In 1973, as President Richard M. Nixon escalated an unauthorized bombing campaign in Cambodia, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) asked, “Does the President assert — as kings of old — that as Commander in Chief he can order American forces anywhere for any purpose that suits him?” Later that year, Congress answered unequivocally that he could not, overriding a presidential veto to authorize the War Powers Act.
Forty-five years later, the Senate took an important step last week toward reclaiming the war powers that Congress has abandoned in recent decades, especially as U.S. military adventurism in the Middle East grew in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In a surprising 63-to-37 vote, the Senate advanced a resolution introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s devastation of Yemen. As the first time a war-powers resolution has ever advanced in the Senate, the vote marked a dramatic move toward returning control over matters of war and peace to Congress. It is also a testament to the power of antiwar activism — in the halls of Congress and at the grass roots — to force a reckoning with the consequences of the United States’ endless and unauthorized wars.
The fighting in Yemen, ostensibly a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Since the conflict began in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has launched more than 18,000 airstrikes, including the August bombing of a school bus that killed 40 children. An estimated 85,000 children under the age of five have already starved to death; another 14 million Yemenis — half the country’s population — are on the brink of famine. A cholera epidemic that broke out last year is accelerating, with officials reporting 10,000 new cases each week. Growing more desperate by the day, some civilians are selling their own organs to survive.
Yet while it is Saudi Arabia’s war, the United States has been deeply complicit in creating this hellscape. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have pumped billions of dollars in weapons and munitions into the Saudi war effort, while the U.S. military has provided essential logistical support. “There is a U.S. imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) explained recently, “because though the bombs that are being dropped may come out of planes that are piloted by Saudis or [United Arab Emirates forces], they are U.S.-made bombs. The missions are refueled by U.S. planes. There are U.S. personnel sitting in the centers that decide the targets. . . . It’s unconscionable.”
Progressive lawmakers, led by Murphy, Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), and joined by a handful of Republicans, have worked tirelessly to compel Congress to end the U.S.-made calamity in Yemen. But their efforts have been hampered time and again by other Democrats’ indifference, most Republicans’ insidiousness and the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment’s stubborn insistence on treating an immoral Saudi regime as an indispensable ally. In 2016, Murphy’s first attempt to block an arms sale to Saudi Arabia received just 27 votes in the Senate. In 2017, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) helped kill a House resolution from Khanna demanding the removal of U.S. forces from the conflict. Most recently, Republicans blocked another Khanna resolution by sneaking language into a measure removing gray wolves from the list of endangered species.
Despite these setbacks, the antiwar camp refused to let their colleagues look away from the carnage. When a resolution from Murphy and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) received 44 votes in March, it indicated that the politics of the war could be evolving. The brutal murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi regime, seemed to finally inspire a revolt against the bipartisan consensus. In recent weeks, progressive groups — including Peace Action, MoveOn, Win Without War, Code Pink and Indivisible — spearheaded campaigns to pressure Congress to end the war in Yemen. Activists visited the offices of Democratic holdouts and urged them to reverse their positions. And last week, a supermajority that included hawks from both parties sent a powerful message that it is time for the United States to change course.
Of course, major hurdles remain to ending the war once and for all. Even if the Senate resolution survives a final vote, the House is unlikely to take it up until Democrats assume power in the new year. It would also have to overcome a veto threat from President Trump, whose administration is heavily invested in maintaining warm relations with the Saudi regime. (Just last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the escalating criticism of Saudi Arabia as “caterwauling.”)
But whatever happens next, this is a watershed moment. Lawmakers are signaling that, for the first time in a long time, they may put a check on presidential war powers. Like Fulbright, they are saying the president is not a “king” but an elected official who can be reined in.