The National Defense Authorization Act Perpetuates the Destruction of Yemen

Photograph Source: Felton Davis – CC BY 2.0

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), released on December 9, signals that the US will continue to render assistance to the coalition led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which has killed 100,000 Yemenis, including 12,000 civilians.

The bill gives the Pentagon $738 billion. The best reaction came from The Intercept: “Congress to Vote on $22 Billion Defense Increase One Week after Trump Slashed Food Stamps.”

Progressives attached a series of amendments to the House version of the NDAA aimed at ending the Saudi-led war on its neighbor Yemen. The amendments prohibit US intelligence sharing, target spotting, and the transfer of spare parts for coalition warplanes. The final version of the NDAA released Monday omits the amendments.

Since September, the NDAA has been in the hands of a conference committee of Democrats and Republicans from both chambers. The conference committee has struggled to reconcile the very different versions of the NDAA passed by the Senate in June and the House in July. Negotiating a final version of the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2020 has taken an agonizingly long time. (By contrast, the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2019 was signed into law by President Donald Trump on August 13, 2018.) With Congress set to adjourn on December 13 there have been fears that for the first time in 58 years this would be The Year Without an NDAA (which would make a lousy name for a Rankin-Bass holiday special).

The principal stumbling block impeding finalization of the NDAA has been—of course—funding for President Trump’s border wall. The president has previously rerouted funds to the wall that Congress had intended for defense. The final NDAA allows the president to continue his wall-funding shell game up to $4 billion, a cap Democrats had wanted $3 billion lower.

Making Sure the Slaughter Continues

Signs that the Yemen amendments were in trouble surfaced last week. On December 5, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Smith is a sponsor of the Khanna-Smith-Schiff-Jayapal amendment (amendment 26) to the House version of the NDAA. Amendment 26 would have blocked the US from sharing intelligence, providing logistical assistance, or transferring spare parts to the Saudi-led coalition—all forms of aid the US has provided the coalition. In his remarks at AEI, Smith, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, appeared to back away from his own amendment. Smith said, inter alia, that “there’s nothing we’re going to pass in Congress that’s going to stop the war in Yemen” (AEI transcript. Page 15).

This must have surprised Smith’s co-sponsors. The theory behind the Yemen amendments was that absent US assistance the Saudis would be unable to continue the war. Co-sponsor Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) has said that: “In effect, these amendments would ground the Saudi force to a halt. They would not be able to bomb Yemen.”[1]

The same idea motivated the bipartisan group of progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans who pushed through Senate Joint Resolution 7 earlier this year. S.J. 7 invoked the 1973 War Powers Resolution and would have forced President Trump to either end US involvement in Yemen (thus bringing the war to a halt) or obtain Congress’ approval. Neither President Trump, nor President Obama who took the US into Yemen in 2015, sought Congressional authorization for US military activity in Yemen. This violates the Constitution which grants Congress alone the power to take the nation into war (a prerogative, admittedly, honored more in the breach than the observance).

Trump vetoed S.J. 7 on April 16, 2019. Congress was unable to muster sufficient votes to override Trump’s veto. The US role in Yemen remains unauthorized, unconstitutional and illegal.

Congress Can Still Do the Right Thing

On Monday, Representative Khanna and Senator Bernie Sanders called the finalized NDAA “a bill of astonishing moral cowardice.” The two lawmakers condemned the NDAA for failing to “stop our endless wars,” “rein in out-of-control military spending,” and “end the obscenity of innocent children in Yemen being killed by U.S. bombs.” They called on “every member of Congress” to vote against the NDAA. But will Democrats go to the mattresses over Yemen?

Perhaps the Democrats will go to the mattresses over the other portions of the House bill which were gutted in conference. The stripped provisions include a prohibition on attacking Iran without Congressional approval, and revocation of the nearly two-decades-old Authorizations for Military Force passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002 which administrations from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump have stretched to the breaking point. The proposed amendments elicited disingenuous yelps from conservatives that Democrats were “politicizing” the NDAA, as if war had not always been political.

If it were not for US arms sales to the Saudis, President Trump would have no interest in assisting the Saudi-led coalition. The US has no vital national interests at stake in Yemen. The US wouldn’t be involved if President Obama hadn’t wanted to throw a bone to the Saudis and other Gulf countries which had opposed his nuclear deal with Iran. After the fatal shooting of three people at an air station in Pensacola, Florida on December 6, Congress may finally conclude that the Saudis don’t deserve any favors. A final vote on the NDAA is expected this week. We will find out then.


1) Other House amendments struck from the final NDAA imposed a one-year moratorium on the transfer of air-to-ground munitions to the Saudi-led coalition (amendment 438) and blocked funding to the coalition (Amendment 23 ). Amendment 24 would have barred the President from using emergency powers as he did in May in order to transfer arms to the Saudi-led coalition over Congress’ express opposition. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have opposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the Saudis’ murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khasshogi in October 2018.


Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at