The Senate vote this month to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen marked a historic break from a bipartisan embrace of a pro-war foreign policy, yet it was accomplished without strong backing from Washington’s liberal foreign policy infrastructure.
The resolution, co-sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., invokes the rights laid out in the War Powers Act of 1973 that assert Congress’s authority over war, and it was the result of many months of work by a coalition of progressive activists and anti-war lawmakers. The war is Saudi-led, but the U.S. has provided critical support, and an end to that support effectively means an end to the war.
Backers of the effort approached the Center for American Progress, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union, and all declined to specifically endorse the resolution or become members of the activist coalition. And when a procedural vote on the resolution came to the House floor, it got the same kind of half-hearted support from Democratic leadership, falling just three votes short.
The politics of war and peace in Washington are being reoriented.
As the momentum built toward the Senate victory, the lack of support from established groups in Washington became increasingly conspicuous. In the wake of the successful vote, the politics of war and peace in Washington are being reoriented, opening the possibility for a generational change that could have implications far beyond the Trump administration, potentially restraining the militaristic impulses of a future Democratic administration.
“This is an unprecedented assertion of Congress’s authority over declaring war that is an affirmation of structural checks on the presidency,” David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a progressive group that mobilized grassroots activists in support of the resolutions, told The Intercept. “It will probably constrain future presidents’ decisions about whether or not to engage in military activities all across the globe.”
Before December 13, the Senate had never used its authority under the War Powers Resolution to force a president to end an ongoing war. (It did pass a resolution to end hostilities in Somalia in the 1990s, but U.S. troops had already left.) A previous Senate vote on the resolution was defeated back in March.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates directly intervened in Yemen in 2015 when Houthi rebels took control of the country’s capital, Sana’a, in the midst of a political dispute. The Gulf allies wrongly blamed their regional foe Iran for the takeover, and they assembled a coalition and went to war to oust the Houthis — with Iran, in turn, happy to arm and supply the rebels in order to drain resources and political capital from Saudi and the UAE. The Obama and Trump administrations both supported the war effort. The Senate’s move comes as negotiations between the warring parties in Yemen have progressed, and puts pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to bring the war to an end.
The Senate’s passage of the resolution bestowed on it the kind of luster that allows liberal groups to support it without feeling as if they’re moving in too radical a direction. And, indeed, some insist that they’ve been strong supporters all along.
Before the Senate vote, CAP, Amnesty International, and HRW put out statements condemning the war in Yemen and signaling broad backing of congressional action to end U.S military support in the country. There is no question that, to varying degrees, they’ve all been critical of Saudi Arabia. Yet none of them specifically endorsed the two parallel resolutions on the Yemen war making their way through Congress — when it came to using the War Powers Resolution as a vehicle to end the war, reluctance set in.
The issue is especially sensitive to the Center for American Progress, the most prominent Democratic think tank in Washington, because it has been criticized for accepting significant funding from the embassy of the UAE, one of the Gulf countries leading the war on Yemen. The UAE gave CAP between $500,000 to $999,000 in 2017, according to the organization’s website.
The nation’s ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba, played a key role in elevating Mohammed bin Salman to the role of crown prince in Saudi Arabia. The UAE, according to the Associated Press, has operated torture chambers in Yemen “in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire.”
Sam Hananel, a CAP spokesperson, told The Intercept, after the resolution passed, that they “fully support” the invocation of the War Powers Act that would end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and believe that it applies legally to the hostilities there. But so far, there appears to be no specific mention of invoking war powers in any of CAP’s official statements. (There is an article on the site by CAP fellow Kate Martin, originally published by Just Security, that references the resolution.)
For years in Washington, the dominant foreign policy narrative held that conflicts like the one in Yemen are the province of the executive branch, not subject to the War Powers Act. CAP’s embrace of the opposite line of argument is in and of itself a significant victory for the left.
“It’s good that they are finally coming around. It shows that we are moving the conversation forward.”
Hassan El-Tayyab, co-director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive advocacy group that helped coordinate lobbying for the resolutions in Congress, told The Intercept he was pleased CAP had publicly affirmed its support. “It’s good that they are finally coming around,” he said. “It shows that we are moving the conversation forward and making the use of the WPR and ending U.S. involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen a mainstream position.”
Hananel said that the think tank worked hard behind the scenes with congressional staff to push for the resolution and referred The Intercept to Murphy, the Democratic co-sponsor, for confirmation.
But when asked by The Intercept to assess CAP’s involvement with the resolution, Murphy praised CAP in general terms, but stopped short of commenting on its role in pushing for the resolution. “This landmark resolution passed because a coalition of unlikely partners, inside in the Senate and out in the streets, came together to do the right thing,” Murphy said in a statement. “I was proud of the humanitarian and progressive organizations who rallied their members to put pressure on their Senators. CAP is an important part of the movement toward a more progressive foreign policy, and they’ve done good work on evaluating the U.S.-Saudi relationship over these past few months.”
When reached for comment by The Intercept, congressional aides associated with the resolution said they had been in productive discussions with CAP on the issue, but their exploration of CAP’s possible endorsement of the measure did not pan out.
When asked for clarification on the organization’s posture toward the resolution, Hananel said that “the notion that CAP has been silent on Yemen is categorically wrong and disproved by facts.” He pointed to a panel discussion the organization hosted after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials, and the fact that Murphy delivered opening remarks during a presentation of a foreign policy report by CAP’s national security team. Hananel also directed The Intercept to two statements on the Yemen war, neither of which references the War Powers resolution.
Statements put out by Human Rights Watch, a leading humanitarian nongovernmental organization in D.C., also reflect a broad willingness to criticize Saudi Arabia — to condemn atrocities in the war in general terms, but to decline to specifically endorse the resolution that would end it. “US Senate vote signals that, unlike Trump, it won’t sell out the most basic human values (voiding complicity in Saudi-led bombing and starving of Yemeni civilians) for a few arms-sales jobs,” Kenneth Roth, the group’s executive director, wrote on Twitter.
US Senate vote signals that, unlike Trump, it won't sell out the most basic human values (voiding complicity in Saudi-led bombing and starving of Yemeni civilians) for a few arms-sales jobs. https://t.co/bvtFEDtUd7 pic.twitter.com/AvT2CWk8VI
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) December 14, 2018
HRW Washington Director Sarah Morgan similarly celebrated that the “Senate just took a big step towards greater transparency & oversight of the US role in Yemen. At 63-37 the vote is solidly bipartisan and sends a clear message to the White House: we aren’t buying what you have to offer. The status quo is no longer acceptable.”
Those statements obscure the whole truth: The resolution wouldn’t just bring “greater transparency and oversight” to the war, it would end the U.S. role in it — a notion whose radical nature has been difficult to absorb in Washington, even as it gathers steam in Congress.
The resolution wouldn’t just bring “greater transparency and oversight” to the war, it would end the U.S. role in it.
In an article for Just Security, Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s executive director of Middle East and North Africa division, touted a bill introduced by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Todd Young, R-Ind., to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia as “the strongest effort to date for taking serious action.” She did not mention the War Powers Resolution, though she did praise it on Twitter.
When a coalition — led by the progressive group Win Without War and conservative FreedomWorks, and including 53 other groups like Demand Progress, Indivisible, and Our Revolution — sent a letter to senators ahead of the first Senate vote in March urging them to vote for the resolution, CAP, HRW, Amnesty International, and the ACLU did not sign on.
Ahead of the March vote, a spokesperson for HRW explained its absence in backing the resolution to the magazine In These Times, stating that the organization does not “take a position on the legality of armed conflicts.” An Amnesty International USA spokesperson similarly told In These Times that it did not take stances on whether countries “should go to war.”
Amnesty International USA reiterated this view when asked by The Intercept last week if it had changed its stance on Congress invoking war powers since March, especially in light of the recent Senate vote. “Our position is dictated by Amnesty’s global policy on armed intervention, and by our core values of impartiality and independence, which is that we do not take a position on armed intervention, but instead call on all parties in any conflict to respect their obligations under international law,” said Robyn Shepherd, Amnesty’s interim director of media relations. HRW declined to comment.
The ACLU, meanwhile, had objections to the approach taken by backers of the resolution. In order to win majority support, they specified in the resolution that it would not impact the U.S. war on terror in Yemen, which has included drone strikes and cruise missile attacks against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (a group that is now, ironically, on the same side as the U.S. in the war against the Houthis).
Lawyers at the ACLU were concerned that by referencing the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the resolution raised the question of whether it implicitly authorized extralegal hostile actions around the globe carried out in the AUMF’s name. Backers of the resolution put the question to the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan resource at Congress’s disposal, which concluded that the resolution would not in fact explicitly legalize other conflicts and did not legalize the drone war. “The language in both resolutions serves to indicate that the removal directive is limited to the subject of the two resolutions, that is to say, ending the U.S. involvement in the KSA-led counter-Houthi campaign in Yemen,” CRS concluded. “Neither resolution’s language contains any indication of legislative judgment as to whether such U.S. use of military force for counterterrorism purposes in Yemen is congressionally authorized,” the CRS report, which was obtained by The Intercept, continues.
The ACLU argued that the administration would use the language to support its position regardless. “We expect that this resolution, if enacted, would be used by the Executive Branch as a claim of authority and direction from Congress to greatly expand and extend the U.S. role in Yemen,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to Congress in November 2018. The CRS report agreed that the administration was likely to do so, even if without basis. The letter also argued that passage of the resolution would be counterproductive, because the war is already illegal, so declaring it illegal could imply that other wars are legal unless similarly repudiated. “U.S. support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against the Houthis is already a violation of the War Powers Resolution,” the letter reads.
The historic Senate vote did not come out of nowhere — supporters of the resolution have been working over the past year to build consensus around the issue. And it’s clear that their efforts are paying off: The resolution passed with the support of every Democrat in the caucus, joined by seven Republicans.
The resolution has rapidly become one of the few issues that the entire Democratic Party — center, left, and liberal — is uniting behind.
Improbably, and despite the lack of support from the foreign policy establishment, the resolution has rapidly become one of the few issues that the entire Democratic Party — center, left, and liberal — is uniting behind. When the measure was brought up last March, the Senate blocked it by a 55-44 vote, with 10 Democrats joining with the Republican majority against it. By the end of November, when the Senate took a procedural vote on the resolution invoking war powers, the ground had shifted. Spurred in part by Trump’s hand-waving of bin Salman’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder (the CIA concluded that bin Salman ordered his assassination), the bill then had the support of every single Democratic senator, who were joined by 13 Republicans.
The day before the resolution’s ultimate passage in the Senate, victory barely eluded opponents of the war in the House. The vote on a rule that would block a resolution brought forward by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., passed 206-203 — another indication that the effort to end the war is moving forward thanks to a groundswell of energy outside Washington, with only the reluctant, half-hearted support of leaders in Congress. The No. 2 House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, had co-sponsored Khanna’s effort to end the war, but in his statement, he made clear that he didn’t believe the U.S. was actually “engaged in hostilities in Yemen”; rather, he said the purpose of the resolution was to push the U.S. to work toward a political solution in Yemen. He also took an opportunity to bash Iran and praise Saudi and the UAE for “humanitarian efforts.”
Hoyer is the Democratic whip, and his job is just that: to whip recalcitrant party members into line. The coalition of groups backing the effort sent Hoyer a letter pleading with him to leverage his power to make sure that Democrats voted unanimously against the war. He did not do so. “We weren’t whipping. We always urge a no vote on the Rule,” said his spokesperson, who also denied receiving a letter from the coalition. That prompted the groups to reiterate that yes, in fact, they had sent such a letter to both Hoyer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
When the resolution finally came up for a vote, it happened in a manner that was bizarre even by congressional standards. The House managed to cram a vote on the war in Yemen in with the farm bill, an unrelated agriculture and social policy spending bill. The move, by House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, was even blasted by some Republicans.
Despicable. @SpeakerRyan is shirking responsibility for debating our involvement in the Yemen war by hiding the war resolution in a procedural vote on the farm bill. SAD! https://t.co/W2sw7K1nMY
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) December 12, 2018
The Yemen resolution was tacked onto the farm bill in the form of a rule that would strip the War Powers Resolution of its privileged status, meaning that Democrats could not bring it to the floor until January.
But if war opponents were to vote the rule down, the farm bill would have had to come back to the floor again for a separate vote. That was highly likely to happen — the farm bill is a bipartisan priority — but it was too big a risk for some Democrats who had spent years negotiating the bill, which contains funding for food stamps, known as SNAP.
Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top-ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, wanted to seize the opportunity to pass the farm bill, rather than risk it by voting down the Yemen rule, but he needed help to do it.
Toward the end of the vote, when it seemed like the doves might succeed in voting down the rule, he approached Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger on the floor, another Maryland Democrat who is part of the whip team. Peterson told Ruppersberger that he needed five Democratic votes to make sure the rule passed. Ruppersberger, a co-sponsor of Khanna’s resolution, agreed to be one of them. “We were asked to vote for the farm bill rule by the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee to advance the farm bill,” Jaimee Lennon, a spokesperson for Ruppersberger, told The Intercept.
Reps. Jim Costa of California, Al Lawson of Florida, and David Scott of Georgia joined Peterson and Ruppersberger as the five Democrats who broke with Democrats and pushed the Yemen rule on the farm bill through on a 206-203 vote. “Without a rule, the vote would not have taken place. Many Americans could have gone hungry. And the war in Yemen could have still continued,” Ruppersberger, getting hammered at home for his vote, later wrote in a Baltimore Sun column, titled “Farm bill vote broke my heart.”
The bill’s sponsors vowed to take the measure up once the new Congress is sworn in and power shifts to Democrats in January.
That the liberal foreign policy elite might be starting to come around on supporting the resolution will only help bolster the measure in the coming year. But as House leadership has showed, half-hearted approval will only get the bills so far. And in the meantime, the war has left Yemen on the brink of a famine. In September, the United Nations’s World Food Programme warned reporters at a U.N. General Assembly briefing that 18 million of the Yemen’s 29 million people are food insecure. The country tops the U.N.’s list of countries as the biggest humanitarian crisis in 2019, with 70 percent of the country in need of humanitarian assistance.
“Yemen can’t wait,” El-Tayyab said. “The suffering is on an unprecedented, biblical scale.”
Correction: January 31, 2019
A previous version of this article said that the ACLU was worried that the War Powers resolution would moot a pending lawsuit, but the group’s objections were in fact unrelated to any litigation. The story has been updated to clarify the ACLU’s objections.