The Senate vote to allow debate on ending U.S. military involvement in Yemen marked the crossing of a significant threshold, and not just because the resolution will create political pressure to reverse the tide of atrocities against Yemeni civilians.
Over the long term, the Senate’s decision to invoke the War Powers Resolution might prove even more consequential in the political struggle now belatedly underway to roll back America’s ever-metastasizing and endless “war on terror.”
Since the September 11 attacks, America has militarized every aspect of its foreign policy, and has subordinated its most important core values—civil liberties, due process, universal rights—to a blinkered obsession with counter-terrorism. Long-standing tensions between values and interests tilted abruptly in favor of an extreme counter-terror approach.
U.S. policymakers have chased the mirage of zero-risk security while undermining basic bulwarks of the American system, most importantly our criminal justice system and our diplomatic corps. All the while, even some critics of America’s security obsessions feared that electoral politics made it impossible to stand against the endless war and the counter-terrorism juggernaut, believing voters wouldn’t tolerate any politician who wanted to limit the war on terror.
Yemen Resolution Is the First Step
The victory of the proposed joint resolution could begin the long overdue process of bringing sunshine to a dark chapter in American history. Politicians from both parties have acquiesced to a long parade of atrocities in the name of protecting America from terrorism: torture, rendition, secret prisons, an extrajudicial American prison camp for undesirables, even the assassination by presidential order of American citizens implicated in terrorist attacks. This zero-sum approach has promoted simplistic binaries and obsessions with demonizable culprits, like Iran. Three presidents have claimed historically unprecedented authority to undertake foreign wars—dozens of them undeclared—without any oversight whatsoever.
The American system is built on checks and balances, however, and should act to restrain an untrammeled runaway branch of government. The executive’s endless war on terror has known no bounds, true to the Orwellian name given by its founding architect, Donald Rumsfeld: the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. Americans sometimes pronounced it “gee-wot,” explaining their pursuit of Al Qaeda in Iraq or Taliban in Afghanistan or North African jihadis as the necessary management of a long effort to contain terrorism. Other names have since attached themselves to the endless war, but endless war is what American policymakers have embraced since September 11. Today American special forces and other military personnel are engaged in what any reasonable person would consider warfare in an estimated 130 to 150 countries. The Pentagon stopped counting the number of people it kills, because it doesn’t want to be held politically accountable for dead civilians (although Congress has passed legislation to compel the military to resume tracking civilian casualties). Legal sophistry has defined the age, from the lawyers in the administration of George W. Bush who created cover for torture (they called it “enhanced interrogation”) to legalistic backflips that justify the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the routine drone strikes against mostly unidentified foreigners.
The draft resolution on the Yemen war passed with 63 votes in favor and 37 against. The same resolution had come up for a vote earlier this year in March and fell short, with 44 votes in favor and 55 against. A bipartisan group of senators, including independent Bernie Sanders and Republican Mike Lee, kept pushing for the resolution and found a growing community of supporters among lawmakers outraged by Saudi Arabia’s contempt of global norms and by the steady flow of images of famine and death from Yemen. The Saudi leadership’s undeniable involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a critic of the Saudi regime and a legal resident of the United States, with the legal protections supposedly afforded by that status—seemed to finally have galvanized anti-Saudi sentiment in the Senate.
Soon, perhaps, we will no longer live in an age where American authorities can pursue any militarized policy they want, using force as they want, without a trace of oversight from their co-equal branches of government; without regard for America’s core foundational values concerning rights and due process; and without reference to the desires of the American electorate.
For the broader significance of the vote, however, we must look beyond the outrage about starving Yemeni children and Saudi abuse of power. Stopping the killing in Yemen, or at least ending American complicity, itself represents an important goal, but it will be better still if, in the process of helping Yemen, lawmakers build an accountability mechanism for America’s entire web of counterterrorism military interventions.
Political winds have shifted, making it possible today for lawmakers to believe that standing for the humanity of Yemeni civilians and against the crimes of Saudi royals no longer creates an electoral liability. As a result, some lawmakers were willing to oppose an unpopular war in Yemen, but wanted to avoid a confrontation over the War Powers Resolution or the carte blanche the White House has had to wage war anywhere it sees fit since 2001. Some of these lawmakers proposed a watered-down resolution that would have demanded the withdrawal of U.S. support for the Yemen war without citing the War Powers Resolution.
For complex procedural reasons, a weaker resolution might have a slightly better chance of actually stopping the Pentagon’s complicity in Yemen. But the authors of the resolution that moved forward in the Senate on November 28 are determined to bring to fruition a project that targets atrocities beyond Yemen: they want nothing less than to bring to heel America’s endless war.
That’s why it was so crucial to pass a resolution based on the War Powers Resolution—and that’s why the White House is so determined to shut down the resolution, which it might well prove able to do. Even if the White House does manage to squelch the resolution against the Yemen war (in a subsequent Senate vote, through a presidential veto, or through legal challenges) it is clear that the political tide has turned.
Revoking the AUMF—and Changing Voters’ Minds—Should Be Next
The War Powers Resolution was passed in 1973 in the twilight of the Vietnam War, when lawmakers believed they had displayed a tragic inability to oversee the executive branch’s long series of deadly errors and miscalculations, a mountain of specific war crimes and tactical mistakes that amounted to a colossal strategic blunder that undermined American security interests.
Today, the War Powers Resolution is more relevant than ever. Its provisions are necessary in order to hold the White House to account for its runaway war and to force political scrutiny of American foreign policy. Even if Congress exercises all its oversight authority, the executive branch will still possess more than enough legal authority—probably too much—to use military and intelligence tools to combat perceived threats from abroad. But soon, perhaps, we will no longer live in an age where American authorities can pursue any militarized policy they want, using force as they want, without a trace of oversight from their co-equal branches of government; without regard for America’s core foundational values concerning rights and due process; and without reference to the desires of the American electorate.
Whatever happens in Yemen after the White House and Pentagon lawyers have their say, it is clear that a frontal challenge is finally underway against the endless war on terror. Although the legal and legislative aspects of this challenge are significant, any serious rollback will require political momentum—and that momentum ultimately comes from voters. We’ll see increasing scrutiny of the long war on terror as long as elections continue to bring in a new crop of officials, like some of the newly minted progressives in Congress, and empower established voices in the House and Senate, like the bipartisan caucus that has kept up the pressure on the Yemen war. The issue of legislative oversight will be raised again, and Congress will use its authority to monitor and report on American action overseas. Perhaps, before long, lawmakers can reverse American backsliding on torture, rendition, extrajudicial detention, and loose targeting of foreign suspects. They can force the Pentagon to document and explain its conduct, restoring simple but crucial practices like counting casualties and documenting the innocents caught and killed in the counter-terror dragnet, “collateral damage” of American bombs. If Americans consider the tradeoffs worthy and the harms justified, then surely the choices made in pursuit of national security will withstand the daylight of public scrutiny from Congress and the courts.
It is the shift in political preference by American voters, reflected in the changing votes in Congress, that will finally start winding back the endless war on terror.
Naturally, some of America’s security operations are warranted, enabling the military, intelligence, and police to follow their mandate to keep Americans safe. Rebalancing doesn’t mean walking away from the rest of the world or leaving Americans unprotected. But those of us who have genuine confidence in America’s bill of rights and principles of justice and due process know that American rule of law and American courts are the ideal tools for fighting organized criminals—whether they hail from the mob or from Al Qaeda. We aren’t afraid of the politics of fear-mongering, which holds that it’s more important to reduce risks to zero than to preserve civil liberties. We aren’t afraid of the politics of trying mass murderers in open courtrooms subject to the right and proper oversight of American law. Legitimate operations against killers and plotters can proceed under the oversight of American courts and American laws. Due process will still allow law enforcement the leeway it needs to keep Americans safe. The point is to hold government behavior up to scrutiny, creating a historical record and a process for evaluating security policy.
The next step in establishing serious oversight should be to target the post-September 11 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, which has provided the legal authority the wars that began with the invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Congress can and should repeal the AUMF, forcing the executive branch to ask for specific authority for any wars it wants to continue. Important and useful ventures like the partnership against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will have no trouble getting support.
A bipartisan group of patriotic American lawmakers wants to end the unbounded and endless military adventurism that began seventeen years ago at a moment when Americans felt vulnerable and threatened by poorly understand forces. Today we understand criminal organizations like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and we have excellent resources to fight and prosecute them. Invoking the War Powers Resolution is the first step to congressional oversight. But it is the shift in political preference by American voters, reflected in the changing votes in Congress, that will finally start winding back the endless war on terror. American voters, tired of a militarized foreign policy and the sprawling security state it has spawned at home, have begun electing representatives willing to question America’s wars and the unaccountable security policymakers who have thrived out of public sight. We are beginning to see the results of this shift, which will take years to come to full fruition. It can’t come soon enough.