February 15, 2019
IntelBrief: Ending Support for the War in Yemen
For the first two years of his administration, President Trump has rarely had to deal with much resistance from Congress when it came to overseas military campaigns. This is not a new trend—from Reagan to Clinton to Bush and Obama, Congress has effectively abdicated oversight of U.S. military operations, resulting in a powerful executive branch and open-ended commitments with unclear connections to U.S. national security. Both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq were authorized under the Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). In particular, the 2001 AUMF that authorized the invasion of Afghanistan in order to topple the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda has been used to justify military operations well beyond the initial scope of the legislation. But the White House has not sought to use the AUMF to cover its direct and substantial military support to the Saudi-led catastrophe in Yemen. And this week the U.S. House of Representatives voted 248-177 to require the administration to end that support.
With every conflict, there has always a small group of representatives or senators willing to take the administration to task for violating the War Powers Act. Courts have mostly refused to weigh in on this issue, believing that they are more appropriately classified as political issues beyond the writ of the judiciary. This time, however, there are tangible differences. The full House voted and passed the bill requiring President Trump to cease U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. A similar bill passed in the Republican-held Senate in December, but at the time, a vote in the House was blocked by Republican House leaders. Driving this push to finally invoke the War Powers Act is a broader sense of disagreement among members on both sides with respect to the administration’s public support for Saudi Arabia. The brutal execution of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and journalist, continues to generate international pressure against Riyadh. Even after the gory details of the Khashoggi murder came to light, the Kingdom deflected blame and instead hired a public relations firm to put together a campaign warning Western governments that ‘Our Leadership is a Red Line,’ a phrase that appeared on a graphic showing Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and his father, King Salman.
The Trump administration’s carte blanche support for Riyadh is fueled by Washington’s zero-sum approach of viewing all foreign policy-related issues in the Middle East through the lens of countering Iran, as well as through the transactional nature of the administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. This myopic approach to geopolitics has led the U.S. to lend support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has become a humanitarian disaster, with civilians starving and malnutrition spreading rapidly throughout what is already the poorest country in the region. For several years, a small but growing group of legislators have signaled an unwillingness to continue support for a war that has led to such widespread human suffering. The United Nations has already labeled many actions in the conflict as war crimes—both by the Houthi rebels, but even more so by the Saudi coalition responsible for bombing civilians. Some members of Congress expressed concern that the U.S. is putting its troops at risk of being complicit—legally as well as morally—in these war crimes.
It is unclear if the current U.S. Senate will pass the House bill, even though it passed its own version of the bill in December. If the bill does indeed pass, it will set up what would likely be President Trump’s first veto. Overcoming that veto and formally ending U.S. support for the Yemen debacle is unlikely, given the two-thirds requirement of votes to override the veto. If the bill survives a presidential veto, the issue would most certainly go to the Supreme Court. Whatever happens after that, many observers believe it is a positive sign that Congress is once again seeking to become more actively engaged in providing oversight for American military actions overseas, whether those actions are a direct result of threats to U.S. national security or short-sighted assistance to unsavory regimes engaged in odious behavior, like the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
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