More Democrats Sign On to Stop Yemen War, But is Enough Being Done?

With 23 co-sponsors for a new measure that would withdraw U.S. forces from the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, Rep. Ro Khanna says that ending the war is “now a mainstream position within the Democratic Party.” Bill co-sponsor Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services committee discusses the measure and whether Democrats are using all levers at their disposal

More Democrats Sign On to Stop Yemen War, But is Enough Being Done?

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

U.S. Support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen began under President Obama, and has continued under President Trump. After tens of thousands of deaths in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, more and more members of Congress want to stop U.S. involvement. Democratic Congress member Ro Khanna has introduced a measure that would invoke the War Powers Act to withdraw U.S. forces from the Saudi-led military campaign. Khanna introduced a similar resolution last year, but this time he has 23 cosponsors; a sign, he says, that ending the war is now a mainstream position within the Democratic Party. This comes as U.N. officials continue to warn of a humanitarian emergency.

SPEAKER: The truth about Yemen is that there is no other place in the world where so many people are suffering so greatly. What we are confronted with in Yemen, and what humanitarians are dealing with every day, is grim, heartbreaking, and nearly unprecedented in recent memory.

AARON MATE: Well, joining me now is one of the cosponsors of this new congressional measure to invoke the War Powers Act and end U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen. Congress member Adam Smith is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Welcome, Congress member. What prompted you to sign onto this resolution?

ADAM SMITH: Primarily constituents bringing the issue to my attention, and also my service on the Armed Services Committee. Congressman Ro Khanna out of California has taken a lead on this issue for quite some time. And there is growing concern about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and it is an incredibly complex situation. It’s a civil war that’s been going on and off for, gosh, for decades. And trying to resolve the differences between the various factions within Yemen is difficult. But a blockade and a constant bombing campaign from Saudi Arabia isn’t making it better. It is, you know, civilians are dying. They also don’t have access to adequate food and water.

So we’re trying to put pressure on all sides, frankly, to reach a peaceful solution so that the suffering of the civilians can stop. Really it was constituents who brought it to my attention. Some people from Yemen live in my district. Others who are concerned about the region. And then other peace advocates who are concerned about the humanitarian crisis that is going on in Yemen.

AARON MATE: And what’s your sense about the momentum that a measure like this has in Congress, when Ro Khanna introduced something similar last year. Not that many cosponsors. Now has more than two dozen.

ADAM SMITH: Well, Congressman Khanna and I have worked very hard to expand that. And I think most notably, Congressman Steny Hoyer, Congressman Eliot Engel- Eliot Engel is the ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Steny, obviously, is the number two Democrat in the house. So we have an elevated group of people who are getting involved in this.

And I think this situation has just become, you know, more and more clear that the U.S. choosing sides in a complex civil war is not helping the situation. So I think more members are becoming aware of that, and support is growing for taking a different approach.

AARON MATE: Now, you have many peace activists, as I’ve seen, welcome this attempt to invoke the War Powers Act, but also those who voice criticism of you and other Democrats who just recently voted for the $717 billion military defense budget, and not including sufficient conditions to stop U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen in that bill. What is your response to that?

ADAM SMITH: Well, first of all, there were only six Democrats in the entire House who voted against the defense bill that was passed yesterday. So it is a wider group of people that is described there. No bill has everything I want in it. The Defense Authorizing Bill, which is what the Armed Services Committee passed, the committee that I serve on did include the language to put pressure on the U.S. State Department to stop our relationship with Saudi Arabia on that. So we had that language passed in that bill. We would have liked to have seen the language in the appropriations bill. We weren’t successful. Just like when we introduced Congressman Khanna’s resolution, they radically altered it. And that wasn’t successful either.

We got to keep pushing. But you know, to say that we should vote against any defense spending until we solve this, that I don’t agree with. I think we need to keep pushing forward, and we are making progress. But you know, it’s it’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some effort. But there’s a ton of things in the defense bill completely unrelated to Yemen.

AARON MATE: And That’s also been the subject of criticism, people who don’t want to see such a massive spending increase on the military. But that’s another issue. But on the issue of Yemen, I mean, the argument for conditioning military spending on an end to this war is that this is the leverage that Congress has. Congress funds the Pentagon.

ADAM SMITH: And I totally, I completely support that argument. That is leverage we should use it. We’ve offered various amendments at different points in the process on this issue. And I support those amendments. I support those efforts to say, you know, to put it into the Defense Appropriations Bill. And keep in mind, the support that we’re giving Saudi Arabia is primarily on refueling and targeting. So it’s very specific support that we’re talking about. Cutting off that support, I 100 percent support doing that. And we should introduce amendments and try to do that. But sometimes you lose the vote, and then you’ve got to find another way to come at them, which is the privilege resolution and the War Powers Resolution that we’re doing.

We’re going to have to come at this from a variety of different angles in order to ultimately be successful. And also, understand something, here. Even if we’re successful in having the U.S. cut off the support for Saudi Arabia, the situation in Yemen, situation in the entire Middle East, the Shia-Sunni conflict, the Persian-Arab conflict, is spreading across the region in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon. We have got a ton of work to do to resolve the crisis over there.

So one resolution, one amendment here and there isn’t going to get it done. There’s got to be a persistent effort on our part to work with the partners that we can find in the region to move away from conflict and towards peace. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to snap my fingers and pass a bill that instantly creates peace in the Middle East. If we could have done that I think people would’ve done it centuries ago.

AARON MATE: Well, sure. And you know, no one, at least involved in the Yemen issue, that I’ve seen is concerned about that. Their concern is stopping U.S. involvement in what is widely considered by many people to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and some say it’s a straight-up genocide. And so let me ask you, though, I mean, even the one provision that made it through, which was to impose some conditions on the State Department, that in order to continue refueling the Saudi warplanes the State Department had to certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking efforts to comply with international law. So that did pass. That did pass in the bill. But then recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued that certification saying yes, Saudi Arabia is taking steps. And so the waiver was granted. But meanwhile you have just this week a figure saying that civilian casualties have increased something like 160 percent in the last four months, showing that basically-

ADAM SMITH: I do not agree with Secretary Pompeo’s conclusion, and I said so the instant he put out that statement. Look, if Donald Trump wasn’t president, this would be a lot easier. You know, we are pushing back against people who disagree with the agenda that we are pushing. But we’re going to keep pushing, because it is as important, as you just described, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is devastating. The people who are being impacted is overwhelming. It won’t be enough to just get the U.S. to stop backing Saudi Arabia in the way that we are. Much more will need to be done. But we’re going to keep working on it. But yeah absolutely. Right now, you know, the White House is not sympathetic to what we’re trying to do. The Republican Congress is not sympathetic to what we’re trying to do. And they’re blocking it.

Donald Trump has tripled the number of bombings that have been done under the AUMF since he took over from President Obama. And the number of civilian casualties, not just in Yemen, but in, you know, in Syria, in Iraq, in Somalia, in Libya, in other places has, also. I think that aggressive military approach that the President is taking is dead wrong, and I’m going to keep speaking out against it and keep doing everything I can to change the policy. But again, he’s the president. I can’t just walk down there and say hey, would you stop this? And he says yeah, sure. We gotta push.

That’s why the support that I’ve gotten from my constituents, the letter-writing campaign, the publicity they’re bringing to this, this is all part of an effort to put pressure on the key decision makers to get them to change their minds. And as you mentioned, we’ve expanded the number of cosponsors of this bill. So we’ve made some progress, but we are nowhere near where we need to be. I do not disagree with that at all.

AARON MATE: So one more question, but before, let me just finish my point, which is that the one safeguard that was put in that would stop the refueling Saudi jets. It did grant the administration the right to ultimately waive that provision, as Pompeo just did. But in terms of going forward, and this War Powers resolution, the fact that you have now so many cosponsors- even some Republicans have joined in with this effort- what kind of debate do you expect in Congress to happen around this issue, around this measure of yours to invoke the War Powers Act? And what kind of pressure do you think that supporters of the Saudi war in Yemen in Congress will be under going forward?

ADAM SMITH: I think the pressure is increasing. And the pressure is increasing because, frankly, news agencies like yours and others who are bringing attention to exactly what is going on and how completely unacceptable it is. But you know, I can’t predict what Paul Ryan is going to do, what Mitch McConnell is going to do, where they’re going to be. I just think we need to ramp up the pressure to try to make him shift their policy.

And again, I hope we don’t think that if somehow we’re successful in this, and somehow the U.S. completely stops funding what Saudi Arabia is doing, that that is going to bring peace to Yemen. Number one, we have got to get a cease fire, which means all parties involved have to have a discussion and have to work on that issue collectively. Number two, we have to understand that what’s going on in Yemen has been going on for a long time. And it really is- it’s about a whole bunch of different things. Yes, Iran is involved, but more than anything it was about the Yemeni government not treating the Houthis properly. Basically, you know, they were an oppressed minority, so they rose up against that. And then even that has factionalized so that there are different groups in different places. You’ve got ISIS, you’ve got al-Qaeda, you’ve got Iran, you’ve got Hezbollah. You’ve got a lot of different groups in the region involved in that.

And that’s why I say I- by the way, the advocacy groups are very much focused on the broader issues in the Middle East. They’re concerned about Syria and Iraq, and all the rest. But the broader issue of the Persian-Arab conflict is what is driving, in large part, part Yemen. So we have to confront that as well. And I don’t have any easy answers, but I’m going to keep pushing on it, because the suffering in that part of the world is simply unacceptable, and is growing by the day. We have got to choose a more peaceful path than the one we are currently on.

AARON MATE: I would just take issue with the notion that Iran and Hezbollah are significantly involved right now in Yemen’s turmoil, but that is a discussion I think for another time, Congress member.

ADAM SMITH: Significantly, I’m with you. And also let me just say, they weren’t involved when this started. The Houthis were not lined up with Iran and involved with them. The Houthis were upset about a government that was oppressing them. But It is true that now Iran and Hezbollah saw it as an opportunity. And look, we have to be honest about what’s going on there. Iran is shipping weapons into there as well. Hezbollah is shipping weapons there.

Now, it’s not why the Houthis rose up. This is not what’s being described; that this is, you know, the Shia trying to- they rose up because they were being oppressed, and they didn’t necessarily want to be linked with Iran. But once Saudi Arabia came at them, they looked for allies any place they could find them. And that only further destabilizes the situation. But the facts are- the facts right now, Iran is involved in that way. So we’ve got to get all sides from outside Yemen out of this so that we can resolve the conflict that really was, in the first place, a local conflict about a powerful majority oppressing a minority, and how we can get a fair resolution to that.

AARON MATE: All right, Congress member, we’ve kept you longer than we promised. We really appreciate your time. Congress member Adam Smith, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, thanks very much.

ADAM SMITH: Thanks for the opportunity.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.