The White House is scheduled to consider this week a proposal from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to directly engage the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis in Yemen, including a planned United Arab Emirates attack on the port of Hodeida.
On Friday, March 31, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen warned against a military attack on Hodeida:
“We as the United Nations are advocating that no military operations should be undertaken in Hodeidah.”
He warned that military action on the port could “tip the country into famine.”
Former U.S. officials have also warned that this attack could push Yemen into famine:
There was an internal debate over the final year of the Obama administration about whether the United States should support potential future efforts by the coalition to take the Hodeidah port, but ultimately the administration decided against it, said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former top USAID official. “From USAID’s perspective, we thought the US should strongly oppose this,” Konyndyk, the former director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, told Al-Monitor… He said, “From our point of view, it would be disastrous in terms of humanitarian impact if the coalition were to disrupt the aid pipeline and commercial pipeline that moves through that port...The view that we had at AID — among AID leadership — was that if that port were to be lost, it would likely be enough to tip the country into famine,” Konyndyk warned.
As Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker recently affirmed, U.S. participation in this war has never been authorized by Congress:
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., made it clear he doesn’t believe the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed in 2001 to counter al-Qaeda would apply to the Houthis. “Certainly engaging in a war against a group outside of ISIS [the Islamic State] is a step beyond the current authorization,” Corker told Al-Monitor.
A bipartisan group of House members is demanding that President Trump seek Congressional approval before escalating U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Reps. Mark Pocan [D-WI], Justin Amash [R-MI]; Ted Lieu [D-CA] and Walter Jones [R-NC] are circulating a letter to the President that says, “Congress has never authorized the actions under consideration.” The letter continues:
“Engaging our military against Yemen’s Houthis when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers clearly delineated in the constitution...For this reason, we write to request that the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) provide, without delay, any legal justification that it would cite if the administration intends to engage in direct hostilities against Yemen’s Houthis without seeking congressional authorization.”
Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 over President Nixon’s veto to make it harder for the President to start or escalate wars unilaterally. In the WPR, Congress gave itself additional tools for preventing and challenging unilateral military action by the President, like the ability of any Member to introduce a “privileged” resolution - one that can’t be buried in committee, but can be forced to a floor vote if its sponsors insist - to withdraw U.S. forces from a war that hasn’t been authorized by Congress.
By invoking their war powers, Members of Congress can block the President from unilaterally moving to engage in military action. It happened in 2013, when 192 Members of the House insisted that President Obama come to Congress before bombing the Syrian government. President Obama initially insisted that he didn’t need Congressional approval, but he relented when enough Members of Congress complained. He didn’t concede the point as a theoretical, Constitutional, legal matter, but he conceded it as a practical political matter, and ultimately that’s what we care about.
If enough Members of Congress complain now - in particular, if enough Members of the House sign the Pocan-Amash-Lieu-Jones letter - we can force Trump and Mattis to back down from taking this catastrophic step unilaterally, and force them to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding, which would mean they would have to make their case to the broad U.S. public, not just to the elite foreign policy establishment. And that’s a much higher burden of proof, because the broad public is much more skeptical of wars of choice than the foreign policy establishment is. We don’t need to get Trump and Mattis to concede the theoretical, Constitutional, legal point that they need to come to Congress for authorization, though that certainly would be nice. We just need them to concede the point as a practical political matter. Just like President Obama did in August 2013. All we need is for more Members of Congress to join the complaint right now.
I can’t promise you that we can stop this catastrophe. But we used this exact same mechanism less than four years ago and were successful in stopping U.S. military action. Given that the lives of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children hang in the balance, isn’t it worth a try?