Senators vowing to pass legislation to end U.S. involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen that has “teeth” will need to craft something tougher than the mostly symbolic resolution that is currently headed for a floor vote.
Last week’s procedural vote on S.J. Res 54, introduced in the Senate by Bernie Sanders, represented an extraordinary rebuke of the Trump administration and a rare instance of Congress reasserting constitutional war powers it has mostly ceded to the executive branch.
But the resolution, reflecting language first introduced in the House by California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna over a year ago, is so full of loopholes that its practical effects – even if it became law, presumably over a Trump veto – might be negligible.
The ACLU, in a letter to House members last month actually encouraged a “no” vote, arguing that the resolution “could inadvertently extend and increase fighting in Yemen, rather than end or reduce it.”
One big problem is that the resolution vaguely calls for Trump to remove U.S. forces “from hostilities” in Yemen, rather than forbidding specific activities. ACLU national security project director Hina Shamsi wrote on the ACLU website, that the previous administration twisted the legal meaning of that phrase. “In essence, the Obama administration narrowed the definition of hostilities virtually out of existence where airstrikes are concerned.”
The resolution also carves out an exception for U.S. forces “engaged in operations directed at al Qaeda or associated forces,” tacitly supporting the administration’s flawed contention that its own deadly raids in Yemen fall under the authorization of military force that Congress passed shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
What the ACLU recommends is specifics: A resolution that prohibits such things as “refueling of Saudi aircraft, military advice and information, logistics, and other support to the Saudi-led coalition.”
Some top Republicans are now expressing enthusiastic support for cutting further military support for Saudi Arabia. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told CNN yesterday that the plan that emerges will “have teeth.”
But having Republicans involved in the drafting of new language is a double-edged sword.
Outrage is clearly growing on both sides of the aisle at Trump’s attempts to ignore the apparently overwhelming evidence that Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the ambush slaying and dismemberment of U.S.-based dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But the new legislation could also end up even weaker than the current resolution. South Carolina Republican Senator Linsday Graham, despite his defiant talk, has introduced a draft “Sense of the Senate” resolution that would have exactly zero practical significance.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who has been trying to end U.S. support for the war for three years, told Roll Call he is concerned that Republicans will try to “water this down.”
Does Murphy himself have any desire to toughen it up, instead? His office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The nearly universal revulsion that greeted the latest expression of Donald Trump’s foreign policy offers Democratic leaders a golden opportunity to review and renounce those elements of it that they have historically shared.
Trump’s indecent embrace of Saudi leader and journalist-executioner Mohammad bin Salman, after all, is different in scale but not in substance from previous Democratic administrations’ unseemly realpolitik alliances with Middle Eastern despots.
Indeed, Trump could reasonably find vindication and validation from Barack Obama’s tenure alone for quite a few of his other foreign policy sins, including flouting Congressional war powers, pointless adventurism abroad, illegal air strikes in countries where we are not at war, the de facto subordination of human rights to other interests, and accelerating the nuclear arms race.
I’ve been on the lookout for quite a while now for any signs of regret from former Obama officials for continuing – and in some cases accelerating – post-9/11 assertions of vast, unilateral executive power.
Now that they can not just imagine — but actually see — those powers in the hands of someone so manifestly unstable, don’t they wonder if maybe they abrogated too much power for the presidency after all?
Until recently, there were very few signs of it.
So it was fascinating to read a letter from 30 former senior Obama officials earlier this month not simply calling for Trump to end American military support for the Saudi coalition’s barbaric bombing campaign in Yemen – but acknowledging their responsibility for initiating that support, and recognizing that it was a mistake.
The letter was published on the website of National Security Action, a relatively new online home for the Democratic foreign policy apparatus in exile. Signatories included former deputy national security advisers Tony Blinken, Avril Haines, and Ben Rhodes, and former U.N. ambassadors Samantha Power and Susan Rice. It begins bluntly:
We did not intend U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check. But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened. Given this reality, the United States should end participation in or any form of support for this conflict, beyond humanitarian assistance for the Yemeni people. It is past time for America’s role in this disastrous war in Yemen to end.
So why did they do it in the first place? Unfortunately, their explanation is defensive and not entirely accurate:
The Obama administration provided some intelligence, refueling, and logistical assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, in response to a legitimate threat posed by missiles on the Saudi border and the Houthi overthrow of the Yemeni government, with support from Iran. We also did so in an effort to gain leverage to push the coalition to abide by international humanitarian law and support parallel diplomatic efforts.
In reality, what the U.S. did was take sides in a bloody civil war that quickly turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster zone. And the rationale was considerably less lofty. As Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt reported in the New York TImes a year into the debacle, “the White House needed to placate the Saudis as the administration completed a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archenemy. That fact alone eclipsed concerns among many of the president’s advisers that the Saudi-led offensive would be long, bloody and indecisive.”
And the notion that the U.S. was somehow preventing the Saudis from targeting civilians was belied by the fact that the Saudis were openly and enthusiastically targeting civilians with U.S help. As Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy has put it, “there is a U.S. imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen.”
And yet, the 30 Obama officials were certainly on solid ground when they wrote that Trump, rather than learning from their failure, had doubled down.
We unsuccessfully tried conditional support to the coalition. This administration has demonstrated the folly of unconditional support. Now, we must cease support altogether.
So I guess that’s progress. (Incidentally, Trump explicitly justified his embrace of the Saudis by insisting that the Saudi-led war in Yemen is Iran’s fault.)
Perhaps the only other expression of serious regret from Obama officials that I’ve seen (and I’d be happy to stand corrected; email me) dates back to March 2017, when Jon Finer, the chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, and Robert Malley, a senior adviser to Obama on the Middle East, glumly acknowledged in a New York Times op-ed that Obama’s terrorism rhetoric gave us Trump.
They gave Obama credit for rolling back some excesses of the George W. Bush’s administration. “But, cheered on by Republicans who backed him on little else,” Obama also “ramped up military strikes,” and made “the fight against the Islamic State the most visible initiative of his late second term.” Finer and Malley wrote that they “saw firsthand… the degree to which policy arguments couched in the language of counterterrorism carried inordinate weight.” And they warned:
This emphasis on terrorism has important effects beyond the Situation Room. It diverts limited time and resources from issues like China’s rise or Russian aggression. It can lead to overreliance on military action and false measures of success like body counts. It can stifle conversation, since decisions justified by threats to the homeland are insulated from criticism. And as the counterterrorism rationales from internal arguments find their way into speeches and official statements, it ratchets up public anxiety.
Their conclusion: that the “bipartisan approach to national security focused on terrorism” that Obama perpetuated “has distorted America’s understanding of its interests,” such that the public too easily falls prey to Trump’s message that “You are in danger, and I will do what it takes to protect you.” (They reprised this argument over the summer in Foreign Affairs.)
Meanwhile, over the weekend, Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan – two former senior national security officials in the Obama administration widely considered up-and-comers in Democratic foreign policy — wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “Democrats should challenge the president on his approach to the ‘forever war.’”
The two former officials – who cofounded the above-mentioned National Security Action group — write disparagingly that: “Despite running on a pledge to withdraw from military conflicts, Mr. Trump has escalated every conflict he inherited — largely behind a cloak of secrecy and without a clear strategy.” But they fail to acknowledge their own boss’s continuation of the “forever war” throughout the region.
They also urge Democrats to make the case “that a war against Iran cannot take place without congressional authorization.” But they fail to acknowledge Obama’s extraordinarily broad use of air strikes and combat forces in conflicts never even remotely foreseen by Congress’s 2001 authorization for military force.
And they argue that “expensive administration plans to modernize the nuclear arsenal and establish a ‘space force’ should be scrutinized.” While the space force is all Trump, they fail to acknowledge that it was Obama who authorized a $1 trillion nuclear arms “modernization” program.
So what else, if anything, do Obama foreign policy advisers regret? How sincere are they? And how wiling are they to change course when and if they return to power?
I’ll be asking those questions and looking for answers, and I’ll report back. So stay tuned.
There is a clear path to an up-or-down vote on ending U.S. complicity with the Saudi war in Yemen.
It starts with House Democrats, as soon as they are in power, passing a strong bill demanding an end to U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition’s catastrophic bombing of Yemen – and invoking the War Powers Act.
That invocation will, in turn, force a floor vote in the Senate that Republican leader Mitch McConnell cannot legally block, no matter how much he wants to.
The critical element here is the process triggered by the invocation of the War Powers Act, Also known as the War Powers Resolution, it was passed in 1973 — over the veto of Richard Nixon — to check the president’s power to commit U.S. forces to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.
Not only does the War Powers Act reassert Congress’s role as the only branch of government Constitutionally permitted to declare war – it also establishes “congressional priority procedures” (in Sections 6 and 7) that prevent congressional leaders from blocking a floor vote.
Legislation pursuant to the Act – introduced by any member of Congress – automatically triggers a series of deadlines at the end of which the legislation becomes “the pending business” of the chamber, “and shall be voted on within three calendar days thereafter, unless such House shall otherwise determine by yeas and nays.”
Similarly, passage of legislation in one House automatically triggers a series of deadlines in the other, also ultimately leading to an up-or-down floor vote.
Practically speaking, that means that if the House passes legislation invoking the Act, it can’t get stuck in committee, or voted down in committee, and the Senate majority leader has no choice but to allow a vote. (Should the Senate choose to pass a different resolution about Yemen, there is also a series of deadlines for conference and a final vote.)
That has enormous value, Yale Law School Professor Bruce Ackerman wrote to me in an email. He suggested that “a majority of Senators would indeed support an appropriate resolution – which is precisely why the Trump Administration would vastly prefer it for Senator McConnell to keep the issue off the floor.”
And, he wrote, “At the very least… each Senator must stand up and be counted on the basic issue of whether Congress is to reclaim the war-making powers explicitly granted by the Founders.”
As it happens, California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a bill blocking U.S. support for hostilities in Yemen, invoking the War Powers Act – and just last week, the House leadership ignored the Act’s provisions and refused to let it come to the floor. In an entirely unprecedented move, House leaders stuck a line into an entirely unrelated bill – about the endangered status of wolves – simply declaring that the War Power Resolution “shall not apply to House Concurrent Resolution 138.”
Six Democrats and 195 Republicans voted to pass the bill-killer in wolf’s clothing, over the objections of 172 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Khanna cried foul: “In American history, never, never has the Speaker of the House and the majority denied a member of Congress a vote on matters of war and peace,” he said. “This is basically rendering ineffectual the War Powers Act.”
But Ackerman insists that Senate Republicans couldn’t get away with doing the same thing House Republicans did – because House Democrats now have the power to do something about it.
“The Democratic House should and will repudiate this precedent, and will have many tools at its disposal if the Senate does not live up to the law,” Ackerman argued. For instance, the House can “refuse to cooperate with the Senate leadership on key bills on their ‘wish list’ till they cooperate on this fundamental matter.”
An even partial assertion of the War Powers Act would be a sea change for Congress, which has repeatedly failed to exercise its constitutional war powers since essentially giving George W. Bush a blank check in the form of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which they allowed him and his successors to interpret liberally.
Ideally, it would actually be the beginning of a wider exploration of war issues.
“Once they take office, House Democrats can and should start holding hearings to find out more about how the President is using U.S. military force around the world without seeking support from Congress,” Oona Hathaway, a Yale Law School professor specializing in international law, wrote to me.
“For example, the U.S. strikes in Syria in April violated both the U.N. Charter and the U.S. Constitution—because they were never approved by Congress and were not taken in the self defense of the United States. The House Democrats can and should hold hearing to learn more about how the decisions to take these strikes were made. And they should insist that the Trump Administration explain its interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—particularly if it differs from that of previous administrations,” Hathaway continued.
“The next step should be to think about more comprehensive reform of the process for approving military operations, because the system is seriously broken. There are no real prospects for serious reform in the next two years, but something more significant might be possible after 2020.”
The push to cut off support to the Saudi coalition is not new. Several members of both houses – following the lead of Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who’s been at it for three years – have been pursuing such legislation. Last November, the House overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution simply stating the fact that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen. The Senate got considerably closer in March, with a bill that called for a halt in American military support, getting 44 votes, including five from Republicans. If 10 Democrats hadn’t voted against, it would have passed.
The efforts have taken on extra urgency in the past several months.
A series of particularly tragic bombings by the Saudis – along with aggressive reporting by CNN, tying the bombs to U.S. defense manufacturers – called a rare bit of national attention to attacks such as one on a school bus in Yemen in early August that killed 40 children.
The New York Times in late October published haunting photos of emaciated Yemeni children, victims of a Saudi war effort that created a famine “of catastrophic proportions.”
But neither of those had nearly the effect in turning public sentiment against Saudi leaders and their Yemen war as the brutal, premeditated official assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and the ensuing attempted cover-up.
And on Tuesday, Donald Trump inextricably linked the Saudi cover-up, his own complicity with it, and U.S. support for the war in Yemen. He did that in a jaw-dropping official statement that, among other things, justified his embrace of the Saudi leader by endorsing the U.S.-supported war and calling it Iran’s fault.
For those reasons, House action appears to be inevitable, with support from the top down. House leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her views in a statement after Republicans tanked the Khanna bill.
“The conflict in Yemen has gone on for far too long,” she said, “leaving a permanent stain on the conscience of the world.”
“One thing is clear,” Ackerman wrote to me. “These questions were not on the table when the Republicans controlled both Houses. Elections have consequences – if the Democrats in the House show that they are serious, the definitive end to American participation in the Yemen tragedy is in sight.”
After the most inane opening of any official White House statement ever – “America First! The world is a very dangerous place!” – the most urgent thing Donald Trump had to say today about his relationship with Saudi Arabia is that the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen is Iran’s fault.
Never mind that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been definitively identified by the CIA as the man who ordered the grotesque premeditated ambush assassination of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Instead, Trump gave a kindergarten-level intro to imaginary geopolitics in which the Saudis are the victims and the U.S. must stick by their side.
“The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen,” the statement indicated, adopting the Saudis’ specious excuse for continuing the U.S.-backed bombing of civilian targets that has already turned Yemen into a hellish landscape of carnage and famine.
Trump then adopted Saudi talking points that I suspect even the Saudis can no longer utter with straight faces.
“Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave,” Trump wrote. “They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.”
The reality is that the Saudi-led coalition has taken sides in what is a complex and confusing civil war in Yemen, where Iran is mostly a bogeyman. Neither Trump nor Obama before him have ever set forth an intelligible reason for the U.S. to be providing military support for the bombings, which it has been doing in the form of aerial refueling and help with intelligence and targeting. In the words of Sen. Chris Murphy, that support has put “an American imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen”.
As far as I can tell, the first time Trump even addressed U.S. support for the war in Yemen was on Sunday, on Fox News.
Asked his view on ending U.S. involvement, Trump didn’t exactly say: “Well I want to see Yemen in but it takes two to tango. Iran has to end it also,” he said. “And Iran is a different country than it was when I took over, it’s far weakened because of what I did with the Iran — so-called Iran deal, Iran nuclear deal, which was one of the great rip-offs of all time. But I want Saudi to stop but I want Iran to stop also.”
I’ve been writing recently about Trump’s use of language. What’s striking about his written statement today was how similar it was to his unscripted ramblings. The official Saudi statement was vapid, credulous, combative and childish in the extreme — featuring eight exclamation points! All of its assertions conveying Saudi views were definitive; all those reflecting the views of the U.S. intelligence community were hedged and caveated.
It will almost inevitably backfire, and further links the effort to end support for the Saudi bombing in Yemen to the Kashoggi murder, strengthening that case considerably.
As I wrote two months ago, when a Democratic House was only a theoretical possibility, members of Congress from both parties had already joined together in significant numbers to balk at the U.S. military’s complicity in the Saudi bombings. Now, definitive action in the House is inevitable, and possibly in the Senate as well.
The biggest question may be what the legislation says, specifically. Opponents of the Yemen war were rallying around House Congressional Resolution 138, authored by California congressman Ro Khanna. But the ACLU on Tuesday issued a strong call to abandon it — on account of multiple legalistic loopholes — and instead take up more ironclad legislation in January.
National security expert William Hartung had an important article on CNN today. He noted that the Trump administration recently called for a ceasefire and announced its decision to stop refueling Saudi aircraft involved in the conflict. But Hartung doubted the effect of either move.
Only Congress can make it stop, he wrote. “The sooner that happens, the better it will be, for the people of Yemen and the security of the United States and the region.”