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Lawmakers call Biden’s Yemen policy ‘historic change’ in US foreign relations

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In 2017, Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, introduced a measure known as the Yemen War Powers Resolution. It was aimed at reducing US military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, which created a humanitarian crisis in the country. At the time, there was very little support on Capitol Hill. Now the policy appears to have been adopted by the White House.

In an interview with CNN, Khanna called the move a “profound and historic change” that marks a new chapter in US relations with Saudi Arabia.

“We are explicit, bold and open to Saudis who say, ‘No, this is not a war that we are supporting,’” the congressman said. “Now I think President Biden has made it clear that the relationship is not what it once was.”

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has clearly called for an end to the US military intervention in Yemen, said in an interview that he believes the move will strengthen US national security, especially if it makes the region less volatile as a result.

“The battlespace has created opportunities for Al Qaeda and ISIS to develop. It has been a mistake from the start for the United States to be involved in this war and I am happy that our participation is finally coming to an end, “he said. .

The move is an early global consequence of Biden’s takeover of former President Donald Trump, who vetoed the resolution of Yemen’s warring powers in 2019 after it was passed in Congress with bipartisan support.

Yemen is embroiled in a multi-year civil war that has pitted a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Houthi rebels backed by Iran, a Shiite political and military organization in northern Yemen. The conflict has claimed thousands of civilian lives.

Democrats are optimistic that the Biden administration will prioritize diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to end the conflict and point to the fact that career diplomat Timothy Lenderking has been appointed special envoy to Yemen as a promising sign. But questions remain about what the United States will do next and how the administration will implement the policy change, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are promising oversight.

In his first major foreign policy speech as president earlier this month, Biden announced the end of “all US support for offensive operations in the Yemen war, including relevant arms sales,” although that he also said that the United States “will continue to help and support Saudi Arabia defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“Details matter,” Khanna said of the policy change in Yemen, noting that one of her concerns is that the Saudis claim future attacks are defensive and not offensive in an attempt to find a loophole. . The term “offensive strikes” should refer to “any strike in Yemen,” he said.

How Congress Can Exercise Control Over Yemen Politics

Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah who co-sponsored the Yemen War Powers resolution in the Senate, said in an interview that he was “thrilled” by the political announcement, but added that if the Congress needed to verify executive power. on the conflict in the future, lawmakers could always push again to pass a new version of the resolution.

“I really look forward to the Biden administration providing some of these additional details to Congress on the support that they would consider to be defensive in nature and that could stay in place,” Lee said. “What do they mean by that? I can’t wait to learn more about it.”

CNN reported in 2019 that the United States at the time was the largest supplier of arms to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and that their support was crucial to the Saudi coalition war. in Yemen. The flood of American weapons fueled a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people – including children on school buses and families fleeing violence – and pushed millions more to the brink of famine.

“I plan to be vigilant enough to make sure that we don’t end up selling weapons to the Saudis that are going to be used as a backdoor in the conflict in Yemen,” said Murphy, who was also a co-sponsor of Yemen. . Resolution of war powers.

The senator said: “I hope Congress does not have to intervene here, but I presented resolutions under the last Democratic administration to oppose arms sales. I hope it does not. there will be no noticeable ammunition sales. Congress in Saudi Arabia, as these are clearly offensive weapons that are used in Yemen. But if there are any, I will be consistent. I will not apply a standard to the administration Trump and another to the Biden administration. ”

Democratic Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, co-sponsor of the Yemen resolution in the House, told CNN that Congress can play an oversight role to ensure swift action.

“It may be democratic control with a Democratic president, but we have to make sure that we continue to make sure that there really is a timeline and that there are actions following what the president said so that we can end the suffering in Yemen, “Pocan said, pointing to the House and Senate committee oversight authorities as a way to hold the administration accountable.

Khanna plans to closely monitor the implementation of the new US policy and will continue to push for America to help Yemenis recover from the damage inflicted on them.

“We cannot go to places, smash them and then just abandon them. We have a moral responsibility to help rebuild civil life and society in Yemen given the role we played in supporting the campaign. The Saudis have the greatest responsibility by far, but we also have a moral responsibility, ”he said.

How the debate over the conflict in Yemen – and the warring powers – has changed

Even though Trump vetoed the resolution of Yemen’s war powers, lawmakers say its passage by Congress nonetheless sent a powerful signal and, to some extent, paved the way for further policy shift on the conflict. from the current administration.

“Absolutely, I think the action of Congress sent a strong message to anyone who listened. Obviously Donald Trump didn’t. Joe Biden did,” Pocan said.

Supporters of the Yemen resolution argued that US military involvement in the Yemen conflict is unconstitutional because Congress did not explicitly authorize it. In their efforts to withdraw the United States from hostilities, they invoked the Powers of War resolution, a 1973 law designed to limit a president’s power to engage the United States in military action without the Congress approval. Under the Constitution, the President acts as the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, but Congress has the power to declare war.

Lee believes that passing the resolution helped show that there is a growing bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill that supports safeguarding the constitutional role of the legislature in authorizing war. The Utah Republican is hoping that, in turn, this could already lead to a change in the way the United States approaches war.

“We have engaged in too many wars in too many parts of the world and one of the things that has been facilitated has been the fact that we have moved away from the article of the Constitution, I am focusing on the need for Congress to declare war ”. Lee said. “It’s not a partisan political issue. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, if they take us to war without Congressional permission, that’s a problem.”

Khanna feels encouraged by what he sees as an emerging “left-right consensus” that is skeptical of US foreign military interventions. “In terms of recognizing that military interventionism has been detrimental to US strategic interests, I think it’s something that really developed in the US Congress,” he said.

The congressman said that when he started pushing for a vote on the resolution of Yemen’s warring powers, “it was an uphill battle” and the murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was a which sparked bipartisan outrage, turned out to be a “turning point.”

The CIA concluded that the Saudi crown prince had personally ordered the murder, despite denials by the Saudi government that the de facto ruler was involved, and following the brutal killing, both houses of Congress passed the Yemen resolution .

When Biden was elected president, Khanna hoped he would take steps to garner U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive. But he didn’t know how long it could take to happen. So he reached out to senior administration officials from the National Security Team to make the case and worked out a strategy with Independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, who had been pushing for the resolution in the Senate.

“Senator Sanders and I have spoken, ‘do we need to reintroduce the powers of war resolution? “We were worried about how quickly they were going to act and how determined they were going to act. And they knew we were considering reintroducing that,” he said.

Ultimately, Khanna said it wasn’t necessary since Biden quickly announced the policy change.

“It was a really meaningful moment to see this happen,” he said.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Ted Barrett, Jeremy Herb and Nima Elbagir contributed to this report.

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