By Daniel DePetris
The ongoing civil war in Yemen was instigated by the region’s major powers, with Iran on one side and Gulf States on the other, all of whom are throwing ammunition, firepower, and small arms into the conflict. And the United States—without congressional authorization and for reasons unconnected from our national security—has gone along for the ride, providing indirect military assistance of its own.
The conflict in Yemen is the world’s most dire humanitarian tragedy, a man-made disaster that U.N. organizations have likened to “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.” When the war has subjected 17 million Yemenis (60 percent of the entire population) into an insecure food situation and has contributed to a cholera epidemic infecting 700,000 people, there really is no other word than “tragedy” that would be appropriate.
There are plenty of humanitarian catastrophes around the world today, but the war in Yemen is unique because the United States is not a bystander or neutral arbiter in this conflict: The Obama and Trump administrations have made us participants.
What is just as controversial is that Washington's military involvement in support of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has happened and continues to happen without congressional consent or a peep from the congressional leadership of both parties. This would be distressing on any national security topic, but it is even more so in this case, where U.S. involvement in a sectarian proxy conflict has negatively impacted our counterterrorism campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Ever since the Saudi coalition began bombing Houthi rebels in support of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, the U.S. Air Force has served a critical enabling role for Riyadh. Intelligence on Houthi targets are passed to the pan-Arab coalition and American planners have assisted the Saudis with targeting by offering a list of civilian facilities (schools, hospitals, and bridges) that should be off-limits to airstrikes. Washington has also protected Riyadh from censure at the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Security Council, watering down resolutions and preventing international inquiries that would cause the Saudis a significant amount of bad media coverage pain and perhaps even legal exposure to war crimes.
But there is no assistance more valuable to the Saudis than the U.S. Air Force’s mid-air refueling capability. Throughout the war, Saudi and Emirati pilots have been allowed to use American tanker aircraft to fill up their jets when they run low of gas, an enabler that permits the Saudi alliance to maintain its pace of operations without going back to base. According to Pentagon statistics, the U.S. Air Force has refueled Saudi aircraft more than 9,000 times since the war began in March 2015. While American pilots don’t have to traverse Yemeni airspace to reach coalition planes, the U.S. military is still an integral protagonist in the civil conflict by supporting one side over the other. Indeed, without U.S. refueling capabilities, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia would be able to keep their planes in the sky at the current rate. A war that regional analysts already call a quagmire would be in even worse shape for the Saudis
Why is this important? It’s actually simple and straightforward: By militarily supporting a combatant in a war, the Trump administration—and the Obama administration before it—engaged the United States in a war-time action even though we’re not directly pulling the triggers.
The U.S. Congress, however, has never authorized the administration’s involvement in the war.
Either out of cowardice, political concerns, general disinterest in the Yemen conflict, or unjustified allegiance to Saudi Arabia, lawmakers have not debated—let alone voted—on whether the U.S. national security interests are served by picking winners and losers in a proxy contest between rival Mideast factions.
Members like Sens. Rand Paul and Chris Murphy and Reps. Ted Lieu, Walter Jones, and many of their colleagues have tried to raise awareness on this issue, but Congress as an institution has averted its gaze in favor of other priorities. American participation in hostilities overseas is left to the president to decide, as if Congress has no responsibility at all in scrutinizing U.S. foreign policy or voting before the American bombs are dropped on the soil of another country.
But there is no higher priority for the legislative branch than debating openly and honestly when deploying its servicemen and women into armed hostilities is appropriate and in America’s vital interest. The founders understood what a solemn obligation this was and placed the authority to declare war or to authorize the use of military force in the hands of the men and women whom the American people elect to represent them in Washington. The U.S. has been involved in Yemen’s war from the start, yet the American people haven’t had a national debate about what the U.S. objective is, what military support is necessary, whether it’s necessary, whether diplomatic conditions should be attached to military support, or how aiding Riyadh’s bombing campaign could negatively affect counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda.
Four members of Congress, Reps. Ro Khanna, Mark Pocan, Thomas Massie, and Walter Jones, are trying to fill the void of congressional leadership that is being left behind, leading a resolution under the War Powers Resolution (WPR) that would force the full House of Representatives to finally, at long last, discuss the issue. The WPR gives privileged status to a concurrent resolution directing the removal of U.S. forces from hostilities, so a vote on the resolution can brought up whether or not House leadership wants it to.
Regardless of one’s views toward U.S. policy in Yemen or the specific resolution, supporters and opponents of America’s role in the war should make their case to the American people so they can make up their own minds. Lawmakers have the power, but that power meaningless if they refuse to use it.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by the Los Angeles Times on October 0, 2017. Read more HERE.