By Josh Ruebner
In an historic vote yesterday, the US House of Representatives approved a joint resolution invoking congressional authority under the War Powers Resolution to direct the president to end US participation in the devastating Saudi Arabia-led war against Yemen, which has led to the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Sixteen Republicans joined the Democratic caucus to pass the measure by a comfortable margin of 247-175, with libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) abstaining.
The House vote on S.J.Res.7 followed Senate passage of the resolution three weeks ago, when seven Republican Senators offered a stinging rebuke of Trump administration policy by joining with Democrats and Independents to approve it in a 54-46 vote.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) makes the case that the United States is participating in hostilities by providing the Saudi-led coalition with “aerial targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and mid-flight aerial refueling,” including through the establishment of a Joint Combined Panning Cell with Saudi Arabia.
The resolution directs the Trump administration to cease US participation in the war on Yemen within 30 days, but carves out an exemption for the continuation of ongoing US military operations against al Qaeda or “associated forces” and intelligence collection and sharing.
President Trump is expected to veto the measure, a move which would not be unexpected given the president’s penchant to warmly embrace authoritarian regimes, his elevation of business interests above human rights concerns, his son-in-law and Middle East adviser Jared Kushner’s well-documented bromance with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his refusal to accept the determination of US intelligence agencies that the crown prince ordered the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October, and his full-throated defense of the US-Saudi Arabia alliance one month later, in which he praised Saudi Arabia for “keeping oil prices at reasonable levels”.
Bipartisanship on Capitol Hill largely has gone the way of the dodo and sponsors of the resolution are not likely to muster the votes needed to override the president’s anticipated veto, leaving unclear the fate of Congressional efforts to end US complicity in the war on Yemen.
Nevertheless, passage of the resolution is a watershed moment, both for checking ever-expanding imperial presidential war-making, and for addressing, and hopefully rectifying, US complicity in human rights abuses throughout the region.
The War Powers Resolution was adopted by Congress in 1973 as a reaction to the revelation that the Nixon administration was bombing Cambodia in an unauthorised expansion of the war in Vietnam.
The constitution gives Congress the exclusive prerogative to declare war; the War Powers Resolution was an attempt by Congress to claw back its constitutional authorities from an imperial presidency that increasingly sought to wrest away its war-making capability.
It mandates that the president report to Congress within 48 hours the introduction of US forces into hostilities and creates a mechanism for Congress to compel the president to withdraw US forces from unauthorised hostilities.
According to Congress Research Service (CRS), between 1975 and 2017, presidents have reported the introduction of US forces into hostilities to Congress on 168 occasions. Remarkably, prior to yesterday’s vote, Congress had never before passed a resolution to invoke its authority under the War Powers Resolution to end US participation in unauthorised hostilities.
Not only does the passage of the resolution herald the potential of Congress to reign in presidential adventurism; it also sheds light on the necessity of strengthening the reporting requirement of the law to enable Congress to have a more accurate picture of how the United States is actually participating in hostilities.
Although the Obama administration began reporting to Congress in 2012 that US forces were participating in “regional security operations” in Yemen and reported in 2016 that the United States had conducted missile strikes in Houthi-controlled territory, it never saw fit to explicitly acknowledge that the support it provided to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition constituted participation in hostilities.
To its credit, the Trump administration, in June 2018, did report to Congress that US forces “have continued to provide military advice and limited information, logistics, and other support to regional forces combatting the Houthi insurgency in Yemen,” but insisted that these activities were performed in a “non-combat role”.
Congressional invocation of the War Power Resolution in respect to Yemen is a strong acknowledgement that even when the United States does not directly drop the bombs, its weapons sales to and logistical and intelligence support for those who do still make it complicit in those actions.
The passage of the resolution is also significant in bringing attention to the ways in which US policy in the Middle East facilitates human rights abuses and exacerbates humanitarian crises.
The Saudi-led coalition has bombed hospitals, weddings, funerals, and school buses in aerial attacks that have killed an estimated 4,600 Yemeni civilians since 2015.
And the coalition’s land, air, and sea blockade of Yemen – an illegal act of collective punishment – has further decimated Yemen’s economy, which was already teetering on the verge of collapse prior to the Saudi-led strikes, and devastated its public health care system and access to food.
Since 2016, cholera outbreaks have afflicted an estimated 1.4 million Yemenis and killed more than 3,000 people. Earlier this year the UN warned that two million Yemeni children suffered from acute malnutrition as the country faces the grim prospect of mass starvation.
The resolution gained momentum after the Khashoggi killing (similar resolutions were defeated in the previous Congress), making it into something of a vehicle to critique other unsavoury aspects of the Saudi regime, from its brutal treatment of its critics, to the imprisonment and torture of women’s rights activists.
Of course, US support for the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia is far from unique in the region.
US weapons sold to Saudi Arabia have killed Yemeni civilians just as weapons financed by US taxpayers have been used by the military junta in Egypt to massacre civilians protesting its coup against a democratically-elected government. Similarly, Israel has attacked and killed thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip over the past decade with its own brutal blockade of that territory.
Let’s hope that Congress’ newfound assertiveness in calling out the human rights atrocities by Saudi Arabia sparks a long overdue reevaluation of US policy toward the region more broadly, that results in an ending of all the myriad ways in which the United States is complicit in human rights abuses.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.