Edited by Sam Thielman
IN MARCH, FOREVER WARS contended that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a dire omen for Yemen, and it feels safe to say that subsequent events have borne that analysis out. Now, after promising to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" during his campaign, Biden may soon face a choice on opposing a measure—one that he and his top aides used to support—to end all U.S. support for the Saudis' war in Yemen.
According to The Intercept, Bernie Sanders plans to introduce a War Powers Resolution that would eradicate the remaining military support that the U.S. provides the Saudi military, as Riyadh prosecutes a war against Yemen now in its eighth year. FOREVER WARS sources in the anti-Yemen War coalition were a bit surprised to hear that Sanders was planning to introduce the resolution in this lame-duck congressional session, as the Saudis have yet to return to airstrikes after a ceasefire expired in October. But my sources were encouraged by Sanders' stated confidence, to Intercept reporters Daniel Boguslaw and Ryan Grim, that he has the votes for passage.
While the measure is limited to Yemen, it carries a tacit question about whether Biden's stand against unprovoked aggression by stronger states against their weaker neighbors extends beyond Ukraine, particularly when it's the U.S.' allies—in this case, those whose bloodshed is well known to Biden—conducting the aggression.
It's been a rough few months, to say the least, for Biden and Saudi Arabia. After Biden's abject performance this summer in Riyadh, where Biden offered rapprochement in exchange for an oil-production spike that would hurt Russian oil revenue, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responded in October by cutting production. In November, U.S. officials hectored the Saudis and others to "do more" for Ukraine; they didn't. This week, Riyadh is feting Chinese President Xi Jinping, an unambiguous indication that MBS is entirely willing to entertain another imperial patron.
Biden and other officials who seemed furious over the oil-production cut in October soon said that they would bide their time before delivering any of the consequences they had threatened. Congressional critics of the Saudis made noises about stopping weapons sales and removing U.S. troops from the country.
Into this dynamic steps Sanders and his War Powers Resolution. One option for the White House would be to let the resolution pass and rebuke an aspect of the U.S.-Saudi partnership that Biden already considers to be outside the national interest. It would make good on the White House's "consequences" line.
But no one FOREVER WARS interviewed expects the White House to back the resolution. Their assessment is that Biden has decided that his only choice is to work with MBS given Ukraine. Accordingly, they expect Biden to oppose and, if necessary, veto a resolution that the congressional Democratic Party supported when Donald Trump was president. Adding to the awkwardness, in 2018 a raft of now-senior officials—national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, U.S. Amb. to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, seriously the whole clique—signed a letter urging an end to U.S. support for the war in Yemen.
"It's beyond just how bad and hypocritical this makes Biden and his entire administration look" if they oppose the resolution, said Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute. "Given Biden's long tenure in Congress, and the assumption that he believes in Congress as a co-equal branch of government, it is especially disappointing if Biden doesn't try to scale back the expansion of executive authority in the War on Terror." War Powers Resolutions reassert congressional authority over warmaking in response to undeclared military conflicts pursued with absent or dubious congressional authorization. Trump vetoed a bipartisan version of Sanders’ current resolution in 2019.
National Security Council and State Department spokespeople didn't respond to questions about the administration's stance on the revived War Powers Resolution. Let's keep in mind for the purposes of this piece that the administration has not taken a position yet, at least not that I've seen.
As well, Saddam Hussein was unavailable for comment about a certain historical irony surrounding oil-rich psychopaths whose psychosis is manifestly clear to the U.S. officials materially supporting them.
AS FOREVER WARS WAS WORKING on this piece on Thursday, the White House released its semiannual letter to Congress about global military deployments. We'll go into that in some detail after the section break. But the letter, like two of its predecessors, confirmed that the U.S. military continues to provide material support—"advice and limited information"—to the "Saudi-led Coalition for defensive and training purposes only as they relate to territorial defense."1
Like those predecessors, this letter asserted that ongoing U.S. support to the Saudi war effort "does not involve United States Armed Forces in hostilities with the Houthis for the purposes of the War Powers Resolution." Sanders and his congressional allies are about to put a different view to the test.
As the Intercept mentioned, there's some speculation that U.S. material support for Ukraine might complicate this Yemen-focused War Powers Resolution, on the grounds that it would potentially imply that support for Ukraine might similarly require an act of Congress. That doesn't strike me as a problem, but Quincy's Sheline points out that it would be a weak argument regardless, as such resolutions aren't legal precedents. Then there are the substantive differences between aiding a state resisting foreign aggression and aiding a foreign aggressor. "The parallel would make more sense if we were helping Yemen defend itself from the Saudis, but in this case it's as if we're helping the Russians attack Ukraine," Sheline observed.
Accordingly, it's that much more perverse to sacrifice Yemen on the altar of the presumed interests of the Ukrainian war. But all the signs have been pointing in that direction. On Tuesday, U.S. envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, in congressional testimony, praised the Saudis—again, the aggressors in that conflict—for their "proactive steps over the past several months to secure the truce and ensure continued restraint since the agreement expired in October." Last month in Manama, Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl boasted of providing the Saudis with intelligence about Iranian plots. On Thursday, with Xi in Riyadh – bearing a deal with Huawei that the U.S. opposes – the Saudis and the Emiratis let it be known that they played a mediating role in the Brittney Griner-Viktor Bout prisoner exchange. Has Biden looked at all this year like he'll respond to that by signing a disavowal of the Yemen war, especially one that might have implications for weapons sales and the 2,755 U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia "provid[ing] air and missile defense capabilities and support[ing] the operation of United States military aircraft"? (That letter again.)
However the language of Sanders' latest War Powers Resolution might shift from its predecessor that passed both houses of Congress under Trump, its intent and its rationale are the same. Pretty much the whole Democratic Party in Congress was for it then. Among the reasons those senior Biden officials signed their 2018 open letter was to express remorse for their own support of Saudi Arabia’s aggression against Yemen when they served in the Obama administration. Back then, Obama’s support in Yemen was the cost of Saudi and Emirati acquiescence on the Iran nuclear deal. While, again, Biden has not publicly committed to any position yet, if he opposes the resolution, ostensibly as part of a calculation predicated on aiding Ukraine, he will inevitably undermine his own position that support for Ukraine is derived from the broader principle of support for an international order that rejects state aggression.
The resolution is "about trying to remind other countries—not that they have to always go along with the United States, but if they continue to act in ways that are contrary to U.S. interests and objectives, they shouldn't expect us to fight wars of aggression or unnecessary wars," Sheline said. "In many ways, there are so many parallels between what Russia is doing to Ukraine and what Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are doing to Yemen."
AND NOW, THE DECEMBER 2022 LETTER TO THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE AND PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE OF THE SENATE REGARDING THE WAR POWERS REPORT. This congressional requirement serves as a War on Terror disclosure form. Well, there's not that much disclosure, but let's continue.
With regard to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, nothing's really changed from six months ago. "A small presence" of U.S. forces remain in northeastern Syria, where they're targeted by Iran-backed militias, not ISIS. While the report doesn't give this number, about 2,500 U.S. forces remain in a training and advisory capacity in Iraq with regard to the Iraqi national and Kurdish regional militaries. The letter reminds that the U.S. is postured outside of Afghanistan to respond to any threats "that may arise from inside."
As with the previous letter, "a small number" of U.S. forces remain in Yemen to attack al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS elements in that country. As mentioned above, there are 2,755 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, about the same as there were six months ago. This letter does not mention, as Kahl did last month, that there are 35,000 U.S. troops stationed throughout the Middle East.
With regard to Somalia, the letter confirms that Biden has fully moved an unspecified number of U.S. forces back into the country, reversing a Trump decision to stage the war from Djibouti and Kenya. "Since the last periodic report, United States Armed Forces have conducted one successful airstrike against an al-Shabaab high value target and a number of airstrikes against al-Shabaab in defense of our Somali partner forces." That's the most specificity we get about the hottest theater of the War on Terror.
However, we do learn there's been a significant increase in U.S. forces in Niger—once more, entirely out of public view, no matter the mini-reckoning after the 2017 ambush debacle. Six months ago there were 773 U.S. troops conducting "airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations and [providing] support to African and European partners conducting counterterrorism operations in the region, including by advising, assisting, and accompanying these partner forces." Today there are 1,001, an increase of nearly 30 percent in six months. No one felt any compulsion at all to justify that decision, or even announce it.
1 That defensive-aid-only phrasing is a face-saving distinction for the administration, which put a big asterisk on its campaign promise to end U.S. support for the Yemen war, adopted the Saudi line on it, and then sold Saudi over $1 billion worth of Yemen-relevant weaponry.
2 [Trump is a very stupid, cruel man, but even by his standards, moving the staging areas for the war in Somalia to Kenya was especially callous and ignorant. It’s well-known that Osama bin Laden bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998 but the details of the attack are especially horrifying: The embassy, which was at that time in downtown Nairobi, was destroyed not directly by the bomb but by a four-story building that collapsed onto the embassy after the car bomb went off outside the embassy, rather than in the parking deck underneath as intended. Security at the embassy had refused to allow the bombers to drive their car under the building, and the fighting had drawn many people to the glass windows before the bomb exploded. In 2002, al Qaeda bombed an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. The country’s public places and the bases where it allows Americans to live have been targets of lethal aggression by militants for decades, and increasing that risk by militarizing further within its borders and announcing that it would continue carrying out operations in Somalia from the country, less than a year after a mass murder on a US base in Kenya by al Qaeda affiliates from al-Shabaab, was among the most reckless things Trump did.—Sam.]
CORRECTION: Oops, I accidentally wrote that Biden wanted OPEC to cut production when, of course, he wanted a production boost to bring prices down. That error isn’t Sam’s fault, it’s mine. Still, you guys pretty much all recognized that we had reversed the dynamic by accident and rolled with it, so, thanks for that. Thanks especially to Andrew MacDowell for pointing out my goof-up.