On June 1, Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA7) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR4), along with forty other House members, introduced H.J. Res. 87: a new War Powers Resolution (“WPR”) for Yemen. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has said that he will introduce a companion WPR in the Senate.
Since 2015, the US has aided and abetted the Saudi-led coalition (“SLC”) at war in Yemen with intelligence sharing, logistics, target spotting, arms sales, replacement spare parts for coalition warplanes, and (until November 2018) in-flight refueling for coalition warplanes. Neither Obama, Trump, nor Biden sought congressional approval for the US role in the war. Jayapal and DeFazio wrote in The Nation in February that US involvement in Yemen is in “clear violation of Article I of the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which grants Congress the power to declare war and authorize US military involvement.”
This is the third attempt to enact a War Powers Resolution to end US assistance to the Saudi-led military coalition which has been destroying Yemen for the past seven years. The Senate tabled an earlier WPR in March 2018. Congress passed a WPR for Yemen in 2019, but it was vetoed by President Trump.
My fear is that President Joe Biden will likewise veto the new WPR. The reason: oil. Prices at the fuel pump have soared since March 8 when Biden declared an embargo on Russian crude oil in response to Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. On June 1, the US national average for gasoline hit a new record high of $4.67 per gallon, up from $3.04 one year ago. In California, gas prices have topped $6 per gallon. On June 2, OPEC+ (the 13 OPEC countries plus 10 other oil-producers, including Russia) agreed to a modest increase in production for July and August, but gasoline prices havent budged.
Is He or Isn’t He?
Despite Biden’s attempt to deflect US voters’ outrage onto “Putin’s price hike,” sky-high gas prices could sink Democrats’ already dim chances in the November midterms. So, Biden is off to Riyadh to plead with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, to open the taps further.
Or is he? As recently as June 2, the New York Times reported that, while the trip had not been officially confirmed, Biden was expected to travel to Saudi Arabia later this month. Yet during a press conference on June 3, the president said that he was “not sure” whether he would be visiting the kingdom. Later, NBC News reported that according to “several officials” Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, together with a visit to Israel, would take place in July.
If Biden does go to Saudi Arabia, and if MBS deigns to grant him an audience, Biden will have to eat a healthy helping of crow to atone for the many ways he has ticked off the crown prince. Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump, enjoyed a fine bromance with MBS. Not so Biden. During his 2020 run for the presidency, Biden promised a “reassessment” of US relations with Saudi Arabia which would place human rights at the forefront. Biden denounced Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” during the November 20, 2019 Democratic presidential debate. He vowed to make the Saudis “pay the price” for the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and vowed to sell no more weapons to the kingdom.
In a statement issued on the second anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, October 2, 2020, Biden said:
Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil. America’s commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority, even with our closest security partners.
Democratic values! Human rights! No more oil diplomacy! You could hear the thuds as swooning progressives hit the floor. And, for a while, it seemed like Biden was following through. In February 2021, now settled in the Oval Office, President Biden released a US intelligence report which placed responsibility on MBS for personally ordering Khashoggi’s assassination. Arms sales to the kingdom and its coalition partner the United Arab Emirates were suspended pending review. Biden made it a point to avoid dealing directly with MBS, instead speaking with the crown prince’s ailing father, the 86-year-old King Salman.
On February 4, 2021, in his first major foreign policy speech as president, Biden announced that the US was “ending all support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
Today, Biden’s human-rights focused Saudi Arabian policy is in ruins. The Saudis have not paid the price for Khashoggi’s assassination. The Biden Administration has sanctioned a few Saudi officials, but MBS is not among them. US arms sales to the kingdom continue. In November, Biden announced a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia. According to the New York Times the Biden Administration has been “stepping up cooperation with Saudi Arabia on a variety of issues.”
Despite his February 4, 2021 pledge, Biden has continued to provide Saudi Arabia with the assistance it needs to destroy Yemen. The phrase “offensive operations” gave Biden a loophole large enough to steer an oil tanker through. The Biden Administration has merely reframed its assistance to the coalition as “defensive.” Within a few months of Biden’s speech, it was apparent that the US had reduced some assistance, but was still providing Saudi warplanes with maintenance and spare parts. That may not sound like much, but Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution has said that without spare parts the Royal Saudi Air Force would be “grounded.”
There is one step left to make the reversal of Biden’s initial policy toward Saudi Arabia complete: Biden can veto the Yemen War Powers Resolution should it reach his desk. Maybe then, all Biden’s sins will be forgotten and MBS will come across with cheap oil for US consumers.
Peace in Sight?
On June 2, news came that a UN-brokered truce made in Yemen in April would be extended for another two months. Biden greeted the news with further truckling to the Saudis. In a statement, Biden said that “Saudi Arabia demonstrated courageous leadership by taking initiatives early on to endorse and implement terms of the UN-led truce.” Trita Parsi, founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council, now with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, responded that “Applauding MBS’ ‘courage’ for supporting a ceasefire in a war the Saudi Crown Prince himself started … speaks to Biden’s desperation to lower gas prices, as well as to our need to end this dependency on Saudi Arabia.” Parsi might have added that not only does Biden’s statement exonerate Saudi Arabia, it glosses over how the US has perpetuated the conflict.
Dr. Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute believes that introduction of the War Powers Resolution influenced the warring parties to extend the truce. If MBS believes that the US is about to pull the rug out from under him, he will be motivated to settle the conflict now in order to avoid embarrassment later. She may be right. Or MBS may be even more motivated to scuttle the WPR.
Biden is outrageously hypocritical to assail Russia’s (genuine) aggression in Ukraine, while he makes Saudi aggression in Yemen possible. Biden is right to denounce Russia’s war crimes, but is wrong to be silent about Saudi crimes, including air strikes on Yemeni civilian infrastructure which have brought Yemen to the brink of famine. One day, hopefully soon, the war in Yemen will end, but it will be no thanks to Joe Biden.