If Congress is Yemen’s Only Hope, Yemen is Doomed

Photograph Source: Franco Pecchio – CC BY 2.0

You may have noticed a growing number of articles on progressive websites with titles like: “Congress Needs to Force Biden to End the Yemen War” (Common Dreams); “The President Has Not Ended the War on Yemen; Congress Must Do So” (Counterpunch); and “If Biden Can’t Stand Up to Saudi Arabia, Then Congress Should, and Now” (Quincy Center for Responsible Statecraft).

The writers of these articles are a lot more optimistic than I am.  Should Congress end US support for the Saudi Arabia-led war on Yemen?  Yes.  Absolutely.  Will Congress do so?  I have doubts.

Peace activists have turned to Congress out of frustration with President Joe Biden.  Biden has only partially fulfilled his February 4 pledge to end all US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s “offensive operations” (a slippery phrase which gives the administration room to argue that any operation it supports is defensive).  A few projected arms sales to the coalition have been canceled.  Others, including a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, are being allowed by the Biden Administration to go forward.  The Biden Administration continues to allow US companies to maintain and service coalition warplanes.  Without US assistance, the coalition would not be able to keep its planes in the air.  The coalition would be forced to end its massively destructive bombing campaign against Yemen.

Antiwar activists want Congress to force Biden’s hand by invoking the War Powers Resolution (WPR).  US participation in the war in Yemen is unconstitutional because it has not been authorized by Congress.  Passing a War Powers Resolution will compel the Biden Administration to end US support to the Saudi-led coalition.[1]  This would be the second WPR on Yemen.  Congress passed an earlier WPR on Yemen in 2019.  President Trump vetoed the resolution, and Congress was unable to muster sufficient votes to override Trump’s veto.  Can a WPR on Yemen pass a second time?  Would Biden veto it?

Getting to 67

In These Times quotes Dr. Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-American academic and activist, who says that ”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.”

I respect Professor Al-Adeimi, but I cannot agree with this.  Biden strongly condemned the Saudi-led war on Yemen during his run for the White House.  Biden’s statements kindled hopes that Biden would end US support for the Saudi coalition by executive order on his first day in office.  He didn’t.  Instead, Biden has chosen the politically safe path of attempting to negotiate a ceasefire.  Biden will veto a War Powers Resolution on Yemen because to do otherwise would be an admission that his Yemen policy has failed.

Are there enough votes in Congress to override a hypothetical Biden veto?  It takes 67 votes in the Senate to override a presidential veto.[2]  Currently, the Senate is evenly split between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.[3]  If all 50 Senate Democrats vote to override Biden’s veto, they will need to be joined by 17 Republican senators.  Are there 17 Republican senators who will vote to end US support for the Saudi coalition?

I think we can count on a few Republicans doing the right thing.  In 2019, 7 Republican senators joined all Democratic senators (47 at the time) in voting to override President Trump’s veto of the 2019 War Powers Resolution on Yemen.[4]  Assuming those seven can be counted on again, we will need an additional ten Republican senators in order to override a hypothetical veto.

That’s a tall order.  In May, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) circulated a letter which implores President Biden to exert pressure on Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade of Yemen.  Senator Warren found only 15 senators willing to sign.  None of them were Republicans.  Several earlier letters to the president from activists and celebrities also had no Republican signers.

Embracing War

Legislators who are determined to vote against a new WPR have a handy excuse: Iran.  Hawks have convinced themselves that the coalition must win or the Iran-backed Houthi rebels will turn Yemen into an Iranian satellite.  Maybe.  But just how does blowing up 40 school children with a bomb supplied by US defense contractor Lockheed Martin, as the coalition did on August 9, 2018, harm Iran?  You may wonder the same thing about the Saudi coalition’s deliberate strategy of creating a famine in Yemen through its blockade of ships carrying food, fuel, and medicine and wanton bombing of water treatment and food production facilities.  These are war crimes.  By aiding the coalition, the US shares the coalition’s guilt.

The fall of Afghanistan this week provides hawks in Congress with a fresh argument against ending US support to the Saudis: “We can’t cut and run from Yemen the way we did from Afghanistan.”  It’s a silly argument, but it will play well on Fox News.

I hope that I am wrong and that a new WPR will be enacted and not vetoed.  Yemen is full of good people who are suffering needlessly.  The US should stop facilitating Yemen’s destruction.


[1]  At least, in theory.  President Nixon simply ignored the original WPR when it was passed in 1973.  No president since has accepted the constitutionality of the WPR.  The Trump Administration tested the limits of sophistry when it argued that the WPR was inapplicable.  Since the statutory wording of the WPR only applies to “hostilities,” the fact that the US had no ground troops in Yemen meant that the US was not engaged in “hostilities” there.

[2]  I am confining this discussion to the Senate for simplicity’s sake.  The votes of two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives would also be needed to override a veto of the WPR.

[3]  Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Angus King of Maine are Independents who caucus with Democrats.

[4]  The seven Republican senators who voted to override Trump’s veto were Mike Lee (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), Rand Paul (Kentucky), Todd Young (Indiana), Steve Daines (Montana), Jerry Moran (Kansas), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).  Politico notes that these were the same Senate Republicans who voted for the WPR on March 13, 2019.

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