The Biden Administration Killed Bernie’s Bid to End the Yemen War

Despite its lofty rhetoric about sovereignty and human rights, the Biden administration has been working overtime to kill a congressional attempt from Bernie Sanders to end US support for the Saudi war on Yemen.

President Joe Biden walks to the Oval Office after exiting Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House December 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The war in Yemen is widely considered to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and this month, there was a faint hope it might actually end. Senator Bernie Sanders seemed confident at the start of December that his war powers resolution to end pivotal US support for the Saudi-led war effort would have the votes if he brought it to the floor, and Tuesday proved to be the moment of truth.

Then it all unraveled. Joe Biden’s White House began whipping behind the scenes to kill the measure, telling lawmakers that its passage would jeopardize what it cast as the administration’s successful diplomatic efforts in the conflict, and threatening to veto whatever passed, according to talking points first reported by the Intercept and shared with Jacobin. Senator Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, quickly came out as a “no” vote, with his counterpart, Senator Dianne Feinstein, another Democrat, soon following suit. Late on Tuesday, Sanders withdrew the resolution, saying he would instead work with the White House to negotiate new language that everyone could agree on, and promising to reintroduce it if he and the administration couldn’t come to an acceptable agreement.

Though Sanders put on a brave front, casting the decision as his willing choice to work with the White House for a happy compromise, reporting from Capitol Hill appears to tell a different story. Several sources told Politico that it soon turned out Sanders didn’t, in fact, have the votes he thought he had to pass the measure, meaning he likely chose to withdraw it rather than risk a defeat that would foreclose on any future action.

Just like that, a measure that twice passed a GOP-controlled Senate — and even went all the way to the president’s desk once, under divided government — couldn’t even clear one chamber of Congress under a Democratic trifecta, and under a president who had expressly vowed to end US support for the war.

Not Over Yet

While disappointed, those involved in the effort to end US backing for the war told Jacobin they don’t view the resolution’s current failure as the last word. Though activists were let down by the lack of communication from Sanders’s office and what felt like a last-minute push, they nevertheless view this as a critical next step in a yearslong campaign that will most likely come to a head in the next Congress.

“There’s good reason to believe that the next push to get a floor vote on it is going to have a lot more momentum behind it,” says Cavan Kharrazian of Demand Progress.

Those involved say even the threat to hold the vote has had an impact, maybe most notably in putting the relatively forgotten war back on the national agenda. Biden’s February 2021 executive order used careful language to give the impression of ending US support while in reality keeping it going, a framing swallowed by many press outlets, all but banishing the issue from political discussion as a result. By whipping to kill Sanders’s resolution this week, the White House has, in effect, tacitly but publicly admitted its backing of the Saudi-led campaign has not really ended, and that the issue wasn’t solved by the president’s pen.

In the process of the flurry of lobbying and advocacy in the run-up to the vote, lawmakers who haven’t thought about the war since the start of last year have been forced to put the matter at top of their minds and develop a stance on it. Sources say they got word from numerous senators that they intended to vote for the resolution, and they point to the public support it got from Republican senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as Democratic senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism. While not a cosponsor, Murphy is an influential liberal voice on foreign policy who made a floor speech before the vote and later appeared on MSNBC calling for the end of US support.

“I think this process is only going to strengthen our hand here,” says Hassan El-Tayyab, the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s legislative director for Middle East policy.

While getting it through the next, divided Congress will be tougher, sources told Jacobin, it will still be possible. Antiwar groups have had success persuading Republicans on the matter and getting GOP sign-on for the effort, with ten Republicans cosponsoring the House version of the resolution. And, there are a host of right-leaning, anti-interventionist groups ready to ramp up the pressure next time.

The resolution has another important effect, they say. While it’s true Saudi Arabia has paused its bombing campaign since April — part of the White House’s justification for opposing the bill — this could restart any time, especially since the fragile truce between the warring parties expired two months ago.

“This sends a huge message to Saudi Arabia,” Kharrazian says. “Even though there was no vote, if Saudi Arabia wasn’t thinking about the risk of restarting their bombing campaign, they’ve seen now that Sanders is ready to pull the trigger.”

A renewed Saudi-led air offensive, especially with the war back in US headlines, is exactly the kind of thing that could generate enough outrage to activate a bipartisan coalition that really will cut off US support next time. While far from guaranteed, it’s enough of a risk that the Saudis will have to tread carefully in the weeks and months ahead.

Upside Down

There’s a lot to say about all of this.

For one, it’s notable that the two earliest Senate voices out of the gate in favor of continuing US support for the Saudi-led war — and which were key to torpedoing the measure’s chances on the Senate floor — were not only Democrats, but Democrats from deep-blue California. Worse, it’s well-known at this point that one of those senators, Dianne Feinstein, suffers from debilitating memory loss, suggesting that it wasn’t the senator herself — who has been fiercely critical of US complicity in the war and vigorously supported this measure in the past — but her unelected staffers who decided to attach her name and that of the Californians she represents to backing this war.

Another thing is the mind-bending levels of hypocrisy involved here, in a city that virtually runs on the stuff. Like most of the world, politicians in Washington have been rightly disgusted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and however one feels about the US policy toward the war, it’s fair to say they’ve moved heaven and earth to punish Moscow for it — from diplomatic isolation and official condemnation at the United Nations, to unprecedented levels of military support and far-reaching sanctions that have had painful effects on the rest of the world.

Not that anything similar has been contemplated against Saudi Arabia in the eight long years this war has lasted, but none of these measures nor the unintended consequences they entail are even required here. All that’s needed to help bring to a close the Saudis’ war — which has killed more than 377,000 people, put millions at risk of starvation, and sent diseases like cholera, polio, and diphtheria tearing through the population like wildfire — is to end US involvement, since Washington’s support is integral to the Saudi-led coalition’s ability to keep fighting, from arms sales and providing maintenance and spare parts for fighter jets, to assistance we’re not even aware of.

This is why a variety of experts — including a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the Arab Center Washington DC’s executive director, and a former US diplomat to Yemen who joined the hawkish Atlantic Council — have all said the war couldn’t go for much longer if the United States pulled its support. It’s why CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, who has also worked for the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and NATO, said in 2016 that “if the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told [former Saudi leader] King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow.” It’s why Senator Murphy said on the Senate floor this week that “if we stopped servicing those planes, it would be hard, potentially impossible for the Saudis to continue that war.”

The war in Yemen is not only one where the United States is unambiguously on the wrong side, helping a repressive monarchy wage war on impoverished neighboring civilians and carry out a range of stomach-churning atrocities while doing so. It’s also one that makes a mockery of US rhetoric about democracy, sovereignty, and human rights, undermining future efforts to hold other states accountable for their own, similar crimes.

Such hypocrisy may not raise an eyebrow in Washington, but it does in the rest of the world, as we’ve seen with the developing world’s response to the Russian invasion. States have been unwilling to follow the West and take the risks that diplomatic and economic isolation of Russia would entail for them, partly because they view the principles and “rules-based international order” that are meant to be at stake in that conflict as being selectively and opportunistically invoked by powerful states, with Yemen being a prime example. As Murphy said on the Senate floor, ongoing US support makes the United States “morally weaker, because for us to be a participant in any way, shape, or form in a war with this kind of misery, it really shapes the way that people think about us in the region and around the world.”

Incredibly, even as the administration remains divided over seeking a diplomatic route to deescalating the war in Ukraine — and even as the idea has been effectively made taboo within significant swathes of US discourse — the White House is citing the importance of diplomacy to argue against ending its backing of an aggressor state in this war. It’s warped logic — ending US support would most likely enhance diplomacy here, since it would incentivize the Saudis to look for a peaceful way out — but it’s also untrue. As former UN special envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar told the Intercept, “There’s been no diplomatic progress whatsoever . . . So an all-out war can resume at any time.”

Some have actually turned to attacking antiwar activists as the real problem. Center for International Policy fellow Kate Kizer told Politico that “what they’re doing is undermining support for activism,” while Huffington Post foreign affairs reporter Akbar Shahid Ahmed accused activists of reducing “what could have been a productive conversation” into “DC power plays” by backing the resolution.

Yet in 2018, Kizer herself called US backing for the Saudi war “unquestioned executive overreach” while praising Sanders’s identical push for a war powers resolution as “a bold action” from Congress that meant “upholding its constitutional role as the sole body that can declare war.” Just six months ago, when the truce was still actually in place, she called it “a means to . . . pressure both the administration, as well as the Saudi and Emirati monarchies, to seek a final diplomatic resolution to the intervention and broader war.”

When asked about this contradiction, Kizer, pointing to this Twitter thread, said that the Saudis’ pause in bombing and the Houthis’ expansion of war aims and disinterest in negotiations mean that it’s “no longer the coalition who needs to be pushed to the peace table to end the war,” but the Houthis. Kizer also says that the Senate’s earlier stripping of House-passed bans on US support via spare parts and maintenance in multiple National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) means a war powers resolution “is not the tool to use to actually hold these monarchies accountable.” (Though the Senate also stripped such House-passed provisions from NDAAs during the years Kizer backed a war powers resolution, and in any case, this is a little like saying Trump’s veto of the resolution is a reason not to try to pass it again).

Flip this around and it’s hard to imagine, quite rightly, any of these arguments being taken seriously if they came from foreign officials trying to justify their support for Russia, whose brutal bombing campaign on Ukrainian infrastructure has similarly been read ― by the US special advisor to the commander of Ukraine’s forces no less ― as a way to push an unwilling Ukrainian side to the negotiating table. In that case, US voices would likely and correctly respond that any complicity in a terrible war killing and maiming civilians is wrong, period, and should end as soon as possible, as we can see from the fierce criticism Iran has faced for doing far less to aid Moscow’s war effort than Washington has done to help the Saudis.

Yet for some reason, US journalists, politicians, and thinkers seem unwilling to apply that same simple moral calculus to their own government’s actions.

The Fight Continues

As Matt Duss, a progressive foreign policy voice and former Sanders advisor, told the Post last year, “one of the best ways to create moments [of change in Congress] is to force a vote,” since it “creates an opportunity for education and discussion.”

The good news is that this is still very much on the table. But what it will need is grassroots pressure of the kind that groups like Demand Progress seek to facilitate, not just on Sanders — to preclude him from acquiescing to an inadequate deal with the White House — but on Democratic lawmakers, to defy their president and do the right thing, and on Biden himself, to make clear there will be a political cost to vetoing any resolution that clears Congress. Despite what you may have heard, the fight to end the war in Yemen isn’t lost, so be ready to act.