Getting the Vote: Ro Khanna’s Fight to End U.S. Involvement in Yemen

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Getting the Vote: Ro Khanna’s Fight to End U.S. Involvement in Yemen

With the U.S. entering its fourth year of entanglement in Yemen’s bloody civil war, Democratic lawmakers on the Hill are preparing a coup: a historic rebuke of the Trump administration’s policy of arming and aiding Saudi Arabia and its allies by both legislative houses. While Donald Trump is expected to veto any war powers resolution, such a measure even reaching his desk will signal to the world a shift in American attitudes towards the conflict.

Leading the effort are Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). Khanna will be introducing his resolution on Wednesday.

“I’ve had the commitment of both Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer to bring it to a vote, and Jim McGovern, the Rules Committee Chair,” he tells Paste. Even though my service is somewhat spotty, I can tell he’s excited. I’ve spoken to Khanna on and off in recent months about the US’ role in the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen and his efforts to bring it to an end, and I don’t remember the last time I heard him sound so confident. “I anticipate a convincing victory in the House, having it brought up right away in the Senate, and a convincing victory in the Senate.”

I feel somewhat bad asking about the likelihood of a Trump veto—whether it concerns him and if there is support to override it.

“Probably not enough to override a veto in either body,” he says frankly. “But we’re going to make the case [for Trump] to sign it. Obviously that’s an uphill battle, but it would be hypocritical for him to be talking about withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan and then talking about an escalation in intervention in Yemen. So I think it would be consistent for him to sign it.”

At this point, he’s grown accustomed to uphill battles and setbacks. He’s been fighting the same fight going on two years. In that time, he’s learned to take every victory and build off it, and inch by inch, public opinion has shifted. The flashpoint came in October with the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but an earlier event—the August school bus bombing in Saada by coalition jets using American bombs that left 44 children dead—also played a role.

In December, Sanders and Murphy even managed to secure a victory in the Senate for a war powers resolution to end US involvement in Yemen. However, that victory was short lived as Khanna’s mirror resolution in the House was blocked by then-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) who added a rider to the annual farm bill which stripped it of its privileged status under the War Powers Act. Notably, Democrats could have stopped Ryan’s plan without killing the farm bill, but didn’t. Washington Post journalist Jeff Stein reported that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer stood down.

Still, even that single victory was a far cry from where the effort stood when Khanna was first approached by peace groups and activists in 2017. He tells me that he’d originally wanted to recruit a more senior House member to be the face behind the effort, but was informed that nobody else was interested. “They were candid and said ‘well we can’t get anyone to introduce a war powers resolution, we’ve been trying and you’re our best bet,’” he explains. “So I introduced it and we started gaining momentum.”

We briefly touch on how that momentum came about, despite heavy opposition from the Saudi lobby and the GOP as well as pushback from fellow Democrats. “When we first introduced the legislation in 2017, we were told it was a bad idea,” Khanna would later elaborate in a follow-up email. “We were advised against pushing the legislation and told it would split the Democratic caucus. At the time, believe it or not, not all Democrats wanted to end US involvement in the war and many did not like the War Powers Resolution vehicle.”

In November 2017, Khanna saw his first real victory when the GOP House passed a compromise resolution acknowledging U.S. involvement in Yemen—refueling of Saudi jets, providing intelligence support—and the unauthorized nature of it. Since its passage, Khanna has gone on record stating that it wasn’t everything he’d been hoping for, but it was a start. His disappointment comes across even now with the way he emphasizes the word “compromise.”

Khanna does point out, however, that it proved to be a turning point. It was after that small victory that the California congressman teamed up with Sanders. The acknowledgement by the House paved the way for the senator to introduce the war powers resolution. And though it failed, it got 40 votes and his “star power,” as Khanna calls it, brought necessary public attention to the issue.

“Since then, for a year and a half, both Senator Sanders and I would coordinate,” Khanna explains. “We would introduce something in the house to build momentum. And often when we would introduce it we got new partners—Adam Smith (D-WA) or Steny Hoyer (D-MD) or Eliot Engel (D-NY)—and every time we would introduce it, he would introduce it in the Senate. And so for a year and a half we were coordinating to really continue to keep this alive.”

And keep it alive they have, with the upcoming vote marking just the latest step towards finally ending U.S. complicity in Yemen’s immiseration, and potentially hastening the end of a seemingly endless conflict.

The Yemen civil war began in 2015, but traces all the way back to 2011, when a popular Arab Spring uprising forced the country’s longtime dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down. Succeeding Saleh was his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who struggled to address the numerous problems facing the population. Yemen was already the poorest country in the region. Hadi’s perceived failure fueled the rise of a Zaidi Shia minority group with alleged ties to Iran. The Houthis, as they were known, seized territory in Yemen’s northern region following the transition before ousting Hadi from the capital of Sana’a in 2015 and declaring the formation of the new Ansar Allah government.

In response, nine predominantly Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, and backed by the US and its allies, formed a coalition to restore Hadi to power and stop the spread of Iran’s influence, and fighting has followed ever since with both sides committing war crimes and employing the use of child soldiers. Complicating matters, al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters have occupied territory in the south.

A fragile ceasefire was brokered in December between the Ansar Allah and coalition forces to stop fighting in the port city of Hodeidah, but that agreement has all but fallen apart. Experts fear renewed fighting could send the country spiraling into one of the worst famines in living memory, affecting 14 million Yemenis. Already a coalition blockade of Hodeidah has left much of the country in need of necessary supplies, from food to medicine. That, along with the decimation of Yemen’s infrastructure, has made the country a hotbed for disease. It is currently ground zero for the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, having reached over a million reported cases. Swine flu is reportedly on the rise as well.

If the war continues as it has, millions of people stand to die. As many as 80,000 have already been killed since the start of the conflict. But that number only accounts for those killed in the fighting—not the humanitarian crisis which has been dubbed ‘the world’s worst’ by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Guterres noted that a staggering 22 million Yemenis are in desperate need of assistance.

In our follow-up email three days later, Khanna tells me the experience has left him hopeful about the direction the U.S. seems to be headed. “We built a massive left-right coalition comprised of congressional members and outside groups, bringing the Progressive and Freedom caucuses together,” he writes. “We are taking on the foreign policy establishment and very wealthy foreign countries who have tremendous influence in D.C. and are going to pass this resolution. To me that is amazing. It shows me the power that ordinary Americans can play in our democracy.”

But for all of his optimism, Khanna concludes on a sobering note. “On the flip side, it is discouraging that a wealthy country like Saudi Arabia can buy off so many think tanks and politicians,” he adds. “To me, that is what is broken with the system, and something that needs to be changed.”

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Walker Bragman previously wrote about the U.S. involvement in Yemen, and the importance of showing graphic images, here.

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