Will Congress Affirm its Constitutional Power to Stop the War in Yemen?
This week Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman heads to Washington to lobby support for the war in Yemen. However, the Constitution and the War Powers Act are very clear that only Congress has the power to authorize war, says Col. Larry Wilkerson.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Two resolutions are making their way through the U.S. Congress at the moment that could represent one of the first serious efforts in decades for Congress to reclaim its constitutionally guaranteed authority to declare or not to declare war. House Concurrent Resolution 81 and Senate Joint Resolution 54 could instruct the Pentagon to stop supporting Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen. The war has so far killed over 10000 Yemenis and wounded another 40000 and caused the worst cholera outbreak in history, not to mention the food scarcity, medicine scarcity that Yemen is going through that is unavailable for the civilians there.
In a sign that Saudi Arabia is worried that Congress might stop Pentagon support for the war in Yemen, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is visiting Washington DC this week to lobby for continued support for the war effort. Joining me now to discuss efforts to stop U.S. support for the war in Yemen is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Larry, good to have you back.
LARRY WILKERSON: Good evening, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, what does the U.S. Constitution say about who has the authority to declare war in the U.S. and why?
LARRY WILKERSON: Section 1, or Article 1 Section 8, is pretty clear. I think it’s crystal clear. And it’s crystal clear about historical terms and modern terms. It says Congress. It says Congress has the power to declare war and grant letters of marque and reprisal. Marque and reprisal letters to that effect were essentially authorizations to go out and the pirates, be privateers for the state more or less, for the monarchy, to whom in the past all these powers belonged. The king, in other words, and in our case George the Third.
So when the founders, people like Madison and others who knew all these issues and really debated them seriously, later would write about them in the Federalist Papers, Hamilton and others, they made sure that all the residue of war, if you will, all the powers associated with war, even this power to declare privateers and allow them to go out and raid your enemy ships, for example, for profit, profit that of course ultimately accrued to the monarch because he got that particular item or whatever away from his enemy. Even those things were given to the Congress.
So they were very clear. They were just crystal clear that they were taking all the powers that had accrued to the monarch in the past, to the King, and giving them to the Congress of the United States, who they argued were closer to the American people. They’d love to have given them to the people. But that was not tenable. You couldn’t do that. So they gave them to the next best thing: The representatives of the American people, a congress of the United States legislature. That’s where the war power was rested, and as far as the Constitution, and now the War Powers Act of 1973 is concerned as whether those powers still are.
SHARMINI PERIES: Currently, Larry, the U.S. military is providing military aid to Saudi Arabia in the form of arms sales. Of course, targeting advice and on air refueling missions. But in a recent Senate hearing Sen. Elizabeth Warren questioned the head of the U.S. Central Command General Votel now whether the U.S. military knows what Saudi Arabia is doing with U.S. support. Here’s the exchange between them. Let’s listen.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: General Votel, does CENTCOM track the purpose of the missions that it is refueling? In other words, where a U.S.-refueled aircraft is going, what targets it strikes, and the results of the mission?
GEN. VOTEL: Senator, we do not.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: General Votel, when you receive reports like this from credible media organizations or outside observers, is CENTCOM able to tell whether U.S. fuel or U.S. munitions were used as part of that strike?
GEN. VOTEL: Senator, no, I don’t believe we are.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, how can it be that the U.S. military is so uninterested in what U.S. military support is being used for in Saudi Arabia?
LARRY WILKERSON: I remember listening to that exchange , Sharmini, and I was in one way amused and in another way appalled for Gen. Votel to say that, or to imply, that we don’t have the ability to do that was simple nonsense when we can track Russian jet or a Syrian jet to its target and watch it drop its munitions. That’s nonsense.
What he was saying is we’re not applying that high tech capability to do that, even with a plane every now and then, because we don’t want to know. We simply don’t want to know because what we know is those Saudi pilots are often dropping their bombs from very high altitude, because they are not courageous enough to go down lower where they might get shot at, and they are very often missing their target even with the very sophisticated PGMs, precision guided munitions, made for them by such stellar companies as Raytheon.
So there is a very disingenuous answer that Gen. Votel gave, and I wish our senators and our representatives had more knowledge and expertise with regard to military operations so they could ask better questions and then follow up on them when they get such a disingenuous answer.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, as I was watching the general I was wondering whether he was not answering Elizabeth Warren because he realizes the jeopardy he puts himself in, and of course the military of the United States. And if he answers affirmatively or provides any other answer than the one he provided, because this is an illegal war being conducted by Saudi Arabia and we have the United States military aiding and abiding in that illegal war.
LARRY WILKERSON: Sharmini, I’d love to say yes you’re right, but I won’t because we committed war crimes during the administration of which I was a part, George W. Bush, ranging from torture to killing innocent civilians. This is something that the United States, does as Thucydides declared very very wisely, if sadly, those that have the power do, and those that don’t have the power get it done to them.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry. Turning a little bit in terms of this same issue, Defense Secretary General John Mattis recently also weighed in on this debate when he sent a letter to Congress to stop the Sanders Senate Resolution 54 from being passed. In his letter General Mattis gave three main arguments for continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. The first is that Saudi Arabia is acting in self defense. Second is that without U.S. support Saudi Arabia would kill even more civilians. And third is that the U.S. needs to support, essentially, an ally such as Saudi Arabia. What is your reaction to these three arguments?
LARRY WILKERSON: All three of them are nonsense, and I’m really ashamed of Jim Mattis for making them. I understand the pressure he’s under to make them, but the arguments just don’t make any sense. First of all, the Saudis are under no threat from the Yemeni. They simply aren’t. Second, the implication there of course is that the Saudis, and this is an implication that the area’s people are taking on board, too, are really a proxy of the United States in its war, ongoing war, of words, and soon to be probably real implements of war, Iran. And the Saudis are acting as our proxy in prosecuting their war. So by that stretch it’s a defensive war against Iran.
The idea that the Saudis are not doing things that are beyond the pale with regard to violating humanitarian and other strictures is also not, it’s just not operable. It’s not the truth. The Saudis are bombing ruthlessly civilian targets, indiscriminately. They’re bombing food stores and foodstuffs and water and water sources so that they can’t get the clean water they need in order to combat most effectively this cholera epidemic. And the legal argument that they’re advancing is simply blown out of water by all legal scholars that are worth a damn in this country. Who talk about Section 8c of the War Powers Act.
It’s the same argument that Obama administration lawyers tried to advance initially with regard to Libya, that there weren’t any real hostilities there and all we were doing was helping another effort for the right or the responsibility to protect humanitarian operation, and so forth. But when you’re dropping bombing bombs and you’re killing people those are hostilities. I don’t care if you’re completely immune from it, as we often are, because we’re doing it from the air where no one can touch us. But you are engaged in hostilities.
And as I said legal scholars are looking at the War Powers Act, Title 50, Chapter 33 Section 15, 41-48. We have upheld this view that this is, in fact, hostility. So all the arguments that the secretary of defense registered. I might understand why he’s registering them because he sees this as perhaps a return of a little bit of the war powers to Congress, and no military person over there wants that to happen. They want the executive to be able to declare war any time the executive wants to. And of course, that suits them just fine. They don’t want abridgments on the executive’s power to start wars, to continue wars, to support other people in their wars, and so forth.
But I certainly don’t support this particular instance of that happening, because it’s an egregious violation of everything we’re supposed to value and stand for, and we’re doing it, Sharmini, we’re doing it with the greatest state sponsor of terrorism on the face of the earth. I keep trying to remind the American people that 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, and that Saudi money is still going to finance the worst forms of Wahhabism, the worst Salafist, the worst types of terrorists in the name of Islam on the face of the earth. This is just unbelievable that we’re still doing this.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, off the top I indicated that this week we are expecting a visit by Prince Salman to Washington DC. In the past we’ve discussed the influence that the Saudis have in Washington. And of course, that weighs in. And of course the prince is also being received with such regalia and there, I should say he’s being received at the White House. He is attending a cultural event at the Kennedy Center. There is apparently a gala dinner being planned for him. All of which is going to be protested by Code Pink and organizers of the peace movement here in the U.S., those struggling to stop the war in Yemen.
But give us a sense of how Saudi Arabia has such influence in Washington, and why.
LARRY WILKERSON: Mohamed bin Salman’s welcome to Washington has thus far, both in his own spoken words and in some of the actions, as you demonstrated in your commentary, have exemplified, been something akin to welcoming Torquemada of the Inquisition, because yesterday he let a particular individual survive. I mean this is just insane. What they’re talking about with regard to this boy-king being the great reformer, the great change agent, for Saudi Arabia in the House of Saud, and so forth. And look at what he’s begun to say already. He’s begun to say all the things that we who knew what he would say, and predicted he would say, that the Saudis are going out of their way, spending countless hours and energy and even dollars to make sure that they don’t bomb people that shouldn’t be bombed.
Well, all the facts argue against that. Sorry, Mohammed bin Salman. He’s saying things like Iran is the great perpetrator, the great evil, the great force that Saudi Arabia is really fighting, implying he’s doing it for the United States in Yemen. Well I’m sorry, Mohammed bin Salman. The Iranians did not even come to Yemen at all in any strength until you started doing what you were doing in Yemen with the UAE and others.
The things that he’s saying are things that are so propagandistic, so childishly, even infantile. I mean, they don’t even register with the level of things that, for example, we did in the first Iraq war when we were talking about babies being unhooked from their incubators and so forth. Everyone propagandizes, particularly when they’re in war. You’ve got money like the Saudis have. And they bought a lot of American companies in order to do this propaganda. You would think that the prince himself could put out some better lines than just the blatant lies and obfuscations and twisting of the truth.
But that’s essentially what he’s doing. And to your question about why. Because he’s got billions, billions behind and he can buy American companies to do this for him. He can buy the White House. Let’s face it, the only reason that the United States stays cheek in jowl with Saudi Arabia is oil and money, money and oil. Oil and money, money and oil. How many times do we have to say it?
SHARMINI PERIES: And I understand also, Larry, that as we speak Pentagon is currently considering a $1 billion in new sales of arms and weaponry to Saudi Arabia and who has to benefit from that? The weapons companies that have such a lobby in Washington.
LARRY WILKERSON: And also contemplating a whole new panoply of nuclear capability for Saudi Arabia. This is, this is tantamount to real danger, here. And talking about that nuclear capability in a way of compromise with the Saudis, who do not want to be hampered in any way in having that capability, such that they would be pretty much free to do, for example, what Iran has already done. That’s been the odd side of the argument, that they ought to have the same capacity as Iran. Well, Iran had already gotten up to some 19000 or so centrifuges, already had a very viable program. If the Saudis want to come in at that level we might as well just say here, have a bomb or two.
SHARMINI PERIES: And as far as I know Saudi Arabia is also signatory to the NPT.
LARRY WILKERSON: Yes. And they would probably go into negotiations with Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement with Iran. They have this, this, and this, and in 15-20 years they will have this, this, and this. So why don’t you just give us everything up front so we’re at least in a balanced position with Iran?
Well, this is not what the NPT regime was intended for, and Iran’s a special case right now, being wrested back, if you will, from a very front-leaning position to a position in conformity with the NPT safeguards agreement, additional protocols, and so forth. And of course, a very robust inspection routine set up under the nuclear agreement itself. So to claim that you have to have equality with Iran, OK, fine, let’s sign an agreement with them that’s just as draconian as the one we have with Iran.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry, I thank you so much for joining us today. And we’ll be following the visit of Prince Salman to Washington, DC, and we hope to have you back at the end of the week.
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, let’s say this, Sharmini. Everyone should be pushing, everyone who cares, should be pushing hard for this Senate Joint Resolution 54. This might be the very first step in getting Congress to resume its constitutional responsibility for this country killing people.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for watching the Real News Network.