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Proxy Wars

So Much for Biden’s Promise to End U.S. Support for the War in Yemen

The best chance to end hostilities in the war-torn nation has fizzled out, leaving proponents of peace to wonder what went wrong.

Fighters loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government man a position near the al-Jawba frontline, facing Iran-backed Houthi rebels, in the country's northeastern province of Marib.
Getty Images
Fighters loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government man a position near the Al Jawba front line, facing Iran-backed Houthi rebels, in the country's northeastern province of Marib.

The Biden administration put itself in awkward position last week when it killed off another attempt by Congress to force President Joe Biden to make good on the pledge he made nearly two years ago to end American support for the war in Yemen. The offensive campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which will soon enter its eighth year, has created what’s widely regarded as the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions in desperate need of aid.

Pledging to veto the Yemen War Powers Resolution introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders, the administration privately urged senators to vote against it on the grounds that it was “unnecessary” and would “complicate” diplomacy with the warring parties. Sanders pulled the bill just before its scheduled vote, but promised to bring it back up for a vote if he and Biden don’t reach an agreement on ending the war.

Proponents of the resolution were motivated by the very fact of the war’s intensification in the year following Biden’s alleged policy change and its possible resumption after the expiration of a cease-fire almost three months ago. Because it is widely believed that U.S. support is operationally essential for the Saudi air campaign, “this legislation ensures Saudi Arabia would not have the ability to start escalating by restarting deadly bombings in Yemen,” reads a memo of talking points produced by antiwar organizations provided to The New Republic.

Amid the Biden administration’s effort to derail the resolution, it was unclear whether Sanders had enough votes to secure its passage. None of the Democratic senators who were reportedly opposed to or skeptical of Sanders’s resolution—Bob Menendez, Jack Reed, and both California senators, Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, whose districts are home to the biggest defense contractors—responded to requests for comment.

Some senators were reportedly concerned over precisely what the resolution includes in its definition of “hostilities”—the operative term that triggers application of the War Powers Resolution, the post-Vietnam law passed over Richard Nixon’s veto, which requires the president to withdraw U.S. forces from “hostilities” within 60 days in the absence of congressional authorization or a declaration of war.

While the 2019 Yemen resolution that Donald Trump vetoed only included midair refueling of Saudi fighter jets in the scope of hostilities and explicitly excluded intelligence activities, Sanders’s new resolution goes much further, bringing intelligence sharing and “logistical support for offensive coalition strikes” under the umbrella of hostilities. The Biden administration has stated multiple times that it does not consider its support for the Saudi-led coalition to constitute participation in hostilities, a view consistent with both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The concern is that by codifying this definition of hostilities, other U.S. military support operations might be undermined. One senior Democratic aide who was granted anonymity by The Washington Post said that Sanders’s resolution “really has made us nervous” because its conception of hostilities “could have real ramifications for our support for Ukraine right now, or our support for Israel.… This is the first time that the Congress is being asked to vote on defining hostility as intelligence sharing, and it’s dangerous.”

Given the lack of substantial political will required to bring about these downstream effects, this scenario seems unlikely. But top legal scholars of the War Powers Resolution told The New Republic that this concern is overblown on its own terms. “I don’t think it would have had the far-reaching impact that some might have feared,” said Yale Law professor Oona Hathaway, who pointed out that the bill’s definition of hostilities explicitly applied only to offensive Yemen-related activity. Scott R. Anderson, senior editor at Lawfare and fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed. “There’s no reason to think that a particular definition of hostilities in one of these resolutions would necessarily extend into all future resolutions. This definition is really only for this specific circumstance,” he said.

Anderson speculated that the administration might be more worried about the “policy and political precedent this resolution could set,” that Congress might feel empowered to assert its leverage on a wider range of foreign policy activities. The concern over the resolution, therefore, seems not to be about how Congress is defining hostilities, but rather the very fact that Congress is defining hostilities, a practice historically performed exclusively by executive branch lawyers, who have advanced an exceptionally narrow interpretation of hostilities that future presidents can lean on or amend at their broad discretion with the appropriate lawyerly window dressing.

The transpartisan coalition behind the resolution, after all, has the broader goal of getting Congress to reassert its constitutional role in decisions of war and peace in the name of democratizing foreign policy. It’s a strategy akin to how labor organizers talk about the strike as a muscle that atrophies if not used.

But opposition to the resolution isn’t merely rooted in broad interest of maintaining the executive branch’s primacy in decisions related to warmaking. The Biden administration, along with those who share his foreign policy vision, do not want to cut off the Saudi coalition because doing so could undermine Washington’s strategic interests in the region. “The Biden administration does not want the Houthis to effectively legitimize their coup,” Yemen scholar Gregory D. Johnsen told The New Republic, “and take control in a way that would set up an independent state that’s heavily linked to Iran right on Saudi’s southern border. This is not going to be a state that’s friendly to the United States.”

Observers of the conflict tend to agree that grounding the Saudi air force, which Sanders’s resolution would do by terminating essential U.S. support, would enable the Houthis to expand the territory under their control. “Saudi airpower is the one thing that has really prevented the Houthis from taking the central governorate of Marib, where there’s a lot of oil and gas fields,” which the Houthis “absolutely need in order to survive as an independent state,” Johnsen said.

Houthi control of larger swathes of Yemen would also likely mean less latitude for U.S. ground troops, which have been operating in the country since the beginning of the war on terror. Saudi Arabia would lose access to major oil fields and crucial ports on the Red Sea and Arabian Sea. “The war is very lucrative for the coalition. It’s also a very useful means to justify boots on the ground,” said Isa Blumi, author of Destroying Yemen. “Northern Yemen is still a zone that’s largely inaccessible, to the great frustration of the United States empire and those who benefit from it,” he said. Furthermore, Washington’s credibility in Riyadh would take a further hit, an especially undesirable scenario in the wake of the botched oil deal earlier this year that revealed America’s declining influence with the Saudis.

But supporters of Sanders’s resolution don’t see these potential consequences as sufficient to continue supporting the Saudi-led campaign. “I reject the premise that it is legitimate for the United States to keep air strikes on civilian targets on the table as a form of leverage,” Annelle Sheline, research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told The New Republic. “Once we return control of this conflict to Yemenis, the Houthis won’t be able to use foreign aggression as a political claim, and certain groups allying with the Houthis on these grounds can return their focus to domestic issues. Then Yemenis can decide whether or not they want to live under Houthi control.”

The Saudi-led offensive began after the Houthis overthrew Gulf Cooperation Council–installed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014, whose regime of neoliberalism was funneling much of Yemen’s wealth into Saudi Arabia. The original goal of the war was to reinstall Hadi, whose “legitimacy” is recognized by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which provides international legal cover for the Saudi-led offensive. But now Hadi is gone from the picture, forced out by the Saudis and replaced by a heavily divided Presidential Leadership Council, undermining the basis for the war’s jus ad bellum legality.

Although even some supporters of Sanders’s resolution view the Houthis as the intransigent party, the baseline requirement for negotiating with the Saudi-led coalition, amid an expected cease-fire, amounts to sacrificing Yemen’s independence. The Houthis are therefore inclined to view the battlefield as the only arena to resist foreign aggression.

In this context, the arguments for maintaining U.S. support for the Saudi-led air campaign sound a lot like those used to justify permanent U.S. occupation of Afghanistan: If Washington withdraws, the Taliban will take over, and we can’t let that happen—or so the argument went.

Although the Taliban did in fact take over, Biden was right to stick to his pledge to withdraw troops. He should do the same with respect to U.S. policy in Yemen. The political winds haven’t shifted as far as they had on Afghanistan, but the fact that some members of Congress are now willing to step in to force Biden’s hand is evidence that they’re moving in that direction.

But until the desire for a change in course is more broadly catalysed in Washington, the threat of deadly Saudi air strikes will continue to loom large. Moreover, the internationally supported blockade of Yemen, which deprives 23 million civilians of desperately needed humanitarian aid, will persist. By taking Saudi airpower off the table, the Biden administration and U.S. Congress can go a long way toward bringing the conflict to an end and restoring Yemenis’ right to self-determination.