The news hook is great news: for the first time, senators of both parties, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are challenging the U.S. role in the Saudi-UAE war against Yemen. It's good news because the U.S. involvement—from selling hundreds of millions of dollars of lethal weapons to sending U.S. pilots flying U.S. planes to conduct in-air refueling for the warplanes to make the bombing more efficient—is illegal, unconstitutional, and unconscionable.
It's good news even though it's very late. Because the news from Yemen is not good at all—it's very bad.
The war raging in Yemen began in March 2015. From the beginning it has been a very one-sided war—more a slaughter than a war—in which warplanes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continue to bomb civilian targets across the impoverished country. The result is what the United Nations has identified as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today—with more than 10,000 civilians killed by January 2017 when the UN largely stopped counting. Two-thirds of those have been killed by the U.S. backed air strikes. More than 20 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Yemen now faces the world's worst cholera epidemic, that has killed at least 2,000 people and sickened over 1 million. Millions more have been displaced, and large parts of the country's infrastructure lie in ruins. Every ten minutes, a child under five dies from disease or starvation or both.
"It's good news even though it's very late. Because the news from Yemen is not good at all—it's very bad. "
There has been civil conflict in Yemen for a long time. But that conflict did not create this level of human devastation. That began when the Saudi-UAE coalition, with full U.S. backing by the Obama administration, launched a bombing campaign ostensibly designed to return to power the deposed Yemeni leader Mansour Hadi, then in exile in Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni forces who displaced Hadi allied themselves with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had himself been deposed during Yemen's Arab Spring of 2011 (and who was killed in December 2017). Similar power struggles within Yemeni society have a long history and date back to the uneasy reunification of the country in 1990, between the socialist South and western-oriented North of the country.
It was the assault by Saudi-UAE bombers that transformed the Yemeni civil strife into a full-scale war. The Houthis, a largely Zaydi community with close ties to Shi'a Islam, had long maintained ties with Iran. However, they were nothing close to Iranian proxies or puppets. In fact, Iranian officials reportedly urged the Houthi fighters not to try to take Sana'a, the capital, but their suggestion was ignored. Because even U.S. intelligence officials agreed Iran did not control the Houthis.
But the existence of any force in the region seen as linked to Iran at all is deemed unacceptable to the Gulf monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The bombing began, soon joined by ground troops and a coalition blockade that resulted in the massive starvation and near-famine conditions across Yemen.
The human toll played little role in U.S. decision-making; the longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia took center stage. The Obama administration agreed to a $60 billion arms deal with the Saudis in 2010, then the largest arms deal in history—a massive order primarily for fighter bombers and attack helicopters, exactly the kinds of weapons the Saudis would use against Yemen. In his 2017 high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump claimed he had negotiated a $110 billion deal with the Saudis, although much of that actually referred to a combination of earlier deals. And it was during that same visit that Trump ramped up his call for unity with Sunni Arab governments against Shi'a Iran. He claimed that from "Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region."
Iran has actually played little military role in Yemen; it is U.S. allies led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that are spreading "destruction and chaos" across Yemen in the name of fighting Iranian influence.
So given all those complications, it is definitely great news that the Senate will now have to take up the question—and eventually vote—on approving or disapproving U.S. military engagement in Yemen. It's gone on for three years now, under two presidents, without even a hint of authorization from Congress. It's hard even for the staunchest supporters of military force to claim with a straight face that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the hours after the 9/11 attacks, that called for U.S. forces to go after al-Qaeda and those who sheltered them, somehow applies in Yemen—where Washington's allies are actually known to be working with al-Qaeda.
"If this resolution passes, it will reflect broad popular opinions across the political spectrum."
This isn't the first time Congress said something. Last year, the House passed a non-binding resolution saying that the U.S. military support for the Saudi-UAE coalition was not authorized. But this Senate resolution is the first time there's a chance to vote on something that actually has real consequences. The resolution is based on the 1973 War Powers Act, limiting the president's ability to launch wars without congressional approval. It allows for only three exceptions—a direct attack on the U.S., its territories or possessions, or its armed forces—none of which apply in Yemen.
If this resolution passes, it will reflect broad popular opinions across the political spectrum. In recent polls 71 percent of Americans think Congress should pass legislation restraining military action; 86 percent believe military force should only be used as a last resort, and almost 64 percent believe that military aid, both money and weapons, should not be provided to regimes like Saudi Arabia. If it passes, it will be because enough of those broad majorities have called, written, protested, demanded that their senators finally take responsibility for what the Constitution says is their job: to decide when and if the U.S. goes to war.
If it passes, the president would have 30 days to end U.S. involvement in the war against Yemen. That's not soon enough—an awful lot of people can be killed in air strikes and bombing runs for a whole month. But this is the first real chance to stop the U.S. killing in at least one of the too many countries where U.S. bombers, pilots, special forces and other parts of the Pentagon's killing machine are deployed.
It's way too late—but it's really good news.