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One of the leading congressional voices against U.S. aid to the Saudi-led war in Yemen said that the incoming Biden administration will make ending the grueling conflict an early foreign policy priority.
“That means no [American] logistical support, no intelligence support, and no military support for the Saudis in the war in Yemen,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a leading foreign policy progressive, told The Daily Beast in an interview on Monday afternoon. “We're going to see a partner in President Biden, Secretary-designate [Tony] Blinken, and of course National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.”
After speaking with senior Biden advisers expected to join the administration, “I am very encouraged by the moral seriousness with which they are approaching the situation in Yemen, and I have confidence that Secretary-designate Blinken will make this one of his top priorities, to end the war,” Khanna said. “I believe he understands the enormous humanitarian stakes, he understands that this is a generational humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions, and I believe he will engage the Congress and [United Nations Yemen envoy] Martin Griffiths and other stakeholders to bring this conflict to an end.”
It’s a battle Khanna has fought throughout the Trump administration. Along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Khanna spearheaded a 2018-19 push that saw Congress reject U.S. involvement in the war–Vice President-elect Kamala Harris voted in favor of it—despite Trump vetoing the effort.
Biden, in May 2019, urged Congress to override Trump’s veto, and was on record throughout the presidential campaign pledging to halt U.S. involvement in the war, vowing to “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.” He was hardly alone. A 2018 letter urging the end of U.S. support–and expressing regret that the Obama administration started that support–carries signatures from much of Biden’s foreign-policy brain trust, including Blinken, Sullivan, Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, U.N. Ambassador nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield, domestic policy chief Susan Rice, Defense Department appointees Kelly Magsamen and Colin Kahl, and David Cohen, a leading candidate for CIA director.
Khanna noted that Sullivan “was very helpful to us during the process of drafting the initial War Powers Resolution” in 2018.
The Biden transition declined comment. But those familiar with the president-elect’s thinking believe Biden intends to keep his word. An aide to Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), another leading war opponent who is close to some on Biden’s foreign policy team, said Murphy “has had conversations with the incoming administration about the need to end U.S. support to the Yemen war.”
Khanna may be pushing on an open door. But he wants to go further than ending U.S. contributions to the war as a matter of presidential prerogative. He and multiple other progressive sources told The Daily Beast that a renewed push for a War Powers Resolution compelling the end of U.S. involvement is coalescing. Khanna argues that will send a concerted diplomatic signal that the U.S. is firmly behind ending the conflict—not merely the American contributions to it.
“We are going to introduce a new War Powers Resolution,” Khanna said. “It’s important that the parties see that the United States Congress and the Executive Branch are all acting in concert to bring the conflict to an end.”
The progressive congressman tweeted on Sunday night that Biden should “on Day 1” cut off all funding and support for the war. But that wasn’t prompted by a concern about any intransigence on the part of the Biden team.
“What matters is, in the first few weeks, to make sure that they’re in coordination with the Hill and coordination with Martin Griffiths having a strategy to bring this war to a close, and making that clear to the Saudis, and I have reason to believe they’re committed to that,” Khanna said. “They understand genuinely the gravity of the humanitarian crisis and view this as a matter of conscience and a priority for American foreign policy.”
The issue has added urgency as the Trump administration slouches toward its end—and as Biden comes under increased pressure from progressives to move left on a host of national security issues ahead of Jan. 20.
On Wednesday, a missile attack at the Aden airport killed at least 25 people and wounded over 100 in what appears to have been a Houthi strike to eliminate the new Saudi-backed cabinet. Shortly after the election, the State Department moved ahead with a $23 billion arms sale to the other coalition leader, the United Arab Emirates, prompting a new wave of worry that American munitions will kill Yemeni citizens. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reportedly considering designating the Houthis as a terror group, something nongovernmental organizations have warned against. The U.N. is raising alarm that Yemen remains on the brink of a famine. And in the background, tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which sponsors the Houthis, are on a knife’s edge.
For their part, the Saudis appear to accept that Biden will end American support to the war. “I think they expect that Biden will work with them to end the war,” said Ali Shihabi, the former director of the defunct Saudi-backed Arabia Foundation. “Despite all the noise, there is a meeting of minds on this.”
Alexander McCoy, political director at the progressive organization Common Defense, called the effort a “bare minimum” move with “no structural obstacle” to getting accomplished early on in the Biden administration. “This is an extremely reasonable ask,” he said.
“Over the past four years, the center of gravity in the Democratic Party on foreign policy has shifted quite a lot and is now a lot closer to where public opinion is,” McCoy estimated, crediting progressives in Congress and outside grassroots groups for helping to change the discussions around what he described as “the broken disastrous mistake that was the global War on Terror.”
“This is one manifestation of that,” McCoy said in reference to Yemen. “And it’s the easiest one for Joe Biden to end.”
The 2018-19 resolution was the first time in the nearly 50-year history of the War Powers Act that Congress demanded an end to U.S. involvement in a war. It showed that antipathy to the war is hardly limited to the left. This past November, a renewed War Powers Resolution on Yemen introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) attracted co-sponsorship from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and two Democrats close to the House leadership, intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast that “everyone seems to be willing to talk,” and that he feels optimistic about the initial conversations he’s had with the members of his committee.
“There’s certain things that we all know,” Meeks said. “We know that the U.N. has said, for example, this is the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. We know that there are war crimes that are taking place there. Certain things, basic things that we can all agree upon, that’s why I think we can come up with something by sitting down and working together and trying to get something done in that regard.”
Asked if he would support a new War Powers Resolution, the incoming chairman said: “I want to make sure that whatever we do put out on the floor or anything of that nature, we’re doing something that we know can pass and we’re not just doing something that’s ceremonial.”