Remarks on S.J. Res 54: The Yemen War Powers Act

November 28, 2018

Mr. President, I stood before this body in March of this year to protest our country’s unconstitutional intervention in Saudi Arabia’s bloody war in Yemen.

I was proud to stand with my colleagues Senator Sanders and Senator Murphy to file a discharge motion of our resolution, S.J. Res 54, that would remove U.S. armed forces from Yemen.

At that time, members of the Foreign Relations Committee requested additional time to study the issue and debate the resolution in committee. The chairman of the committee, my colleague Senator Corker, requested this with the commitment to “bring forth legislation to actually appropriately deal with many of the issues relative to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and ourselves.” So the Senate voted to table the motion.

Since then, the committee has held a hearing on this issue, and introduced a separate bipartisan bill to address it. But no further action has been taken.

And so today, eight months later, the bloodshed continues – still abetted by the United States, even amidst further revelations of Saudi depravity. It is long past overdue that Congress remove U.S. forces from Yemen, as recent circumstances only confirm.

Today we have a chance to remedy our course of action and do what the Constitution – and justice – demand.

The situation in Yemen is dire. The war has killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians—human beings, lest we forget—each one of them possessing immeasurable dignity and worth. It has created refugees, orphans, widows, and displaced countless families.

The numbers – and the inhumanity – are staggering: since 2015, more than 10,000 civilians have died, and 40,000 have been wounded. In an attack just a few months ago, a bomb was dropped on a school bus that killed 40 young boys who were on a school trip and wounded another 56 children.

But what few Americans knew until recently is that the U.S. military has actually been making the crisis worse by helping one side bomb these innocent civilians.

So how did we get entangled in this crisis to begin with?

In March of 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a war against Houthi rebels shortly after the Houthis ousted the Saudi-backed government in the capital city of Sanaa.

The Obama administration, without consulting Congress, quickly authorized U.S. military forces to provide “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi coalition. U.S. military support has continued since then, including midair refueling, surveillance, reconnaissance information, and target selection assistance.

In other words, we have been supporting and actively participating in the activities of war.

But Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to declare war—Congress, not the President, not the Pentagon, not someone else within the Executive branch, but Congress. The Founders could not have been clearer about this.

And they did so with good reason: the Founders set up our system of government in such a way as to protect the people from excessive concentration of power in the hands of the few. We know from experience under British rule that bad things happen, especially at the national level, when too few people exercise too much power. And nowhere is this more evident than in the power to declare war.

So the Founders placed the war power squarely in the legislative branch: the branch where honest, open, and public debate is supposed to happen; and the branch that is held most accountable to the people through elections at the most regular intervals.

As Alexander Hamilton points out in Federalist Paper 69, this power would not be exercised by the executive branch so that it would be less likely to be abused, like it was when the King of England acted in and of himself to send his country – and ours, for that matter – into war.

Now, some opponents of our resolution claim that our involvement in Yemen is constitutional under the War Powers Act of 1973. It is true that under the War Powers Act, the executive branch can use armed forces in cases of emergencies and under time constraints.

But the conflict in Yemen by no means constitutes a threat to the safety of American citizens, and our involvement has far surpassed the allotted emergency time constraint. The Houthis, while no friends of ours, are a regional rebel group that does not itself threaten American national security.

In fact, the longer we fight against them, the more reason we give them to hate America and embrace the opportunists who are our true enemy in the region – Iran. The more we prolong the activities that destabilize the region, the longer we harm our own interests in terms of trade and broader regional security.

The War Powers Act also states that the assignment of U.S. armed forces to coordinate or participate in “hostilities” of a foreign country constitutes a conflict of war. And so some have argued that we have not been engaging in “hostilities,” and therefore have not violated the War Powers Act.

But this claim, too, falls flat on its face. We have specifically aided the Saudi coalition with midair refueling and target selection assistance; or as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis himself said in December of 2017, our military is helping the Saudis “make certain [they] hit the right thing.” In other words, we are helping a foreign power bomb its adversaries. If that doesn’t constitute hostilities, I don’t know what does.

And finally, some critics say that this resolution would hurt our efforts to combat terrorism in the region, specifically al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, the resolution explicitly states that it would not impede the military’s ability to fight these terror groups.

In fact, U.S. involvement in Yemen has arguably undermined the effort against al-Qaeda’s affiliates. The State Department’s Country Reports on terrorism for 2016 found that the conflict between the Saudi-led forces and Houthi insurgents has actually helped al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS’s Yemen branch to “deepen their inroads across much of the country.”

It appears that our involvement in Yemen accomplishes no good at all – only harm, and serious harm at that.

The situation in Yemen now poses a true humanitarian crisis. The country is on the brink of rampant disease and mass starvation: an estimated 15 million people don’t have access to clean water and sanitation; and 17 million don’t have access to food. More innocent lives are being lost by the day.

My position on this has not changed for the past eight months. But with the taking of another innocent life – that of Jamal Khashoggi – the circumstances have only further deteriorated.

Intelligence suggests that – despite his repeated denials – the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia himself ordered the murder. Saudi Arabia’s moral depravity has only been made plainer.

This is not an ally that deserves our support or military intervention, especially when our own security is not on the line. On the contrary, to continue supporting them in this war would be bad diplomacy and undermine our very credibility.

No, U.S. intervention in Yemen is unauthorized, unconstitutional, and immoral. And we must not – we cannot – delay voting to end our involvement and our support of Saudi Arabia any further. If we do, we have ourselves to blame for our country’s lost credibility on the world stage; and more importantly, our own consciences will bear the blame for the thousands of lives that will surely continue to be lost.

The Founding Fathers had incredible wisdom in requiring these issues – issues of American blood and treasure – to be debated and discussed between two equal branches of government. They understood that matters of war and alliances must constantly be reconsidered and reevaluated; and in an open, honest, and public manner.

That is one of our most solemn duties in this body, and it is the opportunity that lies before us today.

We owe it to the American people who put their sons and daughters in harm’s way to defend us; we owe it to their parents and families; and we owe it to ourselves, who have taken an oath to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

I urge my colleagues to vote in favor of the motion to discharge the resolution.

I yield the floor.

As prepared for delivery