The United States Senate killed a resolution introduced by Independent Senator Bernie Sanders and Republican Senator Mike Lee to withdraw U.S. military support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
By a vote of 55-44, the resolution was tabled. A simple majority was required to kill the resolution.
If ten Democrats who voted to kill the resolution had instead voted no, an extraordinary debate on Saudi Arabia and U.S. support for the war in Yemen would have taken place.
Democratic Senators Christopher Coons, Catherine Cortez Masto, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Doug Jones, Joe Manchin, Robert Menendez, Bill Nelson, Jack Reed, and Sheldon Whitehouse each voted against debating whether to exercise Congress’s war powers under the Constitution.
The outcome was similar to a vote on a resolution introduced by Republican Senator Rand Paul to oppose the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. It failed by four votes, and if five Democrats had not voted to preserve the arms deals, the effort to block $500 million worth of weapons would have prevailed.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led the effort to stop the resolution from Sanders and Lee. He was livid that senators invoked the War Powers Act of 1973 to attempt to end U.S. military support for intervention by Saudi Arabia in a war against the Houthis, particularly because it circumvented his authority as the Foreign Relations Committee chair.
Corker said, “Let the Foreign Relations Committee do the work you’ve assigned the committee to do. We’re going to have a hearing.” He mentioned a bipartisan bill apparently in the works on Yemen. He cautioned against allowing a “wild west debate” on war-making powers of the Executive Branch.
“I say to my good friend, Senator Corker, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, this war has been going for three years,” Senator Sanders responded. “Ten thousand civilians in Yemen are dead. Forty thousand have been wounded. A million are dealing with cholera now. Millions have been displaced, and you come tonight on the floor and you say we’re going to have a hearing. That’s good, but it’s three years too late.”
A key issue is over the U.S. military refueling Saudi military jets that are flown into Yemen. Corker suggested it was inconsistent of senators to advance this resolution, when the U.S. helps the French refuel jets in Mali. “I assume that these individuals would consider those to be hostilities, but somehow or another, that doesn’t rise to congressional approval.”
Corker argued this debate was “politically tinged” and downplayed Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for carnage as well as a humanitarian catastrophe. He added, “We know that because American folks are involved in refueling and because we’re helping to a degree with intelligence, we know that less civilians are being killed there. We know that. We know that us being there has affected their conduct.”
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has made this argument to justify U.S. support for the war. But in 2017, civilian deaths in Iraq from U.S.-backed air and artillery strikes escalated by more than 200 percent (3,923 to 6,102 civilians were killed). Coalition forces backed by the U.S. were responsible for more civilian deaths in Syria than Russia.
The effort to block debate and kill a resolution on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen occurred on the same day that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with President Donald Trump at the White House. He also met with with Corker and other senators from the Foreign Relations Committee.
It was all part of his trip through the United States that will include inking billions of dollars worth of arms deals with U.S. military contractors, like Boeing.
Ahead of the Crown Prince’s visit, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer welcomed his younger brother, Khalid bin Salman to rationalize the Saudi Arabian kingdom’s attacks on Yemen and spin the coalition’s Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operation to provide “unprecedented relief to the people of Yemen.”
While blaming the Houthis for the humanitarian catastrophe, Khalid suggested this operation will alleviate suffering. Yet, as Dan Glazebrook pointed out for Middle East Eye, the operation further entrenches “starvation politics” that have exacted such a toll on civilians.
“The plan will not, in fact, increase the imports on which Yemen is utterly dependent, but reduce them still further,” Glazebrook wrote. “This is because the much-vaunted ‘improvements in port capacity’ [applies] solely to ‘coalition-controlled ports,’ excluding the ports outside their control—Hodeidah and Saleef—which, between them, handle about 80 percent of Yemen’s imports.”
“For these absolutely critical ports, the plan explicitly states that it wants a reduction in the flow of cargo they handle: by around 200 metric tons per month, compared to mid-2017 levels. Yes, you heard correctly: cargo levels in mid-2017—when 130 children were dying each day from malnutrition and other preventable diseases largely caused by the limits on imports already in place—are now deemed in need of further major reductions,” Glazebrook added.
Blitzer never pushed back on the Crown Prince’s younger brother, as he appeared in his first U.S. television interview.
The House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution by a vote of 366-30 last November that declared U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen was not authorized under the 2001 Authorized Use of Military Force passed after 9/11.
In February, the acting general counsel for the Pentagon, William S. Castle, sent lawmakers a letter claiming U.S. support did not constitute “hostilities” since American forces are not on the ground exchanging fire with Houthi rebels. It additionally claimed Trump had the power to make war regardless of whether Congress sought to end U.S. military involvement or not.
As Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported for the Huffington Post, Republican Senator Todd Young did an about-face and became a leader in the effort to undercut the effort to withdraw U.S. military support. He joined with Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen to push a weak bipartisan bill that would require the secretary of state to certify that the “Saudis are investing in diplomacy to end the Yemen conflict” and plan to increase humanitarian aid.
The Senate’s decision to not accept constitutional responsibility and debate whether to withdraw U.S. military support came on the fifteen-year anniversary of the Iraq War.
Earlier in the day, Sanders, Lee, and Senator Chris Murphy went to the floor to plead with senators to vote against tabling the resolution.
Sanders described in detail the consequences of Congress abdicating its responsibility to decide whether to invade Iraq or not:
…That war created a cascade of instability around the region that we are still dealing with today in Syria and elsewhere and will be for years to come. Indeed, had it not been for the war in Iraq, ISIS would certainly not exist. That war deepened hostilities between Sunni and Shi’a communities in Iraq and elsewhere. It exacerbated a regional conflict for power between Saudi Arabia and Iran and their proxies in places like Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and it undermined American diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The devastation experienced by Iraqi civilians was enormous. A recent academic study by U.S., Canadian, and Iraqi researchers found that over 400,000 Iraqi civilians, nearly half a million people, were killed directly or indirectly as a consequence of that war. That war led to the displacement of nearly five million people both inside and outside Iraq, putting great stress on the ability of surrounding countries to deal with these refugee flows. We’ve also seen this more recently in Europe as the largest numbers of people fleeing the Syrian war has generated a backlash in European countries, giving rise to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments.
The war in Iraq led to the deaths of some 4,400 American troops and the wounding, physical and emotional, of tens of thousands of others—not to mention the pain inflicted on family members. And, by the way, that war in Iraq cost us trillions of dollars, money that could have been spent on health care, education, infrastructure, and environmental protection.
The Iraq War, like so many other military conflicts, had unintended consequences. It ended up making us less safe, not more safe. It must be said that the Bush administration and the president lied when he told the American people “Saddam Hussein’s regime is seeking a nuclear bomb and with fissile material could build one within a year.” That was not true. Vice President Dick Cheney lied when he told us, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our allies and against us.” Dick Cheney, not true.
No one disagrees that Saddam Hussein was a murderous brutal dictator, but it is now known that he had nothing to do with 9/11. But the Bush administration lied to the American people. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. It was not connected to 9/11. The American people were misled by the Bush administration into believing that the Iraq war was necessary to prevent another 9/11, and Congress did not challenge them on those claims in a way that Congress should have, with disastrous consequences.
Sanders highlighted how President Lyndon B. Johnson lied to convince the U.S. public to support the Vietnam War. There again, Congress did not exercise its authority over matters of war.
“All of the evidence suggests that the continuation of this civil war inside Yemen is making AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula], the arm of al-Qaida that has the clearest intentions to attack the homeland, and ISIS both more powerful,” Murphy declared. “AQAP controls much more territory inside Yemen than they did at the beginning of this civil war. And if you take the time to meet with Yemeni Americans, they will tell you that inside Yemen this bombing campaign is not perceived as a Saudi bombing campaign. It is perceived as a United States-Saudi bombing campaign. What we are doing is radicalizing the Yemeni people against the United States.”
Murphy also highlighted “new information” that partners in the Saudi-led coalition, “though not directly working with al-Qaida, are starting to arm some very unsavory Salafist militias inside Yemen that are filled with the type of people, the type of extremists” that could take the training and weapons received and turn them against the United States.
The Trump administration, Murphy noted, informed senators they did not have the authority to weigh in on military operations unless there are “two armies firing at each other on the ground in the area of conflict.” As he acknowledged, this was the definition of “hostilities” promoted by President Barack Obama’s administration to discourage Congress from challenging U.S. wars in the Middle East and northern Africa.
“The problem with that is that it would allow for the United States, through executive decision only, to wage an air campaign against a country that wipes it out without any say from the United States Congress,” Murphy argued. “Clearly, what is happening in Yemen today meets the definition of hostilities. We have shown pictures on this floor before of entire cities that have been wiped out.”
Lee said, “This war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, human beings lest we forget. Each one of them possessing innate immeasurable worth and dignity. This war has created refugees, orphans, and widows. It has cost of millions of dollars, and believe it or not, at the end of the day it has quite arguably undermined our effort against terrorist threats, such as ISIS.”
He called it an “unauthorized” and “illegal war,” and he said the Houthis do not threaten the United States. It also is unclear to what extent the rebel group is tied to Iran.
“The truth about Yemen is that U.S. forces have been actively engaged in support of the Saudi coalition in this war, providing intelligence and aerial re-fueling of planes, whose bombs have killed thousands of people and made this humanitarian crisis far worse,” Sanders concluded.
By aiding Saudi Arabia, Sanders continued, the U.S. is assisting in war. The U.S. is in a conflict.
“It is time for the Congress to accept its constitutional responsibility,” Sanders said before the resolution was killed. “I don’t know how well we’ll do. Maybe we’ll screw it up as well. Very possible. But that’s what the founding fathers suggested, and I think that they were right. We are closer to the people, the House and the Senate, [than] the White House.”
But the Senate, as it has for three years, decided to continue to defer to the Pentagon and President Donald Trump on the issue of whether U.S. troops remain involved in the war in Yemen.