year’s Reagan National Defense Forum, a survey by the organizers of the conference found that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans were opposed to arming autocracies “that are not close allies.” Add to this the fact that the same survey determined that over half of Americans view Saudi Arabia as an adversary, and the popular basis for further action against Riyadh becomes clear.

Claims that last week’s Senate vote was symbolic are further undercut by the fact that Congressional opposition to the war has already had an impact. The Senate action and prior signs of Congressional opposition have helped push the Saudi/UAE-backed government to the peace table, where they agreed to a prisoner exchange and a ceasefire around the critical port of Hodeidah with the Houthi rebels. Diplomats with knowledge of the talks have confirmed that this important progress would not have happened without Congressional action.

The Yemen vote could also mark the beginning of a new period of Congressional assertiveness in opposition to the current U.S. policy of endless war. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) put it, “I hope … we send a loud and powerful message by passing this resolution. That we’re going to bring peace to that country and that the United States Congress is going to reassert its constitutional authority to be the body that makes war, not the president.” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who co-sponsored the Senate measure with Senators Sanders and Murphy, underscored the same points: “With this vote, we are one step closer to reviving our constitutional framework—where the power to declare war lies with Congress, not the executive branch—and we have taken a step towards removing ourselves from the spread of human suffering in Yemen.”

The sooner Congress acts to finish the job, the better.

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William Hartung

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

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