Yemen Resolution Floor Remarks

March 13, 2019

Mr./Madam President,

I rise to stand with Senator Sanders and Senator Murphy, as cosponsors of the legislation before us: S.J. Res 7, which would remove U.S. armed forces from Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

56 Senators voted in favor of this resolution just a few months ago, in December of the last Congress. That vote was a victory for the Constitution and the separation of powers, to say nothing of prudence and justice.

The of House of Representatives passed its own version of this resolution earlier this year.

Now, it’s back to us.

Today we have the opportunity to reassert Congress’s constitutional role over declaring war, and over putting American blood and treasure on the line.

In this particular case, Mr./Madam President, the evidence is clear that we ought not be involved in this unconstitutional, unjustified, and immoral war.

The Yemeni war has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, including innocent civilians. It has created countless refugees, orphans, and widows; and displaced countless families.

The numbers are staggering: since 2015, more than 6,000 civilians have died, and more than 10,000 have been wounded. And the majority of these casualties – over 10,000 of them – have been the result of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition.

In one attack last year, the Saudis dropped a U.S.-made bomb on a school bus that killed 40 young children on a school trip, and wounded another 30 children.

Yemen is now facing rampant disease and mass starvation: an estimated 15 million people do not have access to clean water and sanitation; and 17 million don’t have access to food.

Photographs from Yemen depict malnourished children with every rib in their bodies jutting out. Over 85,000 children have died of starvation since 2015.

In short, the situation in Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

And the U.S. has been abetting these horrors of war.

Indeed, our country has actually made this crisis worse by helping one side bomb these innocent civilians.

How did we first 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, 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. We are involved in this conflict as cobelligerents.

Now, some of my colleagues have argued the contrary – that we are somehow not involved in a war in Yemen.

But if we are at all honest with ourselves, this argument falls flat on its face.

As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis himself said in December of 2017, our military is helping the Saudis with target selection assistance, or with “mak[ing] certain [they] hit the right thing.” In other words, we are helping a foreign power to bomb its adversaries. Previously, we were even helping with “midair refueling assistance”— that is, helping the Saudi jets en route to bombing missions and other combat missions on the ground in Yemen.

If that doesn’t constitute direct involvement in a war, I don’t know what does.

Other 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 does not constitute 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 again that we have not been engaging in “hostilities,” and therefore have not violated the War Powers Act.

First, this claim is categorically untrue. As we heard before, we are literally telling the Saudis what to bomb, what to hit, and what to take out.

Second, these opponents are relying on an old 1976 memorandum internal to the executive branch that uses an unreasonably slim definition of the word “hostilities.” This definition might have been relevant then, but we no longer live in a world in which war means two competing countries lined up on opposite sides of a battlefield engaged in direct exchanges of fire.

War activities have changed drastically over the last 50 years and have become increasingly hi-tech; today, they usually involve cyber activity, reconnaissance, surveillance, and target selection…

The precise activities we are undertaking in Yemen.

Even aside from this overly narrow and outdated definition of “hostilities,” under the War Powers Act we ourselves do not technically have to be involved in hostilities. It is triggered so long as we are sufficiently involved with the armed forces of another nation when they are involved in hostilities.

And the Saudis are indisputably engaged in hostilities in Yemen. There can be no doubt in our minds about that.

Finally, some argue 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 significant harm at that.

And recent events are bringing things into even clearer light.

In October there was the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

The other week, news broke that the Saudis tortured a man with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia while he was detained there in November 2017.

And shortly before that, a report also came out suggesting that members of the Saudi-led coalition have transferred American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters and other militant groups.

In other words, the Saudis are likely using our own weapons – in violation of our own end-user agreements with them – to commit these atrocities of war.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not an ally that deserves our support or military intervention, especially when our own security is not on the line.
Indeed, Mr. President, perhaps we ought not be supporting this regime at all. But at a bare minimum, we ought not be fighting an unjust civil war on their behalf, half a world away.

On the contrary, to continue supporting them in this war would be bad diplomacy and undermine our very credibility on the world stage.

But regardless of where you stand on this war, these decisions matter, and we ought to take them seriously.

And that is exactly why the Founding Fathers placed the power to declare war squarely within the legislative branch, where we can publicly debate and discuss these decisions; where we can – and should – carefully weigh the risks and merits of engaging in war, in an honest and open manner.

Instead of placing this power in the hands of a King, or even in the executive branch, where it could be used to unilaterally declare war, the Founders placed it in Congress – where it would be most accountable to the people through elected representatives, and least likely to be abused.

Because there is a lot at stake, Mr. President, whenever the lives of American soldiers are on the line. And whenever the lives of innocent men, women, and children are on the line, too. Precious lives, of immeasurable worth.

These decisions result in the shedding of blood – the shedding of blood which will be on our hands if we fail to both exercise our constitutional prerogatives and to take this responsibility seriously.

So today, I urge my colleagues once again to vote to discharge the resolution from committee; and to vote to end our involvement in this unauthorized, unjustified, and immoral war.

I yield the floor.