As the White House prepares to wage another fight with Congress to preserve its involvement in the Yemen war, opponents plan to use President Trump’s criticisms of endless, pointless wars as either a lever or a cudgel.
“I think we’re going to start with the secretary of defense and then perhaps other people close to the president, making the case that the president’s view of withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria should lead him to, at least, withdraw from Yemen,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the chief sponsor of a House resolution to compel the U.S. to end its participation in the Saudi-led war, told The Daily Beast. “It makes no sense to call for greater restraint and an end to endless war and then to have us involved in Yemen.”
On Wednesday, the House is slated to take up a procedural vote on Khanna’s resolution, which holds that under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, Congress never authorized American involvement in the nearly four-year old war on Yemen and the U.S. military must end its contributions, which currently include providing intelligence to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since Khanna’s measure has the support of the House Democratic leadership, the resolution is considered a lock to pass. A substantive vote could come as soon as this week.
Trump, however, is vowing to fight Khanna’s resolution, much as he opposed the 2018-era congressional effort to get the U.S. out of Yemen.
On Tuesday afternoon, the White House threatened to veto the resolution. Reiterating a Pentagon contention, it claimed the War Powers Resolution doesn’t apply to a conflict where the U.S. isn’t a direct combatant, and would “harm bilateral relationships in the region”—a reference to Trump’s closeness with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which is unaffected by a CIA assessment that the Saudi crown prince was the architect of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
While Trump professes antipathy for several U.S. conflicts, Yemen isn’t one of them. Trump has long considered the 17-year old Afghanistan war a waste (even though, as president, he escalated it anyway). He authorized an envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to explore peace with the Taliban, and Khalilzad believes they have a preliminary framework for a negotiated settlement. And in December, Trump ordered the approximately 2000 U.S. troops out of Syria—though the administration keeps delaying the pace of that withdrawal—which prompted the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and anti-Islamic State coalition diplomat Brett McGurk.
It’s unclear what Trump’s new acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, thinks about the Yemen war and U.S. involvement, and if he’ll meet with Khanna to discuss the congressman’s resolution. Shanahan traveled this week to Afghanistan and Iraq, and a spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But to Khanna’s allies in the Senate, the consistency argument holds water.
“The Saudi-led war in Yemen has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the region, has strengthened Iran’s relationship with the Houthis, and has facilitated the growth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including via our Saudi and Emirati partners literally transferring U.S. weapons to them,” said Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who succeeded in passing a companion antiwar resolution through the Senate in December.
“It’s a strategic disaster for the United States from every angle. It makes no sense to draw down in Syria and Afghanistan while continuing to fuel the Yemen war. Yemen should be the first intervention we end, not the last.”
Josh Geltzer, a Justice Department and National Security Council counterterrorism official in the Obama administration, didn’t see Trump’s promotion of the Yemen war and his antipathy to the Syrian and Afghanistan ones as necessarily inconsistent. But he considered the Yemen war less central to U.S. security than the wars Trump’s gestured at ending.
“Even if Trump has focused on the US ground presence in Syria and Afghanistan, and even if we don’t have such a ground presence in Yemen, ultimately, the threats to Americans that U.S. forces have been trying to address in Syria and in Afghanistan are far greater and far more direct than any threat Trump may think he’s helping to address by supporting the Saudi campaign in Yemen,” Geltzer said.
For his part, Khanna thinks passing the resolution won’t just get the U.S. out of the Yemen war. It might help end the war outright.
“That was part of the reason you had a temporary cease-fire, because of the pressure that Senate vote,” he said. “So I am confident that if the House votes, and then we know it’s gonna pass in the Senate, it’s going to put an inordinate amount of pressure on the United States to make it clear that the Saudis should stop the indiscriminate bombing in Yemen and they should come to the table for a peace agreement.”