January 19, 2018
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This is our chance to finally end US complicity in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis

By Brian Milakovsky, Special to the BDN
George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

At a time when genuine bipartisan action seems almost impossible, there is one issue in Congress uniting libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats: opposition to the brutal war in Yemen.

For humanitarian and constitutional reasons, this war is a catastrophe that the U.S. must end as soon as it can. The House of Representatives will soon debate a motion that would do just that, and we as Mainers must do everything we can to ensure our Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree cast a “yes” vote.

In 2014, Houthi rebels seized control of most of Yemen and took over its government. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries opened a military offensive against the Houthis, and then President Barack Obama authorized military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. This included massive arms sales and the provision of millions of pounds of jet fuel for Saudi bombing runs on Houthi targets.

But from the very beginning of the war it became clear the Saudis were fomenting a humanitarian catastrophe. Both sides are guilty of grave human rights violations, but the United Nations attributes the majority of the war’s 10,000 civilian deaths to the Saudi-led coalition.

Much worse, the coalition has serially bombed ports, bridges and roads needed to transport food around the desert country, and hospitals where Yemenis receive basic treatment. Together with a naval blockade of rebel-held ports, this has created famine conditions that now directly threaten to kill 7 million Yemenis. Nearly a million Yemenis have been infected in a cholera epidemic caused by the collapse of the medical system.

[It’s time for Americans to wake up to their complicity in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis]

Obama made only mild attempts to rein in the Saudis, choosing not to offend our important Middle East ally. President Donald Trump has doubled down on support, even considering sending U.S. troops to join the Saudi-led offensive.

Even though the Saudis could never wage their war without U.S. assistance, Obama and Trump claimed that America was not a belligerent and thus war did not need be declared. Thus Congress, which has war-making powers under our Constitution, was never consulted about U.S. involvement in a war that threatens the lives of millions and the total collapse of Yemen as a state.

But a surprisingly diverse coalition in Congress is pushing back and demanding that the U.S. get out of the Yemen war. At its core are two very different groups. One is libertarian Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, and the other is liberal Democrats like Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Rep. Ro Khanna of California.

Murphy and Paul led two attempts to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2016 and 2017, the second of which came within five votes of passing the Senate. But today Khanna is pushing for an even more forceful approach, citing the U.S. War Powers Act to demand a vote on ending all U.S. military support for the war, including arms sales and jet refueling. He has registered House Concurrent Resolution 81, which should be voted on in early November. If this resolution passes the House, it would start the process of extricating the U.S. from this brutal conflict.

Citing the War Powers Act is a reminder that opposition to U.S. support for the Yemen war is not only about the horrific humanitarian consequences, but also the erosion of checks and balances in our constitutional system. The U.S. has been at war almost continuously for three generations, but the last time Congress declared war was against the Axis powers in World War II.

Over the past decades Congress has gradually abdicated war-making powers to the executive branch, allowing four presidents to embroil us in disastrous interventions across the Middle East. These wars are sold to Congress and the American people with simplistic narratives about democracy, human rights and regional stability, even as they unleash greater and greater chaos in the region.

[Containing ‘Iranian mischief’ is no excuse for letting Yemen’s humanitarian crisis fester]

The Yemen tragedy is no exception. Presidents Obama and Trump claim that support for the Saudi-led coalition is necessary to contain Iran, which provides some arms to the Houthi rebels. But many Middle East experts counter that Tehran’s support is not significant enough to make the Houthis an “Iranian proxy” or to justify U.S. support for the Saudis’ war of annihilation.

Furthermore, the war is creating the conditions in which our enemies al-Qaida and the Islamic State group thrive: economic devastation, the breakdown of the educational system, sectarian and ideological strife. As Sunni extremists, al-Qaida militants despise the Shiite Houthi rebels, and there are reports that they have attacked Houthi positions alongside the Saudi-led coalition. This led Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, to claim that “Al Qaeda in Yemen has emerged as a de facto ally of the Saudi-led militaries with whom [the Trump] administration aims to partner more closely.”

But despite the absence of any evidence that this war is supporting core U.S. national interests, many senators and representatives subscribe to a hawkish Washington consensus that buys unthinkingly into the “contain Iran” narrative. Congressional hawks twice defeated efforts to curb arms sales to the Saudis, and those in leadership are doing their best to kill the vote on Resolution 81.

But encouragingly, the bipartisan group of Yemen war opponents is steadily picking up new converts, including moderates from both parties who are key to controlling Congress. For instance, one of the strongest critics of human rights violations by Saudi Arabia in the Senate is moderate Republican Todd Young of Indiana.

[Our love of soaring principles should not distract us from our moral duty in global conflicts]

Whether our Maine congressional delegation stays with the failed hawkish consensus or joins the opponents of the Yemen war is largely up to us, their constituents. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, has come around to the side of the skeptics, voting first against curtailing arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2016 but then for curtailing sales in 2017. But he is yet to take any leadership on the issue. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, remains a consistent Iran hawk, voting both times to continue arms sales. But Collins has supported many Senate initiatives to protect human rights abroad, which suggests she may be open to appeals about the terrifying humanitarian consequences of the Saudi-led offensive.

Rep. Chellie Pingree has been a consistent champion of Yemeni human rights in the House, though she has not yet signed on as co-sponsor to Resolution 81. Her colleague Rep. Bruce Poliquin stays largely mum about foreign policy, but consistently votes with the hawks.

We must let our elected representatives know that this vicious war has no natural constituency in Maine. Helping the Saudis bomb Yemen into famine and collapse serves neither our interests nor our values. We can take an important first step by calling Poliquin and Pingree and asking them to vote yes on House Concurrent Resolution 81.

Brian Milakovsky is from Somerville. He works for a humanitarian organization in eastern Ukraine. He writes about Yemen at yemenmaine.blogspot.com.

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