The development economist Amartya Sen famously asserted that famines do not occur in democracies. “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” he wrote, because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”
Saudi Arabia’s war and blockade in Yemen, which have pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and ignited the worst cholera outbreak in the world, pose a new test for Sen’s assertion. Of course Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, but rather an absolute monarchy, and Yemen lacks a functioning democratic government capable of protecting its population from Saudi Arabia’s war and blockade. But the United States is a democracy, and it is beyond reasonable dispute that Saudi Arabia’s war and blockade in Yemen would not be possible without US approval.
On June 13, the US Senate took a “proxy vote” on US participation in the Saudi war and blockade in Yemen, when it narrowly failed (47-53) to support the Paul-Murphy-Franken of disapproval against part of Trump’s Saudi arms deal. Two days later, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a statement calling for immediate cease-fire to save Yemen from cholera and famine. Yet the Saudi war continues, with US approval. Two days after the Security Council vote, at least 25 civilians were killed by a Saudi airstrike on a Yemeni market.
The US House of Representatives — historically more responsive to war-skeptic forces than the more reflexively pro-empire Senate — has not voted on any aspect of US participation in Saudi Arabia’s war and blockade since June 2016, when it narrowly failed (204-216) to approve the Rep. John Conyers amendment barring the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. Since that time, the Senate has voted twice. A House vote on US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is long overdue.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is expected to be considered by the House on July 11. Depending on the actions in the House Rules Committee, amendments may be allowed to the NDAA or the Department of Defense Appropriation which would be a proxy votes on US participation in the Saudi war and blockade. Last year, the Representative Conyers’ cluster bomb amendment was originally offered on NDAA but not allowed by Rules, then offered on Department of Defense Appropriations and allowed.
If the House Rules Committee does not allow such amendments — or even if they do — House members can force a vote on US participation on Saudi Arabia’s war by invoking congressional war powers, since US participation has never been authorized by Congress. The last time such a vote happened in the House was during the unauthorized 2011 bombing of Libya. If July 28 is the last day before the House leaves for the August recess, then such a resolution should be introduced by July 17 at the latest in order to allow a vote to be forced before the House leaves town.
There is no guarantee that a House vote will end the war. If we win a House vote, it’s possible, though not likely, that Trump would just ignore it. It’s not likely that Trump would just ignore a House vote, particularly a vote invoking war powers, since even the existing level of pressure was sufficient to induce the Trump administration to vote for the UN cease-fire statement, although cease-fire is the opposite of the US policy actually being implemented. Ignoring such a House vote would have a real political cost. It’s possible that the Trump administration is so attached to the Saudi war in Yemen that they are willing to sustain that cost. That’s unknowable for us until we try. Our job is to keep increasing the political cost of the status quo until there is a cease-fire.
And, of course, it is quite possible that we will lose such a vote. On June 13 we narrowly lost a Senate vote. Last June we narrowly lost the House cluster bomb vote. There’s no question that winning would be much, much better than losing. But in this case, losing would be much, much better than not fighting. Each fight increases pressure compared to no action, which is the relevant alternative. We know what the status quo path is: endless war, cholera and famine in Yemen. We have nothing to lose by forcing a floor vote, and a Yemen cease-fire to win.
You can urge your representative to demand a House vote on US participation in the Saudi war and blockade of Yemen here.
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