This past March, the United States marked its eighth year of support for a Saudi-led war in Yemen that has killed nearly 400,000 people and pushed millions to the brink of starvation. There's a bunch of bad stuff going on in the world right now, but the United Nations calls the situation in Yemen "the world's worst humanitarian crisis."
In his capacity as chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Seattle-area Congressman Adam Smith holds immense power in ending this ongoing crisis. Earlier this week a coalition of local and Washington state organizations sent him a letter asking him to support a bill that could do just that. So far, he remains "open" but noncommittal to the legislation, which seems odd given his previous support for nearly identical proposals, and odd given general support for the bill from a number of slightly less hawkish members of the foreign policy establishment.
In their letter, the organizations — including the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, Country Doctor Community Health Centers, and various anti-war and progressive groups — asked Smith to cosponsor a forthcoming War Powers Resolution to end U.S. military participation in the Saudi attacks on Yemen.
The legislation, which fellow Western Washingtonian Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio will introduce soon, basically mirrors the language of proposed amendments to the 2020-22 versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have "terminated" all US logistical support, intelligence sharing, spare parts transfers, and maintenance of Saudi warplanes.
The country uses the planes to conduct air raids in Yemen. As the organizers note, this January Saudi planes hit a migrant detention facility and a telecoms facility, killing at least 60 people, injuring more than 200, and triggering a four-day internet outage across the country.
Foreign policy experts agree that Saudi Arabia cannot keep its planes in the air if the US stops fixing them up when they land, so President Joe Biden's signature on this bill would ground the Saudi air force, prevent them from continuing to wage this war, and end the naval and arial blockades that sank nearly 20 million Yemenis into food insecurity. In short, it could end the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
But Rep. Smith is still thinkin' on his support for it. Over the phone, he said he hasn't signed onto the legislation because the sponsors haven’t introduced it yet. When asked why not sign on as an original cosponsor given his previous support for similar legislation, he said he's seen some drafts and has a couple concerns. One of those concerns involves procedure, and the other involves strategy. Both concerns perplex me for different reasons; his procedural concern seems ironic, and his strategic concern contradicts previous votes he's taken on the issue.
His procedural concerns involves the vehicle of the legislation and its language. Rather than stick the policy in a bill that runs through the regular process of committee meetings and markups, the current prime sponsors used a joint resolution under the War Powers Act of 1973, a law Congress passed after Vietnam to reduce the President's power to make war without Congressional oversight. Essentially, this vehicle fast-tracks the legislation to the House and Senate floors, and then, if successful, up to the President's desk. Most importantly, the proposal's language defines spare parts transfers and maintenance of Saudi warplanes as "hostilities" under the War Powers Act's definition of the term. Smith said he's concerned "but not overwhelmingly concerned" about passage of this bill "potentially setting a precedent" that would lead to Congress speedily weighing in more often on other conflicts around the world where US personnel keeps warplanes up and running.
Smith's concern here seems somewhat minor and strange given his position. Successful passage of the bill could motivate other members of Congress to try to shut down US "hostilities" in other wars around the globe, but those Reps would still need to rally support to end our involvement in whichever conflict was at issue. Given how long it's taken to get the US even this close to ending its complicity with literally the worst thing happening on the planet, rallying that support seems like a heavy lift. Furthermore, it's unclear why the chair of the House Armed Services Committee would worry about setting a precedent that would give Congress (and, theoretically, the people) more power in deciding when the US does war stuff. But, ya know, to each his own.
Smith said a letter written in July of 2021 by Oxfam, Mercy Corps, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and other groups informs his strategic concerns. In the letter, those groups argued that the pressure on the Saudi's worked to reduce air strikes but emboldened the Houthis, who they blame for keeping the war going and for poaching the humanitarian aid sent to the country. "We are concerned that any Congressional engagement that ignores these changes and assigns US defense assistance substantial responsibility for driving the conflict and the humanitarian crisis would be counterproductive. Such engagement relieves pressure and diverts scrutiny from the armed actors who continue to put their own military and political interests ahead of the survival of the Yemeni people," they wrote.
Despite the views expressed in that letter, Smith, as The Stranger reported at the time, boldly went on to support an amendment in the 2022 NDAA that would have ended US logistical support for the war, which, if successful, would certainly have counted as "Congressional engagement" on the matter. Lawmakers, however, ended up stripping out the amendment after it passed the House to get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Smith said he knows this letter is also part of the Biden Administration's thinking on Yemen.
Smith acknowledged the contradiction between his backing the NDAA amendment in 2021 despite concerns from those groups then and his weighing of those concerns more heavily now but said, "I was troubled by it then, and I'm troubled by it now," and added that Oxfam and Mercy Corps have not changed their position on this issue. Speaking on behalf of the letter's signatories, a spokesperson for Oxfam confirmed their position has not changed. Smith then went on to emphasize that he's still just working through his thought process, and added that he'd received another draft of the legislation's language today. "I’m going to look at it. This is a process," he said.
"I want peace in Yemen. I don’t want the Houthis to win. I don’t want the Saudis to win. I want peace," he said.
While Rep. Smith continues to deliberate, others prominent members of the national security establishment are signing on. California Rep. Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, signed onto the resolution as a cosponsor. And if that guy doesn't have problems with precedent or with emboldening the Houthis in a war they've pretty much already won, then it's not clear who else should. And, of course, closer to home, more than a dozen anti-war organizations think Smith shouldn’t have a problem with any of that either. If there’s some other constituency at play here, Smith didn’t mention them.
That said, even if the bill gets through the House, which seems feasible given that a similar bill got through in 2019 before Trump vetoed it, President Biden's recalcitrance on this issue and a 50-50 Senate will be sizable hurdles to jump.