Rep. Ro Khanna on Challenging the Saudi-Led War on Yemen
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) discusses his efforts to stop U.S. support for the Saudi-led attack on Yemen; his differences with Obama administration officials who backed Saudi’s assault from the outset; and the impact of Saudi lobbying efforts to sustain ongoing US assistance
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate.
A U.S.-backed, Saudi-led offensive continues to inflict carnage across Yemen. Tens of thousands have fled the port city of Hudaydah since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched an assault there earlier this month. On Tuesday, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a bus full of displaced people fleeing Hudaydah, killing at least nine people. Hudaydah is a critical entry point for nearly eighty percent of Yemen’s food. The coalition has attacked Hudaydah despite pleas from the U.N. And the Trump administration has even offered its support helping the coalition choose its targets.
Well, my next guest has helped lead the congressional effort in the U.S. Congress to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war. Congressmember Ro Khanna of California is Vice Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Welcome, Congressmember Khanna. If we could start by talking about your assessment of where this Saudi-led offensive on Hudaydah is at, the toll it’s inflicting and what at this point is the extent of U.S. support for it?
RO KHANNA: Well, it is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world. There are nearly a million Yemenis who are facing famine and malnutrition. There are thousands who are facing the epidemic of cholera. And this situation was bad enough before the attack on the port. I had called almost a year ago for the United States to stop refueling the Saudi planes that are bombing Yemeni civilians.
And let’s be very clear. Without our refueling, the Saudi operation just would not be possible. It’s our refueling that is making that possible. And I had said that we need to stop the targeting assistance. Senator Bernie Sanders carried this in the Senate. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get enough votes but we certainly raised awareness. The military would testify to us saying that our involvement was limited just to counterterrorism operations in Yemen.
I don’t think, though, that is fully transparent. My understanding is we still have been engaged. We certainly are engaged in targeting. Now, when you talk to the Pentagon, they’ll say, “Well, we’re assisting in making sure that the Saudis aren’t hitting civilian sites.” But I think it’s going beyond that, and the United States should stop providing aid to the Saudis or the United Arab Emirates in this campaign.
AARON MATE: If the Pentagon is possibly concealing its role in the attack on Yemen, are there steps that Congress could take?
RO KHANNA: Well, there are. We could have passed the War Powers Resolution, which I had introduced and Senator Sanders had introduced, which would stop the Pentagon from assisting the Saudis. Unfortunately, the political will is not there yet, even among the Democrats. I mean, there are many progressives who want to stop aiding the Saudis, but not all Democrats and certainly the Republicans aren’t supportive of that.
Short of that, we’ve called for transparency. The reality is that there are counterterrorism operations in Yemen, and no one is trying to curtail those if they’re going after al Qaeda our some of the terrorists. But the problem is that the Pentagon doesn’t make a distinction between the refueling that is going towards taking on al Qaeda and counterterrorism operations and the refueling, more generally of the Saudi planes, that is being used to fight a proxy war with Iran and fighting the Houthis. We are trying to get the Pentagon to track the difference and to report that difference.
AARON MATE: Right. And so, a key focus of your efforts in the House is to pass this measure, invoking a provision of the War Powers Resolution. Can you explain what you’re trying to accomplish there?
RO KHANNA: Well, the War Powers Resolution, which was passed after Vietnam, is very clear. If there is a military involvement in a region overseas, then the president needs to come to Congress to get authorization for that involvement. Now, we have authorized any campaign against al Qaeda or its affiliates in 2001. My view is that War Powers Resolution- the war authorization in 2001, the authorization of force, was overly broad. It allows the United States government to go after al Qaeda or its affiliates at any time.
We need to repeal that, and Barbara Lee and others are working to repeal that blank check. But even under that blank check, there is no authorization for assisting in a war against the Houthis or in a proxy war against Iran. There is only authorization for assisting against counterterrorism operations in Al Qaeda. So, what we’re saying with the War Powers Resolution is by assisting the Saudis in refueling, you have committed the United States into a new war, into a war with the Houthis, and you have to come to Congress for that authorization.
Those who disagree and voted against us, their rationale is that simply providing refueling is not sufficient involvement to trigger the War Powers Resolution, that the resolution is only triggered when there are ground troops. But if you look at the history of the War Powers Resolution, that is not the case. In fact, this was debated right after Vietnam, and there was tremendous debate saying that anytime the United States gets involved militarily, Congress needs to authorize that involvement.
AARON MATE: Let me ask you about members of your own party, the Democrats. Because this refueling of Saudi jets and helping it with targeting did not start under Trump, although certainly Trump has escalated his U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. But it began under President Obama.
The Obama administration made a decision, with very little debate apparently, to support the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Obama sold Saudi Arabia more weapons than any president in history. To what extent do you hold the Obama administration and its supporters in Congress responsible for the horror that is going on today?
RO KHANNA: Well, having spoken to a number of Obama administration officials, I think they’re very candid that it was a mistake. If you talk to Samantha Power, Susan Rice, I think they didn’t anticipate what would happen in Yemen, in the catastrophe it’s become. I do believe that they would not have continued this support had Hillary Clinton won the next term or were they still in charge. I think what led them to support the Saudi mission in part was trying to assure the Saudis that we still had a relationship with them as we tried to broker the Iran nuclear deal.
I do give the Obama administration tremendous credit for resetting the relationship with Iran. Of course, they should not in retrospect have had a need to reassure the Saudis. I think that was a strategic mistake. But many of them, I give them credit for being very candid about that being a mistake. And certainly, were they in charge, we would not be continuing the refueling and targeting assistance.
AARON MATE: Let me ask you. When they say that they didn’t anticipate that this invasion that they supported would cause so much damage- I mean, Saudi Arabia is attacking the poorest country in the Arab world. And already early on, in the offensive, the civilian toll was pretty high. And that toll grew under Obama. Now, to its credit, it did stop some military sales.
But I’m wondering, when they tell you that this was all a surprise to them, as I think you just indicated, do you buy that?
RO KHANNA: Well, I think they underestimated the brutality of the Saudi offensive and the carnage that the Saudis have caused. I think they also underestimated the duration. Now, I’m not trying to exonerate them. I think that they made a strategic mistake and I think if you have Samantha Power or Susan Rice on your program, they would probably admit that it was a mistake, that we should never have provided this assistance to the Saudis.
But as the horror became more apparent, as the Saudi brutality became more apparent, as the duration became more apparent, I think you’ve had a reexamination of the United States role.
AARON MATE: Finally, so on the point of the U.S. role now, what are the main obstacles in Congress to putting an end to U.S. involvement? What sort of setbacks are you facing? Who are the interests that are preventing a U.S. end to supporting this attack on Yemen that has risking– that has already killed so many people and risking the lives of many more?
RO KHANNA: Well, the interests of the Saudi lobby- they are one of the most prominent lobbies on the Hill and they have been vociferously making the case that the United States should continue to support their mission as a check on Iran. And we need to rethink that entire strategy. We need to lead with a concern for human rights and not a balance of power politics, thinking that somehow aiding the Saudis is going to be a check on Iran’s ambition.
And that type of thinking is really what has caused this problem. So, there’s a growing movement with progressives in Congress, and frankly people like Walter Jones and Rand Paul and some of the conservatives, who say that this interventionism overseas has not served America’s national interest, military interventionism, and we need to be far more restrained. And America is not helping ourselves by getting involved in the civil war in Yemen.
AARON MATE: All right. We’ll pause there, come back in part two where we’ll talk about other news of the day including the Supreme Court upholding President Trump’s Muslim ban. My guest is Congressmember Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.