We need Congressional debate on Yemen

By Daniel DePetris

On September 6, 2016, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators—Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), and Al Franken (D- MN)—did something unprecedented in Washington: They challenged the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and convinced more than a quarter of the U.S. Senate to stand with them.

At issue was a $1.5-billion-arms sale that, if approved, would deliver a variety of weapons and ammunition to the Saudi military, including 153 Abrams battle tanks, 153 M2 .50 caliber machine guns, and 4,256 rounds of training ammunition. The arms package was explained by the Obama administration as a routine arms sale between two allies. Sen. Rand Paul and 26 of his colleagues simply didn’t buy that argument. To them, the sale amounted to a blank check for Riyadh to continue prosecuting its war in Yemen with an iron-fist, regardless of the humanitarian ramifications on one of the poorest countries in the Arab world.

Although that sale was eventually approved by the Senate, the bipartisan joint resolution of disapproval forced the chamber to debate America’s involvement in the Yemeni civil war for the first time since the conflict began in March 2015.

According to reports, the Trump administration is prepared to approve another arms sale of smart bombs to the Saudi-led coalition. Unlike the battle tanks last fall that one could plausibly argue were for self-defensive purposes, the $350 million package of 16,000 GPS-guided munitions serve only one purpose: maintaining Saudi Arabia's air campaign over its southern neighbor.

The sale under consideration, in other words, has nothing to do with defending Saudi Arabia’s interior from Houthi rebel attacks or monitoring the long Saudi-Yemeni border. It has everything to do with continuing a war that has killed more than 10,000 people, ravaged whatever civilian infrastructure and economic capacity Yemen had left, and introduced hunger to more than 80 percent of the country’s civilian population.

Sens. Paul, Lee, Murphy, and Franken should do exactly what they did six months ago: force another debate and vote on the Senate floor.

The delivery of more munitions to the Saudi military coalition doesn’t benefit the national security of the United States, and it’s a bad idea for a few other reasons.

First, we need to understand why the United States is involved in the Yemen conflict to begin with. The Obama administration decided to assist the Saudi-led military coalition not because defeating the Houthis was critical for U.S. national security interests, but because it was a relatively easy way to assure Riyadh that Washington wasn’t inching closer to Tehran.

It’s no secret that the Saudis were upset after the Obama administration concluded nuclear negotiations with the Iranians: a de-facto recognition that Tehran would get to keep an Iranian-owned and operated uranium enrichment capability on its soil. Offering some kind of olive branch to the Saudis in Yemen was therefore a purely political move and a way to demonstrate—the Iran deal notwithstanding—the U.S.-Saudi relationship was still rock solid.

Second, it’s important to recognize what the delivery of more munitions to the Saudis would mean for civilians on the ground—an intensification of the conflict. A situation that the U.N’s coordinator for human rights has already labeled as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world” would deteriorate to nearly apocalyptic levels. The numbers are staggering (nearly 19 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance; 3 million internally displaced; and nearly 500,000 children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition). Conditions would get even worse if the war continued.

Third, the legality of the war is at best questionable and at worst illegal under U.S. law. Under Article II, Section 8 of the Constitution, war-making powers reside in the hands of the legislative branch. The War Powers Act provides the president with some leeway, but any U.S. military action the president orders must be terminated after 60 days (or after 90 days if deemed necessary by the president) unless Congress formally authorizes it.

Yemen simply doesn’t fit into that category. We are far past the 90-day deadline, and yet America’s participation in the conflict continues. This is simply not the way our constitutional system was designed to work. An attempt to block a sale of bombs to the Saudis would at least grant the American people a few hours of debate on whether U.S. involvement in the conflict is even appropriate.

Perhaps most important, a discussion on the Senate floor would finally force the executive branch to provide the American people, through their elected members of Congress, a comprehensive justification as to why the United States is a participant in Yemen's civil war in the first place.

Saudi Arabia may be a U.S. ally in the region and a close intelligence partner, but that doesn’t mean Washington is compelled to reflexively involve itself in for a distant power struggle, especially one that is far beyond the capacity of our country’s foreign policy establishment to understand.

America’s core national security interests in the Middle East—ensuring the free flow of crude oil in the global marketplace; defending the U.S. homeland from terrorist attacks; and maintaining key diplomatic relationships—won’t hinge on whether the Houthis continue to hold Sana'a.

Instead of pouring more gasoline on the fire by approving more arms sales, the United States should devote a greater amount of attention and diplomatic resources to assisting the U.N. in bringing the conflict to a peaceful end.

Congress has an opportunity to re-assert its proper role in government, particularly regarding foreign policy. Americans and our Armed Forces deserve, at the very least, a real debate on a war that Washington has supported for the last two years. Not only would that debate break the auto-pilot that so often guides the nation’s foreign policy—it would also afford Congress an avenue to take back some of the war powers it has wittingly handed over to the executive branch.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on March 28, 2017. Read more HERE