By Hassan El-Tayyab, Policy and Organizing Director at Chicago Area Peace Action
On April 16, President Trump vetoed one of the most historically significant pieces of legislation to emerge from Congress during his presidency: S.J.Res.7, the Yemen War Powers Resolution. This bill would end U.S. military involvement in the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) disastrous war on Yemen. A veto override vote in the Senate a few weeks later passed with a simple majority of 53-45, but did not achieve the 67 vote supermajority needed to overturn the veto. Though the effort failed, we learned something important in the process: We now know in unequivocal terms that a bipartisan majority in Congress wants to end the U.S. military role in a war that has already claimed the lives of 85,000 children under the age of five due to hunger and disease.
Congress has another chance to end the war this summer during consideration of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and Defense Appropriations bills. These annual military spending bills offer Congress one of the quickest and most straightforward ways to defund the war and condemn this military campaign.
Through the NDAA and Defense Appropriations, Congress can prohibit intelligence sharing and logistics support activities for the war in Yemen; suspend direct commercial sales licenses for the maintenance and sustainment of fighter aircraft used in Saudi-UAE offensive operations in Yemen; and even stop domestic training of Saudi and UAE fighter jet mechanics. Importantly, they could suspend the transfer and sale of weapons ― something many experts believe could be the best chance for creating the leverage needed for lasting peace in Yemen.
Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy lead stated, “The people of Yemen and the parties to the conflict are watching closely and the messages US leaders send have the power to save lives… Congress must act to keep up the pressure, and not let President Trump’s cynical, transactional and heartless brand of politics define America’s role in the world. Now Congress must act to end arms sales to all parties fighting in this brutal conflict.”
Consideration of our national defense budget comes at a critical time for Yemen. In its fifth year, the war has helped create the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with roughly 14 million people at risk of famine. Aid agencies have described Yemen as the worst place in the world to be a child; a child under the age of five dies every 12 minutes as a result of the conflict. More than one million people in Yemen have been infected with cholera, with an alarming 10,000 new cases each week. Why is this? The Saudi-UAE coalition has imposed a de facto blockade on Yemen, impeding the flow of food, fuel and medicine, pushing the prices of essential goods out of reach for millions. An estimated 230,000 people will die as a result of the war if conditions don’t change by the end of 2019.
There is precedent for Congress successfully using the NDAA and Defense Appropriations bills to defund and end wars. During the Vietnam War, members of Congress expressed their dissent through several defunding bills, including the 1971 Congress Cooper-Church Amendment, which prohibited the use of funds to send troops into Cambodia and the 1973 Case-Church Amendment on a State Department appropriations bill, which prevented funds from being used in Southeast Asia.
Last year, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) introduced an amendment to the 2019 Defense Appropriations bill that would have cut off military aid for the Saudi-UAE coalition. Unfortunately, it never came up for a vote, but a majority may support a similar effort this time around after several successful bipartisan votes in 2018 and 2019 on Yemen war powers resolutions that would have achieved similar policy objectives.
The Trump administration recently announced plans to use emergency powers embedded in the Arms Export Control Act to push through an $8.1 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia without congressional authorization. This move suggests Trump fears a lack of votes necessary to approve these transfers.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would “pursue all appropriate legislative and other means to nullify these and any planned ongoing sales should the administration move forward in this manner.”
Yemen-born activist and In These Times contributor Shireen Al-Adeimi commented, “Trump has shown a complete disregard for the Constitution by vetoing Congress’ bill to end the war and now attempting to bypass Congress for additional weapons sales. He has continued to prioritize profit over human lives and US laws, and Congress has the responsibility and the legal authority to take control.”
Despite what Trump thinks, Congress has the power to end U.S. participation in the Yemen war in the coming weeks. Through consideration of NDAA and Defense Appropriations, and even legal action, Congress can end our complicity in war crimes and send a clear signal to the executive branch that unconstitutional U.S. participation in the Saudi-UAE coalition’s military campaign in Yemen must end. The question is, will they?