American University Guest Lecture: Monday September 26, 2018
A case against US Military Involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen
Hello everyone. My name is Hassan El-Tayyab and I’m a Policy and Government Affairs Fellow with Just Foreign Policy. We are an independent and non-partisan membership organization dedicated to reforming U.S. foreign policy by mobilizing and organizing the broad majority of Americans who want a foreign policy based on diplomacy, law and cooperation.
I’m in DC on contract for the next two months working with Rep Ro Khanna’s office and the Congressional Progressive Caucus to lobby the Congress on the new War Powers Resolution to End US military involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen.
With US military support, the Saudi-Led Coalition has blockaded the ports of Yemen and stopped the flow of food, fuel, medicine and clean water into the country resulting in what the UN calls the worst man-made humanitarian crisis on the planet right now with 8 million people on the brink of famine and over a million cases of cholera. Some parts of Yemen are already experiencing a famine and millions of children in Yemen don’t know when their next meal is coming.
The UN reported last month that Saudi Arabia is committing war crimes with its bombing attacks targeted at schools, hospitals, and public events killing scores of innocent civilians. Since the start of the conflict Saudi Arabia has hit at least four Doctors Without Borders Hospitals despite being given their location ahead of time by US intelligence officials. Their warplanes sometimes employ a tactic called a double tap. They bomb a target and wait till rescue workers come only to strike again. This practice makes humanitarian aid workers reluctant to help victims in desperately in need of medical attention.
The origins of this gruesome conflict began in 2011 when the people of Yemen flooded into the streets during the Arab spring and overthrew the President Saleh after a 30-year dictatorship. Yemen’s Vice President Hadi became the interim leader but was only supposed to be in power for 2 years as the country prepared for elections and a move to a more representative form of government. The Houthis, an indigenous tribe in Yemen had faced much persecution throughout the years and began protesting for Hadi to leave office. In 2015, the Houthis took over the Capitol of Sana’a and President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia for refuge where he still lives today. After being petitioned by Hadi, King Salman began an all out attack on the people of Yemen in hopes of reinstalling Hadi as Yemen’s leader.
One argument you hear to justify US involvement in this war is the connection between the Houthi rebels and Iran. Despite the rhetoric, there is little evidence that Iran is playing any major role. Before the civil war, Iran tried to get the Houthis NOT to overthrow Sana’a to no avail. Some make accusations that Iranian weapons are flowing into Yemen but there is little evidence to support this. The near complete blockade of Yemen’s ports make getting anything into the country quite difficult. While the Houthis and Iran both practice Shia islam, the Houthis Zadia Shiism is an entirely different religion to the Twelver Shiism practiced in Iran. The most effective support Iran seems to be giving to the Houthis is through the media. Yemen is not a priority for Iran’s foreign policy agenda at the moment. But the longer this conflict continues the more likely Iran will be drawn deeper into the fighting. For more information on this if anyone is interested I suggest you read the article Iran’s Small Hand in Yemen published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
What is clear is that the Houthi’s decision to seize control of the capitol from interim president Hadi was done for local reasons. Hadi’s administration was only supposed to stay in power for two years but he was in office for four and refused to facilitate a peaceful transition. He failed to create a truly inclusive political process and he did little to improve Yemenis’ living conditions. In July 2014 the government announced that subsidies on fuel would be lifted causing fuel prices to increase by roughly 90 percent, resulting in widespread frustration and resentment. This war in Yemen is really a conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi backed Hadi government assisted by the US military.
So why is the US military helping the Saudi government even though it make us complicit in war crimes? The simple answer is oil. Our relationship was famously cemented in 1945 at the Suez Canal with a meeting between FDR and King Abdulaziz. They made a pact that the kingdom would supply oil for the US in exchange for security and military assistance. Administration after administration has followed suit and reiterated their commitment to this alliance despite the toxic nature of this partnership. Saudi Arabia currently possesses around 18 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves and ranks as the largest exporter of fossil fuels. It’s also estimated that they have roughly $750 billion in invested in the US treasury securities and other US assets. Of course there is the hundreds of billions of dollars they Royal family spends on US companies who sell them weapons.
In Nov 2017, a bipartisan coalition including Reps Khanna, Massie, and Jones introduced HConRes81 in the House. If passed the bill would have directed the president to end US Military involvement with the Saudis in regards to Yemen. That would have meant stopping mid air fueling of Saudi warplanes and an end to targeting assistance. Unfortunately, that bill was killed by House leadership and stripped of its privileged status. Rep Khanna’s office and House leadership came up with a compromise bill, in non-binding resolution HR599, which was voted upon and passed almost unanimously. Though it did little to end our support for the war, for the first time Congress acknowledged that we were fueling Saudi warplanes and that it was an unauthorized act of war.
In March 2018, the Senate invoked the War Powers Resolution as well. A bipartisan coalition including Senators Sanders, Lee, and Murphy introduced SJRes54, a bill almost identical in language to HConRes81. This vote sparked unprecedented public mobilization and media attention. While the bill was ultimately defeated, 44 Senators voted to end our involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen making it one of the biggest public rebukes of this war to date.
This summer, the Saudis began an offensive to take over the port of Hodedia creating more civilian casualties and an even greater strain on access to food by Yemeni civilians. On August 7th, a laser guided Lockheed Martin missile fired by a Saudi Arabian war plane hit a school bus and killed 44 Yemeni children on their way home causing wide spread outrage around the globe. Spain, Germany, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden have all passed laws to stop selling weapons to the Saudi government. There has been a growing chorus on the left and right in the US that are demanding action as well.
Earlier today, Representatives Ro Khanna, Massie, Jones, McGovern, and Ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee Representative Adam Smith introduced a new bipartisan War Powers resolution in the House.
In my role working with Khanna’s office and the CPC I’m lobbying House Republics and Democrats to cosponsor this bill and to request that either way members to vote to strip this bill of its privileged status and allow it a floor vote. We’ve got a target list of about 150 offices including the original cosponsors of HConRes 81, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Freedom and Liberty Caucus and beyond. I have been joined at these meetings by Col Larry Wilkerson (Colin Powell’s chief of staff when he was at the State Department), and policy advocates at Freedom Works, Defense Priorities, Codepink, and the Yemen Peace Project.
In such a polarized moment in our country’s history, it’s been refreshing to see the left and right get along even if it’s just on this one issue, in the enforcement of Constitutional War Powers.
Article 1 section 8 of the constitution says Congress has the power to declare war! In defense of this, James Madison, wrote, “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive.”
Hamilton concurred when he wrote in the federalist papers, “The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. In this respect his authority would be nominally the same with that of the king of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it…. RAISING and REGULATING of fleets and armies…. would appertain to the legislature.”
But despite this clear intent by our nation’s founders, America has a long history of executive overreach in regards to war powers. Two famous examples are the Korean War and the Vietnam War, which were both executed without Congressional approval. In 1973, at the height of the Vietnam War, Congress reasserted their war authority and passed the War Powers Act of 1973 overriding a Nixon veto with a 2/3rds majority. The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without a Congressional authorization for use of military force (AUMF) or a declaration of war by the United States.
Section 8(c) of the War Powers Act of 1973, defines the level of military involvement necessary to invoke its restraints as “the assignment of members of such armed forces to command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany the regular or irregular military forces of any foreign country or government when such military forces are engaged, or there exists an imminent threat that such forces will become engaged, in hostilities.” Intelligence sharing, mid-air refueling of Saudi warplanes used to bomb Yemen, and actual targeting assistance in these airstrikes undoubtedly meets these criteria.
We don’t have to go back that far to seethe President deferring to Congressional war authority. In August 2013, 200 members of Congress wrote a letter and said to Obama, no you can’t invade Syria without coming to us first. He went to Congress to authorize the bombing of Syria and they did not agree.
When you have the debate happen in public, the American people can have an honest discussion about the pros and cons of getting involved in conflicts overseas. If we leave the discussion to the national security insiders, what concerns will be dominant? The concerns will be “we have to help our friends,” not what are the consequences to the civilians and religious minorities in Iraq, Syria, or, Yemen or how much will this cost American taxpayers.
In order to create this world we need to create different expectations. That’s why the question of Yemen is so important. There is no case that this war was authorized by Congress. Saudi Arabia’s fight against the Houthis has nothing to do with the 2001 AUMF or with protecting Americans. The AP recently reported that Saudi Arabia is actually working directly with Al Qaeda supplying them with weapons and funding to attack the Houthis. So as the US is fighting Al Qaeda with drones and our special forces our ally Saudi Arabia is actually arming them for battle. This has been a point of major frustration for our military leaders and troops on the ground.
The hope I have for our conversation today is that folks leave this room inspired to become evangelists for Constitutional war powers. We have an opportunity and need for a major culture shift. I propose we move from a world in which unconstitutional wars are illegal but the consequences are equivalent to littering, to a world where the separation of war powers are unquestioned. If we succeed we make war harder to do and as a result I believe we will have less war.
People can help this effort by lobbying their Representatives about end our role in Yemen and getting their community to do the same. Thanks so much for this opportunity to present to all of you today. I look forward to taking your questions.