Democratic control of the House of Representatives opens the door to finally translating congressional frustration with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) into real action and accountability for U.S. policy in Yemen next year. And despite having fewer Senate seats in 2019, Democrats will still have an opportunity to take the mandate voters gave them to affirm that even supposed short-term security gains never justify massive human suffering, including the world’s largest famine, nor are they worth turning a blind eye to the torture, abuse and war crimes of our “allies.”
Recent and Upcoming Senate Action Signals Growing Interest
Even before the new Congress convenes in January, there will be a Senate vote on Yemen war powers resolution (S.J.Res.54), led by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), that would permanently end U.S. military support for the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has conducted a brutal bombing campaign in Yemen’s civil war (44 senators voted to support this measure last March). The Defense Department recently announced its intention to cut off U.S. refueling to the coalition. But Congress, by passing this privileged war powers resolution, could ensure this support will not be restarted, and it could end the remaining, unauthorized material support for the coalition’s bombing campaign, which includes U.S. personnel advising on and providing intelligence for targeting airstrikes in the joint air ops center in Riyadh. The longer this military support continues, the longer Congress allows the Trump administration to continue signaling that it will do as little as possible to hold the Saudi/UAE-led coalition to account.
Although the cessation of mid-air refueling may raise the question of whether the War Powers Resolution (WPR) of 1973 still applies to remaining U.S. military support to the coalition, one only need look at Congress’ intention in passing the WPR in 1973 to determine that it does. Passed in the wake of the Vietnam War and the covert wars in Laos and Cambodia, the WPR was an effort to define the scope of U.S. armed forces’ military operations abroad that require congressional authorization. Section 8(c) of the WPR defines such operations as those that include U.S. advisers coordinating a foreign country’s armed forces in hostilities – a situation similar to remaining U.S. material support for the coalition that includes U.S. personnel who use live intelligence feeds “to help Saudi Arabia decide what and where to bomb.” As legal scholars Bruce Ackerman and Bruce Fein have noted, the U.S. military personnel assigned to the Riyadh Joint Combined Planning Cell to assist in anti-Houthi operations conducted in Yemen “clearly constitutes coordination of hostilities, once again representing the ‘introduction of U.S. Armed Forces’ into ‘hostilities’” under the WPR of 1973.
Further, congressional impatience has only grown since March as Yemen’s largely avoidable humanitarian crisis has become more grim. More recently, bipartisan outrage has been on display on Capitol Hill (if not at the White House) over the Saudi government’s murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This new political dynamic – where traditional Saudi champions like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) declare their intention to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia,” combined with a mea culpa from former Obama administration officials who were involved in the decision to initiate U.S. support for this war – could put this resolution over the top by drawing votes from the handful of Democrats who have voted to block Saudi arms sales in the past and from those Republicans who have sat on the fence about U.S. support for an immoral war. Although it ultimately failed, a recent Senate vote on blocking arms sales to Bahrain, a member of the coalition in Yemen and an ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, garnered unusual bipartisan support, including several likely 2020 presidential candidates. This could indicate such a dynamic is already in motion.
The House Moves to Kill the Bill But Dems Poised to Take Early Action Next Congress
Over in the House, after returning to a lame duck session, Republican leadership took the largely unprecedented step to prevent a vote on H.Con.Res.138, the Yemen war powers resolution, by passing a rule that stripped the resolution of its “privileged” status, which had guaranteed any member of Congress’ ability to force a floor vote on the resolution. The good news is that the legislation, championed by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), is sponsored by nearly all of the House Democratic leadership and much of the Democratic caucus. Moreover, GOP support appears to be growing as 15 Republicans voted against the rule – a strong showing given that procedural votes almost always break along party lines.
As the recent House fight demonstrated, ending U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen has become the House Democratic Caucus position. After the vote, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Elliot Engel (D-N.J.) issued strong statements on U.S. involvement in the war. With staunch anti-Yemen-war ally Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) poised to lead the Rules Committee and the arrival of new members like human rights professional Tom Malinowski and progressive visionaries, like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it is highly likely that the House will take up legislation to end U.S. military support for the coalition early in the 116th Congress.
Growing Bipartisan Interest
There are additional indications that Congress will be taking a hard look at other aspects of the U.S. security relationship with Saudi Arabia. A broad coalition of Democratic and Republican senators, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), has introduced a comprehensive bill that would ensure congressional oversight of U.S. policy in Yemen. The legislation takes a similar approach to the Young-Shaheen legislation, which ultimately passed in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act this year. That legislation conditioned U.S. refueling of coalition planes on certain outcomes related to peace negotiations, mitigating civilian harm, and alleviating the humanitarian crisis. This new legislation goes a step further. It does so by suspending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, prohibiting in-flight refueling for coalition missions (thereby codifying the Trump administration’s recent decision to suspend refueling operations), authorizing sanctions against those who undermine peace in Yemen and those involved in Khashoggi’s murder, as well as robust reporting requirements.
The legislation is a great first step towards reorienting the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, but any markup of the legislation during the lame duck should seek to apply these restrictions to the UAE as well to truly send the signal that U.S. support to these countries is not a blank check. Another, more clear-eyed approach is Rep. McGovern’s most recent effort (H.R.7082) that cuts off all security cooperation and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Congress should take this legislation a step further by applying these prohibitions to the UAE as well.
One way or another, the next Congress will take action to rein in the support the Trump administration has extended to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Rhetoric as well as recent voting patterns indicate that ending support to the war in Yemen is high on the Democratic agenda, and come January, House Democrats will have the chance to forge a new approach that does just that.