Last week in the House of Representatives, America’s role in the ongoing war in Yemen received the most attention it ever has in the three years it’s been waged. The attention did not come in the way you might think—like an open debate on the merits, for example—but rather, in the form of an aggressive attempt to make sure that debate never happened.
Using procedures available to him under the War Powers Act, Representative Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and several of his colleagues introduced a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led forces in Yemen, a conflict that has now grown into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Massie’s goal was less about winning and more about forcing an overdue debate on the role of U.S. military force in Yemen—its goals, costs and consequences—which has largely remained behind the scenes and out of the public consciousness.
Washington’s participation and support of the Saudis’ military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels began on March 25, 2015, when the White House announced, “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to the [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations.”
Days later, during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Central Command chief General Lloyd Austin was asked what was the ultimate goal of this air campaign. His answer was startling in its candor: “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.”
In other words, for more than three years, the United States has been a willing co-combatant in a war without any direction or clear end in sight.
The results have been tragic.
Non-governmental organizations working in Yemen estimate that at least 130 children die of starvation daily. At least 1 million people are now suffering from cholera and will likely die. The Saudi-led coalition continues to drop American munitions on vulnerable populations, sometimes as often as 14 times a day. In August, Saudi planes, using American munitions, bombed a school bus killing dozens of Yemeni school children.
Writing in Foreign Policy in August, a headline from respected author and researcher Micah Zenko blared, “America is committing war crimes and doesn’t even know why.”
Following the death of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, the U.S. government was quick to respond with outrage, sanctions, and an open reconsideration of America’s relationship with the House of Saud.
But as millions suffer and die in Yemen—aided and abetted by American forces—the U.S. government is silent.
Massie’s goal was to force a public acknowledgement that, after three years of continued American military participation, this conflict is a war—and an ill-fated one at that. Under the constitutional obligation requiring Congress to make declarations of war, the War Powers Act allows expedited procedures for consideration, guaranteeing that the question will be given a vote.
But House Republican leadership had other plans for the resolution authored by one of their own colleagues.
Rather than allowing the resolution to move forward in an expedited manner, the GOP-led House Rules Committee, in a 6-2 vote, decided that the privileged consideration guaranteed under the War Powers Act simply would not apply to Massie’s resolution.
They stuffed the provision into an unrelated procedural vote related to, of all things, the gray wolf, and brought it to the House floor. Despite the outcry from Massie and his colleagues, the full House agreed to stifle Massie’s right to debate by a vote of 201-187.
Speaking to Vox ahead of the vote, a Republican congressional aide called Massie’s vote “purely political and simply unnecessary,” and noted, “When Democrats assume the majority they will have the opportunity to hold hearings, markups and take votes on this matter.”
Thorough consideration of the role the U.S. plays in overseas conflicts remains a constitutional obligation for Congress. But Republicans apparently have demoted it to petty politics. They’ve also thoroughly devalued the right of their colleague to have his ideas heard on the floor of the House.
Democrats have declared their intent to address America’s involvement in Yemen—months from now, after hundreds more likely have died. But it’s unfortunate that, in the waning days of their majority, House Republicans chose to suppress debate on an issue far more pressing than the issues they actually devoted time to debating.
Behavior like this further perpetuates the notion that Congress—and Republicans in particular—will thoughtlessly send bombs overseas without regard for the consequences. And worse, without any oversight or interest in them.
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