Haslam and Hightower: Sen. Sanders, you can end the war on Yemen

This commentary is by James Haslam of Essex and Zoraya Hightower of Burlington. Haslam is founding executive director of Rights & Democracy Vermont and New Hampshire and the Rights & Democracy Institute. Hightower is a Burlington city councilor, is executive director of the Peace & Justice Center, and has served on the board of the Rights & Democracy Institute. 

On Feb. 4, 2021, President Biden pledged an end to “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” 

This would be a welcome development. The dire situation in Yemen, amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, demands immediate humanitarian action to dismantle the blockade and end Saudi Royal Air Force bombings of Yemen.

The president’s words, however, have yet to yield the promised results. A Saudi-led blockade, enforced by Saudi fighter jets maintained by the U.S., continues to drive the humanitarian crisis, which the U.N. calls the worst on Earth. While over 100 elected officials have contacted the White House regarding the issue, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, told the Intercept that those lucky enough to receive a response are provided with “non-answers.” 

The difference between “offensive” support and “defensive” support remains murky at best, and Vox reported in April that the U.S. still maintains contracts with the Saudi Royal Air Force which, if canceled, could “effectively ground… the Saudi Air Force.”

Is the Biden administration ending its involvement in the war in Yemen?

The solution is clear: It is time for Sen. Bernie Sanders to reintroduce his 2019 War Powers Resolution to end unconstitutional U.S. participation in the war in Yemen. This was the core message of a letter from 10 Vermont-based organizations, including Rights & Democracy VT, that we sent Sen. Sanders this summer. Our organization’s commitment to rights — specifically human rights — extends beyond the borders of Vermont and New Hampshire. We believe in human rights for all. 

Through the crises of the past year, Sen. Sanders’s leadership has been singular. He helped secure the American Rescue Plan, which provided desperately needed relief to Americans affected by the coronavirus pandemic. He played a decisive role in securing the May 20 ceasefire between Hamas and the Israeli government, and is a key leader for the president’s Build Back Better agenda. With the war in Yemen, we desperately call for his leadership once again.

American journalists and politicians can wait for the administration to clarify its position, but the people of Yemen do not share this luxury of time. On average, a child in Yemen dies of starvation every 75 seconds. A new War Powers Resolution would deliver results with the speed and urgency this emergency demands. The only action required of Sen. Sanders’s office would be an email to the Senate clerk, promptly bringing the measure to a floor vote.

In the zeitgeist of backlash to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that followed the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, Sen. Sanders achieved the bipartisan congressional passage of the 2019 War Powers Resolution. The backlash had many tangible effects: The 2019 ceasefire in the crucial port city of Hodeidah was attributed in part to the war’s plummeting popularity in the Senate.

Led by Jared Kushner, the Trump administration’s Middle East diplomacy brokered a new alliance of U.S.-friendly far-right regimes in the region, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. These new friends found seemingly common ground in victimizing the dispossessed peoples of the Middle East. 

Just as Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem are subjected to a “system of political and economic oppression” by the Israeli government, according to Sen. Sanders, so too do the people of Yemen live under constant siege by Israel’s new partners, led by Saudi Arabia.

The two situations are uncannily similar. Sen. Sanders denounced the “continuing blockade on Gaza that makes life increasingly intolerable for Palestinians.” The Saudi-led coalition has likewise blockaded Yemen for the last six years, preventing essential supplies from entering the country. Just as the actions of Hamas are weaponized to deny Palestinians their human rights, the actions of the Houthis are used to deny the rights of Yemenis, who are shot, bombed and starved every day. And, of course, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are the beneficiaries of extensive U.S.-made weapons, military equipment, spare parts, and military contract services.

Of course, none of this needs to be explained to Sen. Sanders. In 2019, the senator — with the partnership of Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in the Senate, and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., in the House — introduced historic, bipartisan legislation invoking the War Powers Resolution to withdraw unconstitutional U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. It passed the House 247-175 and the Senate 54-46. 

The only reason it is not law today is that it was vetoed by President Donald Trump. The Senate came up 13 votes short of overturning Trump’s veto.

A new War Powers Resolution, then, presents a clear and desirable opportunity for the Biden administration to stand apart from its predecessor. Sen. Sanders’ estimation of the new government is optimistic, as he recently told CNN that he feels “very welcome” in the Biden White House. Cedric Richmond, senior adviser to the president, confirmed to CNN that Sen. Sanders “has real influence” and “is respected” in the Biden administration.

“With a new president,” Sen. Sanders wrote in The New York Times, “the United States now has the opportunity to develop a new approach to the world — one based on justice and democracy. … We must change course and adopt an evenhanded approach, one that upholds and strengthens international law regarding the protection of civilians, as well as existing U.S. law holding that the provision of U.S. military aid must not enable human rights abuses.”

These words are equally true for Yemen as they are for Palestine.

If the Biden administration is truly committed to ending the atrocities in Yemen, then Sen. Sanders should renew his 2019 legislation, this time without fear of executive veto. On the other hand, if the Biden administration is simply offering empty platitudes, then Sen. Sanders should renew his 2019 legislation as an antidote to the inaction and complacency that so often seize Washington. 

We know it is politically feasible to pass a Yemen War Powers Resolution through Congress. And with a new commander-in-chief, who Sen. Sanders says “understands that at this particular moment in American history … you’ve got to go big,” there is renewed hope for a legislative solution. But that solution will not come on its own: It needs a resolute and dependable leader to usher it through Congress. Sen. Sanders must take up that mantle once again.

On Jan. 25, 2021, Rep. Ro Khanna told the World Says No to War on Yemen Global Online Rally that “Sen. Sanders and I will be advocating and introducing again a War Powers Resolution to stop any logistical support, any intelligence support, and military support, to the Saudis in their campaign in Yemen. That has to take place. We also need to make sure the Saudis pay reparations and lift the blockade.” 

Khanna, like many Democrats, seems to be deferring to the senator. When will this resolution be introduced? Bernie Sanders can end this war. All he has to do is act.


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