Congress Tried To Force Trump to End the Yemen War. Now They’ll Have To Do the Same With Biden.
Activists say it’s not enough to trust Biden’s promises to end U.S. support for the war: Congress must compel him.
“Yemen is in a catastrophic state,” says Kawthar Abdullah, an organizer with the Yemeni Alliance Committee. “I have family there. Every day when I call and talk to them, the reality on the ground is far worse than it is ever portrayed.”
Abdullah, who is based in New York, is part of a network of grassroots organizers across the country calling on Congress to force an end to U.S. participation in the Saudi-led war, using the same War Powers Resolution vetoed by former President Trump in 2019. These organizers are asking lawmakers to go head to head with the Biden administration, which announced in February it was halting U.S. support for “offensive operations” but, nearly six months later, has failed to fully extricate itself from the military intervention.
As ongoing Saudi-led airstrikes collide with a worsening Covid-19 crisis, organizers like Abdullah are rallying in the streets and marching to lawmakers’ offices, demanding they use their power to stop all U.S. participation in the violence, as well as the Saudi-led naval blockade that is choking off fuel supplies, spiking food costs, and contributing to power outages at hospitals. Some activists have even gone on hunger strike to demand material relief from what is widely considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“It’s imperative that a War Powers Resolution is introduced and passed under a Biden administration,” says Abdullah. “So many lives are at stake here.”
Organizers are up against an administration that has not been forthcoming about what it’s doing on the ground. The Biden administration’s February announcement was met with much fanfare. But public details on what constituted “offensive operations,” and what exactly an end to the U.S. role would look like, were vague from the outset. The Biden administration has since avoided providing details about what American withdrawal looks like.
There are signs that the United States remains enmeshed in that war. In June, Elias Yousif of the Center for International Policy published a briefing which found that the United States has stopped providing some forms of assistance: mid-air refueling of aircraft, intelligence and surveillance used to identify bomb targets, and arms transfers for fixed-wing aircraft used to carry out bombings. But other forms of assistance continue.
“The U.S. continues to provide maintenance and sustainment assistance to the Royal Saudi Air Forces (RSAF),” notes Yousif, “a function that is essential to keeping Saudi aircraft flying.” Meanwhile, the United States has not put a stop to other arms transfers. “This could include munitions used by attack helicopters, artillery, and armored vehicles,” notes Yousif. The United States is also providing ships and training to the Royal Saudi Naval Forces, which is leading the blockade of Yemen, although the role of the United States in enforcing this blockade is unclear.
On July 16, a coordinated day of action saw protests in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. calling for a new aggressive effort to end the war. Activists hand-delivered letters to members of Congress who are in positions of power, or have historically led on efforts to end the war, among them Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
These activists say that, with Democrats in control of the House, Senate and White House, there is no reason this war should continue a moment longer. “If Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress wanted to end this war, they could do it today,” Paul Shannon, founder of the Raytheon Antiwar Campaign, said in a press statement.
Since Biden made the announcement in February, some members of Congress have spoken out. Later the same month, 41 members of Congress called for transparency on U.S. involvement in the war. In April, 76 members of Congress released a letter calling on the Biden administration to demand an end to the blockade. And in May, 16 members of Congress signed another letter, led by Sen. Warren, calling on the Biden administration to “use all tools to end Saudi Coalition’s blockade of Yemen.”
But activists say they don’t want members of Congress to merely ask: They want them to legislate, like they did under President Trump. During Trump’s tenure, members of Congress led multiple efforts to invoke the 1973 War Powers Act — passed in the aftermath of the Vietnam war — to force an end to the U.S. role in the Yemen war. The Act says that Congress can compel a president to withdraw from a conflict if Congress has not formally declared or authorized the war (which the United States did not in Yemen’s case).
“U.S. involvement in this war was illegal when it began under the Obama administration, illegal when it continued through Trump’s presidency, and illegal now during Biden’s presidency,” Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-American organizer and a board member of advocacy organization Just Foreign Policy, tells In These Times. Democrats should not rely on “Biden’s promises to end this illegal and inhumane war,” she argues. (Disclosure: Al-Adeimi is a contributor to In These Times.)
The leaders of the Trump-era War Powers Resolution — Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Ro Khanna — have so far declined to take similar action under Biden. But there are indicators the leadership could come from elsewhere.
On a July 27 call with the anti-war organization CODEPINK, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) mentioned a possible threat of a Yemen War Powers Resolution in the context of a previous Congressional Progressive Caucus fight to structure the rules at the beginning of the new Congress. “If the administration were not to do what we think is necessary to stop the blockade in Yemen, as an example, we would then be able to bring up a privileged War Powers Resolution for a vote,” said Jayapal, who is the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). The remarks followed a classified briefing earlier on July 27 attended by several members of the CPC and Sen. Warren. Among them was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who took to Twitter to speak out against the Saudi-led blockade.
Activists, some of whom are watching their family and loved ones back in Yemen suffer under harrowing conditions, want lawmakers to take action soon — and aggressively. This means mustering the political will to confront a Democratic administration. Abdullah argues that the suffering of Yemenis should not only be invoked when it’s politically expedient: “We can’t just be tokenized depending on the political weather at the moment.”
Some are eyeing other legislative avenues, including an amendment to the Appropriations Act, introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), that would prohibit U.S. support for the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, and an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, cutting off supplies to the Saudi-led coalition.
Hassan El-Tayyab, lead lobbyist on Middle East policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, told In These Times that any measure to curb U.S. involvement in the Yemen War is a step forward. “Congress needs to step in and take legislative action. They have a number of tools they can use to cut off ongoing U.S. complicity, including in a must-pass NDAA, appropriations bill, and even a new War Powers Resolution,” he said. “They should consider all options when trying to end U.S. complicity.”
Numerous activists told In These Times that, of all the tools lawmakers could wield, a War Powers Resolution would be most impactful by far. “The blockade, which seems to be contingent on continued U.S. support, is the biggest driver of the calamity in Yemen — which was the broadest humanitarian crisis prior to Covid, and which has of course been exacerbated by the pandemic,” David Segal, executive director of the online advocacy organization Demand Progress, tells In These Times.
“War Powers Resolutions remain the most potent tool for forcing the administration to address this,” he adds, “because from a procedural vantage the process of securing a vote floor vote is easier than with other vehicles, and WPRs can’t be filibustered in the Senate.”
Al-Adeimi agrees. “Measures in the NDAA are not sufficient to protect Yemenis from U.S. attacks. If these measures go through, they will likely only last for one year. It’s also arguably unethical to advocate for measures in an inflated war budget that should be drastically cut, not supported. The WPR, on the other hand, can be invoked any time by any member of Congress, brought to debate without delays, and once it’s made into federal law, cannot easily be revoked by subsequent executive powers by this administration and beyond. Given Biden’s public statements about ending U.S. support for the war, he will also not likely veto it should it pass through Congress.”
In the meantime, says Abdullah, “the blockade is affecting every other aspect of life. There is a fuel shortage, no fuel for hospitals, lack of access to water.”
“It is very, very important,” she adds, “for a War Powers Resolution to be introduced and passed under the Biden administration, under a Democratic administration.”
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.