Politics / January 22, 2024

President Biden Needs to Go to Congress for Authorization on Yemen

Congress should have a say in military strikes against the Houthis.

Rep. Ro Khanna
Yemenis drive past a large billboard with a picture depicting the navy destroyers of foreign countries including the US and UK, and the words “Navy coalition will be defeated” at a street on December 31, 2023 in Sana'a, Yemen.
Yemenis drive past a billboard depicting the navy destroyers of foreign countries, including the US and the UK, and the words “Navy coalition will be defeated” on a street in Sana’a, Yemen, on December 31, 2023. (Mohammed Hamoud / Getty Images

The historical parallels are striking. A Democratic president with extensive Senate experience has amassed a formidable record of progressive domestic-policy achievements. But US military involvement and escalation thousands of miles away threatens to alienate his party’s base—and drag down his public approval. Meanwhile, the Republican front-runner in an election year is opportunistically criticizing the incumbent’s approach and attempting to position himself to the left of the president on this issue.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain is reputed to have observed, it often rhymes. We can still avoid the kinds of mistakes that marked the fateful 1968 election if we heed the lessons from the wake of Richard Nixon’s disastrous presidency. Fifty years ago, Congress was outraged by the catastrophic war that had spread across Indochina under Nixon’s tenure and by Nixon’s broken promises. In response, Congress took decisive, binding measures to prevent another spiraling conflict by enacting the War Powers Act of 1973.

I am the first member of Congress to succeed in passing a War Powers Resolution (WPR) to actually remove troops from hostilities since then. When I arrived in Congress, appalled by the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing of Yemeni civilians—a humanitarian catastrophe—I introduced a Yemen WPR with Senator Bernie Sanders. It invoked the 1973 law to end our unauthorized involvement in the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen. In a historic moment, our nation passed a WPR with broad bipartisan and bicameral support. President Biden explicitly embraced our position during his campaign for president, and we now have a tentative truce in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis.

Despite this history, starting last week, we saw Biden launch US strikes against the Houthis in Yemen—the poorest nation in the world—without the approval of Congress. The latest round of US military strikes came in retaliation against the Houthis’ most recent attacks on commercial shipping vessels. The Houthis carried out these attacks in defiance of the previous US air strikes on January 11 intended to dissuade them. So far, these latest air strikes have failed to deter the Houthis, and they may deepen US military involvement in a regional Middle East conflict with serious implications for 2024.

Even Saudi Arabia, which for years conducted an aerial campaign with US support against Yemen’s Houthis and imposed a siege on the country, is now calling for US restraint. American policymakers should take note of how the Houthis only consolidated control over most of the country during the intense, Saudi-led bombardment. As commercial shipping routes in the Red Sea become even more treacherous as a result of intensifying hostilities, and oil prices creep up, we must pursue genuine diplomacy and de-escalation.

President Biden has both the constitutional obligation and a political imperative to seek congressional authorization for proposed hostilities.

Let me be clear: The Houthis are bad actors and their actions against commercial ships are unjustified, illegal, and immoral. They also have engaged in vitriolic threats against both the United States and Israel. But taking unauthorized military action against them is precisely the kind of escalation that the War Powers Resolution sought to prevent, consistent with the intent of the Constitution’s framers. James Madison wrote that “in no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.”

To be sure, the president is afforded the authority under the Constitution and the War Powers Act to repel a sudden Houthi attack on the United States, its territories, possessions, or its armed forces, in the narrow case where self-defense requires immediate action. But in the absence of such a national emergency, the president must seek authorization from Congress.

In this case, the self-defense argument clearly does not hold. Conducted with extensive planning and in coordination with five other countries, the multiple rounds of US air strikes in Yemen are retaliatory strikes for deterrence, not defense. And they clearly aren’t working as a deterrent. We were aware of hostilities for at least a month and the strikes required preparation time to launch. If there was time to work with allies like Australia and the UK, there was time to come to Congress.

Asking Congress for support would be straightforward even in a divided and dysfunctional Congress: An Authorization for the Use of Military Force would be privileged in both chambers, meaning that expedited procedures would be afforded for its full consideration in the House and Senate floors. It would be easier than passing the federal budget and consistent with what the president promised when he ran for office.

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Already, a growing chorus of constitutionally minded lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding that the Executive Branch present its case for these latest strikes to Congress and seek legislative authorization before continuing further attacks. I agree with this, but believe it is also not too late to pursue a more effective approach, one safely within the president’s constitutional authorities to oversee America’s foreign policy and which happens to be wildly popular with voters—regional diplomacy and statesmanship.

The president should press for a diplomatic effort to secure a cease-fire in Gaza, the release of all hostages tied to it, and work to cool the source of tensions inflaming the region.

We should continue to interdict any arms going to the Houthis. And we should involve the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and our Gulf allies to maintain a diplomatic truce in Yemen with the Houthis that requires them to curb their disruptions on the Red Sea in exchange for a political solution in Yemen that includes their involvement. The Saudis and the Emirates, in particular, can help achieve this outcome after their painful years of war with the Houthis.

Most importantly, we have to tackle the issue inflaming the tension in the Middle East head-on—the question of justice for Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state with equal rights living in peace with Israel. Until America recognizes that the Palestine issue is at the heart of so much of the turmoil in the Middle East—a truth painfully obvious to much of the rest of the world—we will never secure the type of peace and stability that is in America’s national interest.

Rep. Ro Khanna

Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) passed the first War Powers Resolution through Congress. He is a deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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