“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.