by Derek Davison and Jim Lobe
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) announced that they—along with Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), who was not present for the press conference—will introduce a privileged resolution that could put an end to U.S. logistical and other support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their nearly three-year-old military intervention in Yemen.
The bipartisan resolution will invoke the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires the U.S. president to consult Congress for any deployment of U.S. armed forces into combat. Senate approval of the resolution could have far-reaching implications for other U.S. military operations in combat zones ranging from Syria to the African Sahel.
In announcing the resolution, Sanders argued that “it goes without saying that every armed conflict that the United States of America is engaged in must be consistent with the Constitution of the United States and be lawful.” The Constitution reserves the power to declare war to Congress, and, while the War Powers Act allows presidents to make immediate, short-term deployments in cases of emergency and imminent threat, it also requires a Congressional vote to authorize combat deployments longer than 90 days, including a 30-day withdrawal period.
Washington has provided logistical and intelligence assistance to the Saudis and Emiratis since they unleashed their military campaign against a Houthi-dominated insurgency in March, 2015.
If the resolution passes—and there’s no way to gauge its support at this point—Washington’s role with respect to the multi-faceted and calamitous conflict in Yemen could change dramatically. A privileged resolution is guaranteed a vote on the floor of the Senate, though that status could be stripped from the measure by the Senate leadership. Shortly after the Sanders-Lee press conference, the Huffington Post reported that the Trump administration has actually begun efforts to persuade the Senate leadership to block the measure.
Sanders laid out his argument for invoking the War Powers Act with respect to Yemen, characterizing U.S. support for the Saudi war effort as “unconstitutional and unauthorized”:
For far too long, Congress—under Democratic and Republican administrations—has abdicated its constitutional role in authorizing war. The time is long overdue for Congress to reassert its constitutional authority. And that is what Senator Lee, Senator Murphy, and I are doing with this privileged resolution that we are introducing.
Many Americans are unaware that the people of Yemen are suffering today in a devastating civil war, with Saudi Arabia and their allies on one side and Houthi rebels on the other. In November of [last] year, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator said that Yemen was on the brink of ‘the largest famine that the world has seen for many decades.’ So far, at least 10,000 civilians have died, over 40,000 have been wounded, and over 3 million have been displaced.
Many Americans are also not aware that U.S. forces have been actively involved in support of the Saudis in this war, providing intelligence and aerial refueling of planes whose bombs have killed thousands of people and made this crisis far worse. We believe that, as Congress has not declared war or authorized military force in this conflict, the United States’ involvement in Yemen is unconstitutional and unauthorized, and U.S. military support of the Saudi coalition must end. Without Congressional authorization, our engagement in this war should be restricted to providing desperately needed humanitarian aid and diplomatic efforts to resolve it.
Last November, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly (366-30) passed a non-binding resolution expressing that America’s military activity in Yemen is unauthorized except insofar as it relates to actions against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Ironically, AQAP has benefited greatly from Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, which likely could not be sustained without Washington’s assistance.
Lee characterized the issue as a matter of “American principle” and argued that the resolution intends to rebalance the roles of Congress and the presidency in foreign affairs:
Our involvement [in Yemen] commenced, of course, during President Obama’s administration and has continued into the current presidency. This involvement is therefore not the creation of either political party. But over the course of the last few decades there has been a steady erosion, due to the willingness on the part of members of Congress to acquiesce to executive authority, in this area. So it’s important that we address this from time to time, especially when American lives are being put on the line and American resources are being devoted toward a particular conflict. The American people have every right and every reasonable expectation that their elected representatives in Congress will debate this, and will discuss this, rather than simply allowing it to happen.
Apart from its impact on U.S. involvement in Yemen, the resolution fits into a larger debate about Congress’s war powers as they relate to what the Bush administration referred to as the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) has been used by the U.S. government for over 16 years to justify military operations that go far beyond responding to al-Qaeda’s attacks. If Congress were to finally reassert its authority on military matters it could have substantial implications on the GWOT, including U.S. military intervention in Syria and elsewhere, perhaps requiring a new and more limited AUMF.