Lawmakers in both parties had plenty of reasons to advance a Senate resolution this week that would end the United States’ participation in Yemen’s bloody civil war. Death is rapidly spreading across Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition fighting against Houthi rebels is blocking the flow of food and aid, leaving up to 14 million people on the brink of the world’s worst famine in over a century. Bombs made in the US have been found alongside dead civilians.
Then there is President Trump, who appears all too eager to defend the Saudi royal family, even after his own intelligence agents concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman was likely behind the brutal killing and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who introduced the resolution back in February, said the legislation is certainly about addressing famine, bloodshed and Trump’s troubling embrace of Saudi monarchs. It’s also about Congress reasserting its constitutional authority over when and where the US makes war overseas. This has major implications for the peace movement, which is calling on Sanders to become a leading voice against US militarism.
The US military supplies the Saudi coalition with military equipment, intelligence and targeting assistance, and only recently agreed to stop refueling the Saudi warplanes bombarding Yemen. Congress never authorized participation in the civil war, even as the Obama administration began leveraging military assistance to the Saudis back in 2015. Speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Sanders made this clear as he urged his colleagues to bring the resolution out of committee.
“It is a vote … that says that the United States Senate respects the Constitution … and understands that the issue of war making, of going to war, putting young men and women’s lives at stake, is something determined by the US Congress, not the president of the United States,” Sanders said.
The Senate voted 63-37 to advance the resolution on Wednesday, just months after tabling the measure with a solid majority that included several Democrats. The resolution invokes the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which compels the president to remove US forces from overseas military operations that are not authorized by Congress. A vote to pass the legislation is expected next week, and the antiwar movement now has a hard-fought victory in its sights.
“It’s enormous. This is the first time in the Senate’s history that they have ever gotten this far in invoking the War Powers Resolution,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, a peace activist and co-director of Just Foreign Policy who lobbied Congress on Yemen, in an interview.
The Constitution places the power to declare war with Congress, not the White House, but Congress has not declared war since World War II. From Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, a succession of presidents led US troops into major foreign wars and a long list of other conflicts, rapidly expanding the size of the military and the power of the Oval Office along the way. Each time, these presidents sidestepped Congress. Today, the US has an estimated 800 military bases outside the 50 states, and US troops have regularly engaged in military operations in a long list of countries across the world.
Congress has struggled to provide authorization and oversight, save for post-9/11 use-of-force authorizations that were broadly interpreted by the Bush and Obama administrations as permission to attack whatever Middle Eastern, South Asian or North African country they wished. Now, 15 years after the invasion of Baghdad, with the US growing increasingly weary of endless war, the peace movement sees a path to victory in Congress, which appears willing to contain the dangerous former reality TV star currently serving as commander-in-chief.
“If we end unauthorized military involvement in one area, then maybe we can end it in another,” El-Tayyab said.
As the Senate advanced the war powers resolution on Wednesday, a coalition of over 100 scholars and activists published an open letter to Sanders, calling on the senator to become a leading voice against US militarism. During his recent presidential campaign, Sanders was repeatedly asked how he would pay for bold social proposals such as universal health care, and he replied by suggesting tax increases. The letter points out that the US military eats up more than half of the discretionary budget, and a majority of Americans support reducing military spending:
A tiny fraction of US military spending could end starvation, the lack of clean water, and various diseases worldwide. No humanitarian policy can avoid the existence of the military. No discussion of free college or clean energy or public transit should omit mention of the place where a trillion dollars a year is going.
Matthew Hoh, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy who resigned from his US State Department post in Afghanistan in 2009 in protest of President Obama’s troop surge, said that if Sanders does not emerge as a leader on ending US militarism, then another rising progressive star could harness popular opinion around the issue.
“We are willing to spend the money to kill, but we have an aversion to spending the money to care, and I don’t think most Americans feel that way,” Hoh said in an interview.
Hoh pointed to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other incoming Democrats who will begin serving in the House next year, some of whom have openly questioned the current state of US foreign policy. Militarism is heavily woven into the fabric of the government and how the US treats other countries, so bold, new leadership is needed to make dramatic foreign policy shifts.
“The [war powers] resolution is very important, but what you need now, though, is for this resolution to factor into the  presidential campaign,” Hoh said.
El-Tayyab said change is coming from the grassroots. Antiwar protesters recently rallied for the Yemen war powers resolution outside the offices of prominent Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who co-sponsored the House version of the legislation within hours of the demonstration. Pelosi is one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington and the favorite to be the next House speaker, and she is known for backing legislation she expects to pass. Her support for ending US involvement in Yemen is a clear sign that House Democrats are preparing to use their majority to challenge Trump on foreign policy — especially if their progressive base keeps the pressure on.
“I think the grassroots has been hammering on [Yemen] for two or three years now, if you keep hammering on something long enough, it becomes a mainstream idea,” El-Tayyab said, adding that Yemeni activists have played a crucial role in pressuring Congress to rebuke Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
However, with a humanitarian situation rapidly deteriorating in Yemen, peace activists say the war powers resolution cannot wait until the next congressional session starts in January, and there is a path to victory in the House now that a resolution is advancing in the Senate. If Congress successfully challenges Trump on Yemen, it would be more than a political rebuke. It would be a historic affirmation of congressional power over the military, a small but significant step toward ending the executive branch’s longstanding and unauthorized control over war and peace.