The ongoing civil war in Yemen was instigated by the region’s major powers, with Iran on one side and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of Persian Gulf states on the other. The fighting — especially airstrikes by Saudi and United Arab Emirates pilots — has devastated Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest nations. It has created what three U.N. agencies call “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”: Sixty percent of the Yemeni population is “food insecure”; 700,000 have been infected with cholera, a deadly disease spread by a lack of clean water and sanitation.
There are plenty of man-made catastrophes around the world today, but the conflict in Yemen is unique because the United States is not a bystander or neutral arbiter. We have gone along for the ride, providing indirect military assistance on the Saudi side.
Without congressional authorization — and without a peep from the leaders of either party — the Obama and Trump administrations made the U.S. a participant. Now a bipartisan group of House members is invoking the War Powers Act of 1973 and demanding that Congress either support our involvement in Yemen or direct the president to end it.
Since March 2015, when the Saudi coalition began bombing Houthi rebels in support of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, the U.S. Air Force has assisted — enabled — Riyadh and its allies in the air campaign. Americans aren’t pulling triggers, but we are integral protagonists in the fight.
Air Force intelligence identifies Houthi targets to hit and civilian facilities to avoid. At the U.N., in the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, Washington has protected Riyadh from censure, watering down resolutions and preventing war crimes inquiries. Most important, throughout the war, Saudi and Emirati jets have used U.S. midair refueling capabilities to keep up the pace of operations without having to return to a base.
According to Pentagon statistics, the Air Force has refueled Saudi aircraft more than 9,000 times. American pilots don’t have to traverse Yemeni airspace to reach coalition planes, which keeps us technically out of the fighting, but without this U.S. help, it is unlikely the Saudi side could maintain its participation in what regional analysts already call a quagmire.
Congress has had no say in U.S. involvement in the war. Out of cowardice, political concerns, general disinterest in Yemen or (unjustified) allegiance to Saudi Arabia, lawmakers have not debated — let alone voted on — whether U.S. national security interests are served by picking winners and losers in a proxy contest between rival Mideast factions. U.S. participation has been left to the president to decide, as if Congress had no responsibility in scrutinizing American foreign policy.
This is not what the Founders envisioned. The Constitution places no higher priority on the legislative branch than determining when the United States will send its servicemen and women into war. In this case, long before the military aid was offered, the American people, through their elected representatives, should have had a national debate about what, if any, U.S. objectives would be served by entering the Yemen conflict, what military support would be required, whether diplomatic conditions should be attached to military action and how aiding Riyadh’s bombing campaign could affect our other interests in the region. (In fact, the destruction of Yemen has strengthened al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and worked against our counterterrorism operations there.)
On Sept. 27, Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., stepped in to fill the void in congressional leadership. They introduced a concurrent resolution under the War Powers Act, demanding an end to U.S. involvement in the Yemen civil war in 30 days unless Congress votes otherwise. Under provisions in the act, such a resolution supposedly cannot be stalled or buried in committee. If the House Foreign Affairs Committee does not move the resolution forward within 15 days — sometime this week — it can be brought to the floor for debate and a vote anyway.
Supporters and opponents of U.S. policy in Yemen should make their case to the American people through Congress, just as the founders intended and the Constitution requires. Lawmakers have the power to make that happen, but that power is meaningless if they refuse to use it.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.