Historic Yemen Vote: Despite Possible Veto, ‘Great Leverage for Peace Talks’

The Senate’s vote, invoking the War Powers Act and withdrawing U.S. support for the war in Yemen, could still be vetoed by Trump, but it can provide a way forward for ending this horrific war, say Shireen Al-Adeimi and Hassan El-Tayyab

Historic Yemen Vote: Despite Possible Veto, 'Great Leverage for Peace Talks'

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Wednesday evening, the U.S. Senate took a historic vote, claiming its constitutionally granted power to declare war. The resolution directs the president to remove U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The resolution passed with a vote of 54 to 46 and invoked the 1973 War Powers Act, which regulates the conditions under which the U.S. may enter into war. Seven Republican Senators voted with all Democrats in favor of the resolution. Senator Bernie Sanders was the resolution’s main sponsor. Here’s what he had to say.

BERNIE SANDERS: Today is an extremely important day. Today, we in the Senate have the opportunity to take a major step forward in ending the horrific war in Yemen and alleviating the terrible, terrible suffering being experienced by the people in one of the poorest countries on earth. And today, equally important, we can finally begin the process of reasserting Congress’s responsibility over war banking. As every schoolchild should know, Article I of the Constitution clearly states that it is Congress, not the president, that has the power to declare war.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss the implications of this vote are Shireen Al-Adeimi and Hassan El-Tayyab. Shireen is Assistant Professor of Education at Michigan State University and is originally from Yemen. Hassan is the co-director of the organization Just Foreign Policy. Thanks for joining us today, Shireen and Hassan.

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Thanks for having me.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Thanks.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with you, Shireen. The White House responded to the vote by saying that the resolution would “harm bilateral relationships in the region, negatively affect our ability to prevent the spread of violent extremist organizations, and establish bad precedent for future legislation by defining hostilities to include defense cooperation such as aerial refueling for the purposes of this legislation.” So what’s your response to this argument from the White House that this is actually going to harm the situation in Yemen?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, it is going to harm the Saudis and the U.S. government’s relationship because it’s largely based on a lot of money. Trump, and before him Obama, have been making a lot money in this war through the defense contracts that they have with Saudi Arabia, through, of course, billions and billions of dollars in weapons sales, which, by the way, the War Powers Act does not address. So it addresses all sorts of military cooperation, but not the weapons sales themselves, but those are still largely based on money. And Yemen, of course, is an important strategic location for both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. because it controls Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, where 4.8 million barrels of oil travel each and every day. So the U.S. has interest in the area.

As for the arguments of combating terrorism, there’s been documented evidence by the BBC, by AP, that Saudi Arabia in fact works with al-Qaida in Yemen, which is the most dangerous branch of al-Qaida, and has supported and helped them grow in the area. Yemenis are most successful at getting rid of al-Qaida, not the U.S. through its cooperation with Saudi Arabia, who not only funds terrorist organizations but have been working openly with them in Yemen. There’s no evidence to corroborate the White House statement on this.

GREG WILPERT: Another issue, of course, is the extent of the humanitarian crisis that has been caused in Yemen. I’m just wondering if you could tell our viewers a little bit about the situation at the moment in Yemen.

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. So 80 percent of Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid just to survive. 19 million lack access to water and people are dying of preventable diseases like cholera, for example, which is the worst outbreak in modern history right now in Yemen, with over 1.3 million people infected. Children are starving each and every single day in the hundreds, and one child under five every ten minutes is dying in Yemen, because not only is the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen, bombing infrastructure, bombing water plants and food factories and stuff like that, but they’re also blockading the country by land, air, and sea, therefore preventing aid from coming in.

So the U.S.’s cooperation with the Saudis has in fact ensured what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen. They’re not helping, they’re harming. A civil war could have never caused this much damage. People wouldn’t blockade themselves, they wouldn’t destroy their own infrastructure. So this escalation, this foreign intervention, has in fact caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And there’s just no–the suffering is just incredibly immense in Yemen.

GREG WILPERT: Now, just before they took the vote on this resolution in the Senate, one Republican Senator, Mike Lee from Utah, spoke quite strongly in favor of the resolution. We have a clip here now of what he said.

MIKE LEE: It is also beyond dispute that our United States armed forces are in fact involved in the commanding, the coordinating, the participating in the movement of, and the accompanying of those forces as they themselves are engaged in hostilities. Therefore, the War Powers Act is itself implicated, and that matters. Why? Well, because in the absence of an act of Congress authorizing this kind of thing, it is unconstitutional for us to send our brave young men and women into harm’s way. It is unconstitutional and unlawful for us to be involved in a war, and make no mistake, we are involved in a war.

GREG WILPERT: Now, Hassan, this is the first time in 45 years that the Senate, and hopefully soon the House, invoked the 1973 War Powers Act. And so, in other words, it’s clearly quite unusual. Why now? What took it so long?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Well, you’re right. There’s been several unauthorized wars. There’s been the 2001 AUMF that’s dragged on for 17, 18 years at this point. I think Yemen is… the humanitarian crisis is just so extreme. Like the UN said, this is the worst manmade humanitarian crisis on planet, it’s the worst place in the world to be a child. And I think there is a new appetite to reassert constitutional war authority. As Mike Lee said, under Article I, Section 8, Congress has the power to declare war. So I think all these factors are coming together and I’m glad to see it. It’s long overdue but I’m glad to see it.

GREG WILPERT: So Shireen, now this vote will probably have an effect on Saudi Arabia. After the Jamal Khashoggi murder, Saudi Arabia has tried to mend fences with the U.S., particularly with the Senators that have been very critical of the Trump administration and its policy toward Saudi Arabia, and recently even named a new ambassador to the U.S. for that reason. Do you think, Shireen, that Saudi Arabia will change course in Yemen and perhaps engage in real efforts to end the war there?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, Saudi Arabia relies heavily on the U.S. support. They don’t manufacture their own weapons, they don’t train their own soldiers. They rely on the U.S. to do that and to maintain and update their vehicles and aircrafts. They rely on U.S. and U.K. advisors in the command room, like Senator Lee said. So the extent of U.S. involvement in this war is tremendous, and it’s arguable that Saudi Arabia won’t be able to continue to wage this war to this level, to this scale, without U.S. support.

And so, I think sending a message through Congress, even if Trump vetoes this, even if it doesn’t go through, it signals that they no longer enjoy that support, the blank check that they’ve been receiving from the U.S. government under Obama and Trump, and that there might be conditions now to this relationship. So will they end the war? I’m not sure, but will they be severely restricted? Most likely.

GREG WILPERT: Now Hassan, Shireen raises an interesting point about the arms sales to the region. As a matter of fact, SIPRI, which is the Swedish organization that monitors arms sales, recently released a report showing how the U.S. is still the largest arms seller in the world, and that the Middle East, particularly and especially Saudi Arabia, is the largest receiver of arms sales from the United States. So I’m wondering, if that might be the next step, if there’s anything that can be done with regard to these arms sales. Or is that entirely something that one would have to deal through the administration, that is, not Congress? What do you think? What would be the next move in that regard?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Yeah, so that’s a great question. Obviously, like Shireen mentioned, the war powers resolution doesn’t actually go after arms sales, but it’s still a critical piece of our support to the Saudi and UAE-led coalition’s war in Yemen. Right now, there is pending legislation. McGovern introduced a resolution that would actually cut off arms sales. There’s a companion bill in the Senate, introduced by Menendez and Young. So there are vehicles to address the arms sales. Obviously, that’s just critical, to go after that next. I think it’s been wise to go after this particular War Powers–you know, invoking the War Powers Act, because that allows us to force votes in the Senate and the House. But using the Arms Export Control Act, Congress definitely can limit the sale of weapons.

GREG WILPERT: The other thing, of course, which Shireen also mentioned, is possibility that Trump will veto this resolution. And as a matter of fact, the White House has already suggested that Trump would do that. Hassan, what would happen then? Do you think Congress could override or would override the veto? And if it doesn’t, what happens then?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Sure. So I think to know what Trump is going to do, I don’t think anyone can really say for sure. So I will concede the fact that he’s definitely going to veto. But you’re right, if he does, what happens? So then, it basically goes back to Congress and they have to overturn that veto with a two thirds majority. It seems it’s possible, yet unlikely, that that would happen. But I still think what we really have to pay attention to is the peace talks, the UN-led peace talks.

And I think every time Congress has reasserted its constitutional war authority in this situation… December 13, Martin Griffiths secured a ceasefire in Hodeidah province. And granted, that’s been a fragile ceasefire, but it’s still a positive step. After the House passed H.J.Res 37, that was the other Yemen War Powers in the 116 Congress that happened before, just I believe at the end of January, they were able to secure an agreement to redeploy forces and hopefully prisoner exchange. So regardless, this gives great leverage to the peace talks. And as we mentioned before, there are other tools we could go after, all of our activity with the Saudi-led coalition through appropriations, through the Arms Export Control Act, through McGovern’s legislation. So there are other tools that we have.

GREG WILPERT: Well, of course, as before, we’re going to continue to follow the situation in Yemen and the U.S. relationship to them more. But we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Shireen Al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor of Education at Michigan State University, and to Hassan El-Tayyab, co-director of the organization Just Foreign Policy. Thanks again, Shireen and Hassan for having joined us today.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Thank you.

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Thanks a lot.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.