It’s no secret that the situation in Yemen is grim. The numbers are repeated in press reports and diplomatic statements ad nauseam: likely tens of thousands of civilian casualties; more than a million cases of cholera over the past year; 8 million people in danger of facing starvation, 5 million of them children; 22 million in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Civilians are getting blown up at weddings, at funerals, while fishing. They’re selling organs to make ends meet and cooking tree leaves to survive. It’s “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
But believe it or not, the humanitarian situation in Yemen could get worse, and soon. And—depressingly or encouragingly, depending on how you look at it—those with some of the most practical power to mitigate the harm at this critical juncture are lawmakers in the United States. Though Congress’s efforts have so far been too little, too late, and further disaster seems imminent, developments on Capitol Hill signal that the US-backed war machine is faltering, and that those most responsible for Yemen’s prolonged suffering are at risk of losing their impunity.
Compounding the Humanitarian Disaster
It’s been three and a half years since a military coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in support of the Yemeni government, began bombing the northern Yemen–based Houthi rebel movement—and today, the civil war turned regional stalemate seems no closer to a diplomatic or military solution. Houthi forces have proven more resilient than originally expected, and United Nations efforts to de-escalate the war have repeatedly failed, thanks in part to Western cover for Saudi Arabia in the Security Council, as well as the UN’s legitimacy problems and the international organization’s inability to navigate the complexities of Yemeni politics.
There are many sides and decades of politics playing into the fighting in Yemen, and both main warring parties—the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis—are responsible for horrendous war crimes, including forced disappearances, “blind” air strikes, and much more. But the coalition is responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, according to a UN panel of experts, and Saudi blockades on Yemeni ports have been the biggest drivers of hunger in the country. A recent report from the World Peace Foundation has also found “strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution”—something watchdogs and Yemenis have long suspected.
The center point of current fighting and the focus of new humanitarian concerns is the main port city of Hodeida. The city, which was captured by the Houthis before Saudi and Emirati involvement in the war, is crucial to the country’s survival: Yemen normally imports about 90 percent of its food, and roughly three-quarters of its imports, including relief aid, come through Hodeida. The numerous Saudi-imposed sea blockades, as well as battle damage to Hodeida’s port, have triggered widespread famine, a provisions crisis, and crippling inflation.
Earlier this summer, the Saudi-led coalition launched a new offensive to wrest Hodeida and its port from Houthi control. In a last-ditch effort to head off any new port crisis that would further exacerbate the humanitarian disaster—including the possibility of an all-out siege on Houthi-controlled territory in the north, where a majority of Yemenis live—the current UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, attempted to broker a peaceful solution. The talks initially sparked some fleeting hope, but as with previous UN efforts, negotiations quickly soured. In September, the coalition opted to resume its offensive, and the Houthi leadership reportedly vowed to defend Hodeida to their last soldier.
“If they block the port, it’s going to lead to mass starvation,” Shireen Al-Adeimi, an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University and Yemen contributor to In These Times, told The Nation. “It’s truly using hunger as a weapon.”
There is no quick fix for the political questions underlying Yemen’s many civil conflicts, but considering the UN’s inefficacy, it’s widely understood that the United States has the most practical power to quickly curb a deeper humanitarian crisis. Despite refraining from direct involvement in the war against the Houthis (the Pentagon has for years been conducting targeted actions against the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, with congressional authorization), the United States provides support for virtually every step of the coalition air war: Private US arms manufacturers sell tens of billions of dollars in planes, bombs, and other equipment and training to the Saudi and Emirati militaries; the US military shares intelligence to help the Saudi air force fine-tune its targeting; and US planes provide midair refueling to Saudi jets during their Yemen sorties.
“If the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told [Saudi] King Salman, ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Middle East adviser to four US presidents, admitted in August. The Saudi and Emirati assault on Yemen is, at this point, an American project. And with every elevation of the humanitarian crisis, the United States faces culpability.
The Congressional Status Quo
Despite the obscene carnage in Yemen, the renewed urgency of the humanitarian situation, and the undeniable ability of US officials to attenuate it all, why does the US military continue to support the Saudi-led coalition?
From the executive branch, both presidential administrations in power over the past three years have prioritized good relations with Gulf monarchies over assuaging the acute malnourishment of 2 million Yemeni children. During the first two years of the coalition assault, the Obama administration was too worried about locking down the US “security” relationship with Saudi Arabia after the Iran nuclear deal to pull support for the botched Yemen campaign. And in the past two years, the Trump administration has unquestioningly embraced Saudi Arabia and the UAE as top allies (and top sources of income for the US military industry).
This has left the job of dissent to the legislative branch. A handful of US lawmakers, like Senators Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, and Chris Murphy and Representative Barbara Lee, have opposed US involvement in the war against the Houthis since effectively the beginning. However, as with cable news coverage, congressional attention to the US role has only peaked in the past year or so—and really only over the past few months.
In September 2017, freshman Representative Ro Khanna introduced a bill in the House for a concurrent resolution intended to force President Trump to cut US support for the Saudi-led coalition. The bill invoked the 1973 War Powers Resolution—passed (after an override of a Nixon veto) in the wake of secret US military campaigns in Southeast Asia—which reaffirmed Congress’s exclusive constitutional authority to authorize war.
Khanna’s legislation didn’t even make it to a vote, in large part because Republican leadership effectively killed it in the House. But Democratic leadership helped the GOP: At the time, The Intercept reported that Representative Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, was among the high-ranking House members discouraging lawmakers from co-sponsoring the legislation.
Soon after Khanna’s legislation was stifled, he introduced a new bill for a resolution “expressing the sense of the House of Representatives with respect to United States policy towards Yemen.” Since it was a “simple” resolution rather than a concurrent resolution, it had no teeth to compel the president into action, but it asserted that “Congress has not enacted specific legislation authorizing the use of military force against parties participating in the Yemeni civil war.” In November 2017, less than two weeks after it was introduced, it passed the House on a vote of 366 to 30.
There are several possible reasons for the wide disparity in the results of Khanna’s two 2017 Yemen resolutions. From the “simple” resolution vote, it seems apparent that a majority of the House (both Democrats and Republicans) considers US support for the war against the Houthis to be unauthorized; and by late 2017 it was more than clear that the Saudi and Emirati assault on Yemen was rife with war crimes. However, few representatives at the time were willing to take action to end those crimes—perhaps because some were afraid of betraying one of Washington’s closest historical allies; perhaps because some were weary of invoking the War Powers Resolution in a situation without American boots on the ground; perhaps because some believed US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s bad-faith assertions that the Houthis are a dangerous Iranian proxy; or perhaps it was the military industry’s clout in Congress.
Whatever the reasons, a few months later, a cross-partisan group of senators—Bernie Sanders (I), Chris Murphy (D), and Mike Lee (R)—decided to take up the cause in the Senate by introducing a War Powers bill similar to Khanna’s. In response, a bipartisan duo—Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D) and Todd Young (R)—introduced an alternative Yemen bill. Instead of invoking the War Powers Resolution, the Young-Shaheen bill stipulated that US support for the Saudi-led coalition must cease unless the secretary of state is able to certify to Congress three times over the course of a year that the Saudis are undertaking “an urgent and good faith effort to conduct diplomatic negotiations to end the civil war” and “appropriate measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.”
Initially, the Young-Shaheen plan seemed almost like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as the original bill offered the option to override the certification requirement if US efforts in Yemen were focused on engaging “Iranian terrorist activities.” Such an exception could easily be manipulated to refer to the Houthis, so several War Powers advocates thought that, rather than a check on executive power, the original Young-Shaheen bill instead offered the administration a path toward de facto authorization of US support for the Saudi-led coalition.
But eventually Young and Shaheen scrapped the original legislation and introduced a new bill, similar to the first, with a “national security” waiver instead of the “Iranian terrorist activities” exception. That bill was eventually turned into an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019. The Murphy-Sanders-Lee War Powers bill, on the other hand, narrowly missed the chance to face a yes-or-no vote: On March 20, the Senate voted 55 to 44 to table the legislation.
Proponents of Young-Shaheen claimed that it was a pragmatic alternative to the Murphy-Sanders-Lee bill, given the swift defeat of the Khanna bill in the House and the Defense Department’s opinion that the War Powers Resolution doesn’t apply to US involvement in Yemen. “The [Murphy-Sanders-Lee] legislation will not accomplish its stated objective because it will almost certainly not become law,” a Senate aide told The Huffington Post at the time.
But Murphy said that if it wasn’t for the introduction of Young-Shaheen, his resolution would have had enough votes to pass the Senate. Two Capitol Hill staffers and an NGO source with inside knowledge of the situation confirmed to The Nation that the presence of the Young-Shaheen proposal gave some senators an excuse to withhold support for the Murphy-Sanders-Lee legislation.
Breaking Through the Status Quo
On August 9, a coalition plane dropped a 500-pound laser-guided Mk 82 bomb, made by US military contractor Lockheed Martin, on a bus full of children in the governorate of Sa’ada, in northern Yemen. The children were on a summer-camp field trip. Fifty-four people were killed, including 44 kids. Images of their baby-blue UNICEF backpacks, as well as photos of shrapnel with serial numbers indicating an American-made bomb, quickly flooded the Internet and, for once, cable news.
In Washington, the bus bombing seemed like the straw that broke—or perhaps just strained—the camel’s back. In a surprising move, on August 28, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon that US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition is “not unconditional.” And on August 13, President Trump signed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act into law, and with it, the embedded Young-Shaheen amendment necessitating the secretary of state’s certification regarding the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to avoid further humanitarian catastrophe.
The first deadline for Secretary of State Pompeo’s certification came on September 12 (the next one doesn’t come until February), and, predictably, he issued it. In his certification report, he declared that the Saudis and Emiratis are undertaking “appropriate measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by increasing access to food…including through the appropriate use of Yemen’s Red Sea ports, including the port of Hudaydah,” as well as “demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
Representative Khanna, among others, called Pompeo’s move a “farce,” and his opinion was soon justified. Scandal broke on September 20 when The Wall Street Journal reported that Pompeo’s staff had raised humanitarian-related objections to the certification, and Pompeo decided to go along with it only after speaking with the State Department’s legislative-affairs division, headed by a former Raytheon lobbyist, which expressed concerns about losing a pending $2 billion precision-guided munitions sale between Raytheon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Less than a week after the Journal’s report, Khanna announced that he was introducing a new bill invoking the War Powers Resolution against US involvement in Yemen—almost exactly a year after he introduced the War Powers legislation that couldn’t even get a vote in the House. However, this time he had the backing of Democratic whip Steny Hoyer—who had worked to kill his legislation the year before—as well as important ranking Democratic committee members like Adam Smith, Eliot Engel, and Jim McGovern.
And two days after that, Al-Monitor reported that Sanders was again planning on taking up War Powers action, which The Nation has confirmed will take the form of bringing the tabled Murphy-Sanders-Lee bill back to the Senate floor.
With all this congressional action set to take place, it’s unclear what will happen when it comes to efforts to end US involvement in Yemen—or what is even possible. One senior Democratic aide told The Nation that one of the many goals of such legislation is simply to “get this congressional authorization muscle working again.” Indeed, in addition to the Yemen bills, Democratic Senator Tom Udall recently introduced a bill—with significant backing from the Democratic leadership—titled the “Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act,” which aims to head off the Trump administration’s not-so-hidden ambitions for military confrontation with Iran.
Yet another senior Democratic aide told The Nation that War Powers advocates are “playing to win,” and pointed out that a concurrent resolution invoking War Powers would only require simple majority votes in both chambers of Congress—no presidential signature—to put forth an unprecedented directive to the president.
And even if such a resolution doesn’t come to pass—and it most likely won’t in time to halt the assault on Hodeida—or if the Trump administration tries to ignore it, Congress’s new interest in reining in US military involvement in Yemen undoubtedly sends messages to Saudi and Emirati leaders. Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and defense minister, has made a reputation for himself as an aggressive—and reckless—actor in the region. But he will undoubtedly think twice about his next steps in Yemen if some of his congressional allies begin to support efforts to cut the Saudi military off from its biggest supplier—especially considering Saudi-skeptical sentiments in Congress roused by the recent scandal involving the likely killing of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi.
It should be clear to everyone that it’s far past time for Congress to end its complicity with Saudi-UAE war crimes and take decisive actions to end Washington’s role in Yemen’s suffering.
“I don’t know how hopeful I am,” said Al-Adeimi, the writer and professor, of the recent legislative push. “But this is what needs to happen. The congresspeople and the senators who are opposed to this war understand that the US is playing a significant role, and we can’t continue to be involved in these war crimes.”
Correction: Senator Chris Murphy was misidentified as a representative in one passage, which has been corrected.