Imagine that the entire population of Washington State — 7.3 million people — were on the brink of starvation, with the port city of Seattle under a naval and aerial blockade, leaving it unable to receive and distribute countless tons of food and aid that sit waiting offshore. This nightmare scenario is akin to the obscene reality occurring in the Middle East’s poorest country, Yemen, at the hands of the region’s richest, Saudi Arabia, with unyielding United States military support that Congress has not authorized and that therefore violates the Constitution.
For nearly three years, the United States has been participating alongside a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a brutal military campaign in Yemen. The United States is selling the Saudi monarchy missiles and warplanes, assisting in the coalition’s targeting selection for aerial bombings and actively providing midair refueling for Saudi and United Arab Emirates jets that conduct indiscriminate airstrikes — the leading cause of civilian casualties. Meanwhile, the Saudi coalition is starving millions of Yemenis as a grotesque tactic of war.
This is horrifying. We have therefore introduced a bipartisan congressional resolution to withdraw American armed forces from these unauthorized hostilities in order to help put an end to the suffering of a country approaching “a famine of biblical proportions,” in the words of Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council. After all, as Foreign Policy has reported, the Saudi coalition’s “daily bombing campaign would not be possible without the constant presence of U.S. Air Force tanker planes refueling coalition jets.”
How did we get to this point?
In March 2015, the United States introduced its armed forces into the Saudi regime’s war against an uprising of Yemen’s Houthis, a rebel group that rapidly took control of Yemen’s capital, Sana, and eventually most of the country’s cities, by allying with forces loyal to an ousted former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But the Shiite Houthi rebels are in no way connected to the Sunni extremists of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, which the United States has been going after across the globe under the Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001. American participation in the war in Yemen is not covered by that authorization.
Al Qaeda has been referred to by The Associated Press as a “de facto ally” of Saudi Arabia and its coalition in their shared battle against the Houthis. This raises the question: Whom are we actually supporting in Yemen?
American involvement in this unauthorized conflict against the Houthis was pursued by the Obama administration for political purposes — “a way of repairing strained ties with the Saudis, who strongly opposed the July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran,” as Foreign Policy put it.
There’s a good reason that the Constitution reserves for Congress the right to declare war — a clause taken in modern times as forbidding the president from pursuing an unauthorized war in the absence of an actual or imminent threat to the nation. Clearly, the founders’ intent was to prevent precisely the kind of dangerous course we’re charting.
The State Department found that the Saudi war against the Houthis has allowed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State’s Yemen branch “to deepen their inroads across much of the country.” In other words, the power vacuum left by the war has made Al Qaeda’s deadliest branch stronger than ever — yet there’s never been a public debate over the American role in deepening that threat to our own national security.
Four decades ago, as a bloody United States military campaign across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos drew to a close, Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto to enact the War Powers Resolution of 1973, reflecting the legislature’s determination to confront executive overreach as a coequal branch of government. Now we congressmen are invoking a provision of that 1973 law, which defines the introduction of armed forces to include coordinating, participating in the movement of, or accompanying foreign military forces engaged in hostilities.
That law affords our bill “privileged” status, guaranteeing a full floor vote to remove unauthorized United States forces from Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemeni Houthis. In doing so, we aim to reassert Congress’s sole constitutional authority to debate and declare war.
This resolution may create discomfort for some of our colleagues who have been content to cede Congress’s oversight responsibilities to the White House and Pentagon in recent decades. But now more than ever, the House of Representatives must serve as a counterweight to an executive branch that has long run roughshod over the Constitution — especially at a time when our president has threatened, in front of the United Nations, to “totally destroy” an entire country, North Korea.
Exercising our constitutional duty is the key to alleviating the catastrophe that’s engulfing Yemen.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs declared last April that “Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” and in August the charity Save the Children warned that one million malnourished Yemeni children were at risk of contracting cholera. Nowhere else on earth today is there a catastrophe that is so profound and affects so many lives, yet could be so easy to resolve: halt the bombing, end the blockade, and let food and medicine into Yemen so that millions may live.
We believe that the American people, if presented with the facts of this conflict, will oppose the use of their tax dollars to bomb and starve civilians in order to further the Saudi monarchy’s regional goals. Our House resolution is a first step in expanding democracy into an arena long insulated from public accountability. Too many lives hang in the balance to allow this American war to continue without congressional consent. When our bill comes to the floor for a vote, our colleagues should consider first the solution proposed by the director of Unicef, Anthony Lake, for stopping the unimaginable suffering of millions of Yemenis: “Stop the war.”
Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, and Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, are members of the House Armed Services Committee. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat in the House, is a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.