“8 million teeter on the brink of famine. America is complicit,” warned the headline for a Washington Post editorial on June 13, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a military assault on Hodeida, the major port city in Yemen, despite pleas from relief agencies and the United Nations. The United States provided diplomatic cover and military intelligence for this catastrophic attack on the lifeline for nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports.
The Trump administration’s hand in this gruesome new chapter of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis highlights the urgency for Congress to act. After all, the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen could not continue without unauthorized US support. Congressional efforts to end this war may not only help to avert a famine in the Arab world’s poorest country; it could also fundamentally change how Washington works. By drawing on the Constitution and partnering with conservatives to rein in decades-old presidential overreach, progressive advocates for peace and restraint are laying the groundwork for a potential sea change in US foreign policy.
In 2015, the United States began fighting alongside Saudi Arabia in its war against the indigenous Houthi rebels of Yemen. Even before the attack on Hodeida, the conflict had pushed nearly a third of the population to the brink of starvation. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed an air, land, and sea blockade on a country almost entirely reliant on food imports, deliberately starving millions. The United States has participated in these horrors by providing targeting assistance for Saudi air strikes and by deploying US military aircraft to refuel Saudi warplanes in midair. The Saudis have bombed schools, a funeral, a wedding, and hospitals, including a cholera-treatment center.
President Obama never obtained congressional authorization for active US involvement in this war. His administration made a unilateral decision in 2015 to engage in these hostilities to reassure the Gulf monarchies of the US strategic alliance in light of the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed that year, though administration officials did not anticipate the scale of the Saudi atrocities. Now, under President Trump—whose shadowy campaign ties with the Saudis and Emiratis are only now emerging—these countries have felt emboldened to intensify the conflict. American military participation has even expanded to include secretive on-the-ground operations by Army Green Berets.
The Constitution’s framers sought to prevent exactly this sort of situation. As James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1798, “The Constitution supposes what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch most interested in war and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the sole authority over the use of offensive force.
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In 1973, horrified by the sprawling US wars in Indochina and determined to reassert its constitutional authority, Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution with the specific intent to “prevent secret, unauthorized military support activities” and to avert “ever deepening ground combat involvement” in foreign conflicts. Today, by invoking the War Powers Resolution and partnering with constitutional conservatives, progressives in Congress are forcing debates and votes to end US military participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
I introduced such a measure last fall with my fellow progressive Mark Pocan and conservatives Thomas Massie and Walter Jones. The resolution attracted more than 50 co-sponsors and led to the first-ever public acknowledgment by the House—through the passage of H.Res. 599—that secretive US military activities such as targeting assistance and refueling for Saudi air strikes were indeed occurring, and that US participation in a war unrelated to the fight against Al Qaeda had never been authorized by Congress. Senator Bernie Sanders then partnered with Republican Mike Lee and Democrat Chris Murphy to introduce a companion effort in February. Their joint resolution invoking the War Powers Resolution led to the first vote in Senate history directing a president to remove US forces from unauthorized hostilities. Despite a furious lobbying campaign by the White House and the Saudi government, 44 senators voted in favor of considering this unprecedented measure.
These congressional efforts provide little consolation to the millions of Yemenis who still face famine and cholera. Yet they’re inspiring ordinary Americans to get involved: Congressional offices received tens of thousands of letters and phone calls from constituents opposing this underreported war. The initiatives also chip away at the secrecy that allows unauthorized Pentagon actions to stagger on for years. What’s more, by reasserting the core tenets of the Constitution, progressives and conservatives are developing durable, bipartisan partnerships on Yemen to build the political power necessary to overcome the entrenched interests that have led to overreach and endless global war.
There is no more urgent moment to reclaim the Legislature’s constitutional war powers. The framers understood that the momentous decision to go to war requires the informed consent of the American people, expressed through their elected representatives. Our ability to expand democracy into this insulated sphere holds the key to a more peaceful future and the promise of alleviating the unimaginable suffering of millions of innocent people.
Correction: The text has been updated to note that the Saudis have bombed one wedding and one funeral, not multiples of each.