Lawmakers call Biden's Yemen policy a 'historic shift' in US foreign relations

By Clare Foran, CNN

(CNN) -- When President Joe Biden announced the US will end support for Saudi Arabia's offensive operations in Yemen, Rep. Ro Khanna felt the decision was a vindication of a fight he's been engaged in for years.

In 2017, Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, introduced a measure that came to be known as the Yemen War Powers resolution. It was intended to curtail US military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, which has 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 embraced by the White House.

In an interview with CNN, Khanna called the move "a profound and historic shift" that marks a new chapter in the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.

"We're being explicit and bold and open to the Saudis saying, 'no, this is not a war we support,'" the congressman said. "Now I think that President Biden has made a clear statement that relationship is no longer what it once was."

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been outspoken in calling for an end to American military intervention in Yemen, said in an interview that he believes the move will strengthen US national security, particularly if it makes the region less volatile as a result.

"The battle space has created openings for Al-Qaeda and ISIS to grow. It's been a mistake from the beginning for the US to be involved in this war and I'm glad that our participation is finally coming to an end," he said.

The move is an early global consequence of Biden taking over from former President Donald Trump, who vetoed the Yemen War Powers resolution in 2019 after it passed Congress with bipartisan support.

Yemen has been embroiled in a years-long civil war that has pitted a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, a Shia political and military organization from the north of Yemen. The conflict has cost thousands of civilian lives.

Democrats are optimistic the Biden administration will prioritize diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to bring an end to the conflict and point to the fact that career diplomat Timothy Lenderking has been appointed as special envoy for Yemen as a promising sign. But questions remain over exactly what the US 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 an end to "all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales," though he also said the US will "continue to help and support Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity."

"The details matter," Khanna said, when it comes to the Yemen policy change, noting that one of his concerns is that the Saudis will claim future attacks are defensive and not offensive in an effort to find a loophole. The term offensive strikes should refer to "any strikes into Yemen," he said.

How Congress can exercise oversight over Yemen policy

Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who co-sponsored the Yemen War Powers resolution in the Senate, said in an interview that he is "thrilled" by the policy announcement, but added that if Congress needs to provide a check on the executive branch over the conflict in the future, lawmakers could always push again to pass a new version of the resolution.

"I'm really looking forward to the Biden administration providing some of these additional details to Congress on exactly what support they would consider to be defensive in nature that might remain in place," Lee said. "What do they mean by that? I look forward to learning more about that."

CNN reported in 2019 that the US at the time was the biggest supplier of arms to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and its support has been crucial to the Saudi coalition's war in Yemen. The flood of US weaponry has fueled a conflict that has killed tens of thousands -- among them children on school buses and families fleeing violence -- and pushed millions more to the brink of famine.

"I plan to be pretty vigilant to make sure we don't end up selling weapons to the Saudis that are going to get used through a back door in the Yemen conflict," said Murphy, who was also a co-sponsor of the Yemen War Powers resolution.

The senator said, "I hope that Congress won't have to intervene here, but I brought resolutions to the floor under the last Democratic administration to object to arms sales. My hope is that there won't be any sales of munitions noticed to Congress to Saudi Arabia, because those are clearly offensive weapons that are being used in Yemen. But if there are, I'll be consistent. I'm not going to apply one standard to the Trump administration and a different one to the Biden administration."

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a 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 we're continuing to make sure there's really a timeline and there are actions that follow up to what the President said so that we can end the suffering in Yemen," Pocan said, pointing to the oversight authorities of House and Senate committees as one way to hold the administration accountable.

Khanna plans to closely monitor how the new US policy is implemented and will continue to push for America to help the Yemenis recover from the damage inflicted upon them.

"We can't go into places, break them, and then just abandon them. We have a moral responsibility to help rebuild civilian life and society in Yemen given the role we played in supporting the Saudi campaign. The Saudis have the biggest responsibility, by far, but we have a moral responsibility as well," he said.

How the debate over the Yemen conflict -- and war powers -- changed

Even though the Yemen War Powers resolution was vetoed by Trump, lawmakers say the fact that it passed Congress nevertheless sent a powerful signal and, to some extent, paved the way for the new policy change on the conflict from the current administration.

"Absolutely, I think congressional action sent a strong message to anyone who listened. Clearly Donald Trump didn't. Joe Biden did," Pocan said.

Supporters of the Yemen resolution have argued that US military involvement in the Yemen conflict is unconstitutional because Congress did not explicitly authorize it. In their effort to pull the US from hostilities, they invoked the War Powers Resolution, a 1973 law aimed at reining in a president's authority to engage the US in military action without congressional approval. Under the Constitution, the President acts as commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, but Congress has the power to declare war.

Lee believes that passage of the resolution helped show that there is a growing bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill that supports safeguarding the legislative branch's constitutional role in authorizing war. The Utah Republican hopes that, in turn, may already be bringing about a shift in the way the US approaches war.

"We've gotten into too many wars in too many parts of the world and one of the things that's facilitated that has been the fact that we've drifted away from the Constitution's Article I focus on the need for Congress to declare war," Lee said. "It's not a partisan political issue. We don't care whether it's a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, if they're taking us to war without authorization from Congress, that's a problem."

Khanna feels encouraged by what he views as an emerging "left-right consensus" that is skeptical of American foreign military interventions. "In terms of a recognition that military interventionism has been harmful to American strategic interests, I think that is something that has really grown in the United States Congress," he said.

The congressman said that when he started pushing for a vote on the Yemen War Powers resolution, "it was an uphill fight" and that the murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, an event that sparked bipartisan outrage, proved to be a "turning point."

The CIA concluded the Saudi Crown Prince personally ordered the killing, despite the Saudi government's denials that the de facto ruler was involved, and in the wake of the brutal killing, both chambers of Congress passed the Yemen resolution.

When Biden was elected President, Khanna was hopeful he would take action to pull US support for the Saudi-led offensive. But he didn't know how soon that might happen. So he reached out to senior administration officials on the national security team to press the case and strategized with Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had pushed for the resolution in the Senate.

"Senator Sanders and I talked, 'do we need to re-introduce the War Powers resolution?' We were concerned with how quickly they were going to act and how decisively they were going to act. And they knew that we were contemplating re-introducing that," he said.

Ultimately, Khanna said that wasn't necessary since Biden moved quickly to announce the policy change.

"It was a really meaningful moment to see it actually happening," he said.

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