The Senate looked poised last night to vote on the Yemen War Powers Resolution, which would have stopped some forms of U.S. assistance to the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia in the ongoing Yemeni Civil War. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), who sponsored the resolution, told The Intercept last week that he thought he had enough votes for it to pass the Senate.
But last night, Sanders announced that he'd withdrawn the resolution from Senate consideration "after the Biden administration agreed to continue working with [his] office on ending the war in Yemen." That came after reports that the White House railed against the resolution, with aides cautioning that President Joe Biden might veto it if passed. If the White House and Sanders' office fail to reach an agreement, Sanders says he will reintroduce the resolution "in the near future and do everything possible to end this horrific conflict."
Sanders' disappointing capitulation to the White House ensures that Biden can keep putting off the course corrections he promised on the campaign trail. As a candidate, Biden said he'd end former President Donald Trump's "blank check" assistance to Saudi Arabia and end the war in Yemen. Yesterday's reports indicate that the president is more committed to the status quo than he cares to publicly admit.
For three presidential administrations now, the U.S. has provided weapons and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is battling an Iran-backed Islamist militant group known as the Houthi rebels. The United Nations estimates that 233,000 people have died in Yemen during the war, more than half of them due to noncombat factors like food insecurity and poor medical care. U.S.-made weapons have been used in attacks that left dozens of civilians dead and have helped keep the war raging for nearly eight deadly years.
In his first visit to the State Department as president, Biden said he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. But by December 2021, the administration had "pushed an additional sale of missiles to Saudi Arabia through Congress, arguing that the weapons would be used for 'defensive' purposes," The New Republic reported. Biden officials have failed to condemn Saudi airstrikes at critical moments and haven't effectively pushed Riyadh to end a blockade that's keeping humanitarian aid away from civilians.
Sanders' Yemen War Powers Resolution would've addressed some, but not all, aspects of U.S. involvement in the conflict. (The text doesn't mention arms sales, for instance.) It called for the removal of U.S. troops from hostilities against the Houthis in Yemen, noting that their presence was never authorized by Congress via a declaration of war. It wouldn't have prevented U.S. forces from fighting Al Qaeda or its affiliates in the region, and it would've explicitly barred support for "offensive" coalition activities. That last loophole would've left the president wiggle room in the conflict; despite a promise to end "offensive" support, the Biden administration has been able to keep up some of that assistance by rebranding it as defensive.
Biden has had two years to do what he promised with regard to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which makes Sanders' withdrawal of the resolution all the more Pollyannaish. Voters deserve to know how their elected officials are failing to live up to their stated positions, and avoiding a Senate vote deprives them of that. Besides, Sanders was happy to stand up to a president when Trump vetoed a Yemen war powers resolution in 2019. "Congress must act now to protect that constitutional responsibility" to authorize wars "by overriding the president's veto," Sanders said at the time.
The Biden administration will face no such challenge—not yet, at least. That represents a blow to the war-making process outlined in the Constitution and helps keep the U.S. in league with a questionable ally. Ultimately, a lack of action falls on Yemeni civilians, who will continue to suffer and die in large numbers as long as they remain caught between international powers with great appetites for conflict.