Dominic de Bruyn
Amid a tentative pause in major violence in Yemen, some US lawmakers launched a renewed bid in December 2022 to end military support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which cost the country US$54.6 billion between 2015 and 2021. Their argument centres around the constitutional authority of the President of the United States (US) to authorise the involvement of military forces in overseas conflicts.
Now entering its ninth year, the conflict in Yemen has inflicted a stunning level of misery and destruction in one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. The United Nations estimates that more than 370,000 people have died as a result of the war, with more than half of those deaths caused by a lack of water, food, and health services.
The war is being waged between a coalition of Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi movement, a minority Shiite group supported by Iran that capitalised on mass protests against the ruling regime in 2014 to capture major Yemeni population centres. Since 2015, the Saudi coalition has conducted a fierce military campaign to roll back Houthi gains and reinstate a national government aligned with Riyadh.
In April 2022, both sides signed on to a UN-brokered truce that has significantly reduced the violence. Although the truce expired in October, open warfare has not resumed, raising hopes of a political settlement to end the war.
The US is a major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and conducted mid-air refuelling of Saudi jets until November 2018. Under increasing international criticism for indirectly supporting Saudi Arabia, President Biden committed to ending the sale of offensive weapons to Riyadh, but stated the US would “continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity”.
In December 2022, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) sought to introduce a Joint Resolution to Congress that aimed to end US military involvement in the conflict. The bill states that Congress retains the sole power to declare war under the US Constitution and notes that Congress has not authorised the use of military force in Yemen. The bill further directs the President to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in Yemen no later than 30 days after the Joint Resolution is adopted.
The US Constitution states that Congress has the power to declare war, while the President is responsible for directing operations as commander in chief of the armed forces. However, throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, presidents have routinely engaged in military operations without congressional consent, including in Yemen.
In response to the erosion of congressional oversight, Congress passed the War Powers Act of 1973, which requires the President to inform Congress within 48 hours if military forces will be engaged in hostilities. The President then has 60 to 90 days to withdraw the engaged forces unless Congress expressly authorises the ongoing use of force.
Sanders’ Yemen bill outlines the unmet obligations of the 1973 Act, noting that the President has introduced military forces into hostilities without the approval of Congress. President Biden disagrees with this assessment, arguing that US military forces are involved in a “non-combat role” to support the Saudi-led coalition for “defensive and training purposes as they relate to territorial defense”. Accordingly, the Biden administration contends that US involvement in Yemen is not subject to obligations under the 1973 Act.
A key factor in this debate is the precise definition of ‘hostilities’ under the 1973 Act. As the legislation did not specify which military operations meet the threshold of introducing US forces into hostilities, successive presidents have claimed that various military operations did not constitute hostilities as US forces were not under threat. For example, the Trump administration argued in 2018 that ‘hostilities’ are only those situations in which US armed forces are actively engaged in exchanges of fire with opposing units.
Outwardly, the Biden administration is couching its opposition to Sanders’ bill in terms of the threat to fragile peace negotiations, arguing that it would “greatly complicate the intense and ongoing diplomacy” aimed at achieving a political settlement between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels. The Biden administration argues the Joint Resolution could embolden the Houthis to restart the war in the knowledge that Saudi Arabia could no longer depend on US support.
However, the Biden administration’s main concern may be the bill’s implications for US involvement in other conflicts. While the Joint Resolution focuses only on Yemen, it could set a policy precedent that provides Congress with the power to routinely regulate foreign military operations, thereby imposing a significant constraint on executive power.
The Biden administration has secured a reprieve in the short term, with Senator Sanders announcing he will no longer bring the bill to the Senate floor and will work with the White House to end the war in Yemen. However, irrespective of the political realities at hand, the debate over war powers is likely to continue between the legislative and executive branches of government. The historic trend towards executive power over foreign policy may be swinging back in favour of increased congressional oversight.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of any other entity.
Dominic de Bruyn is an emerging writer and analyst of American politics and culture.