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Progressive activists get a big foreign policy win. It’s been an uphill battle.

The House passed a resolution ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Women for Peace demonstrate against US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Women for Peace demonstrate against US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The House passed a resolution Wednesday, February 13, to end US support for the war in Yemen. It’s the culmination of a years-long effort by progressive activists and lawmakers to claw back war-approving authority from the president and end US participation in a war that has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

The war in Yemen, directed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he’s commonly referred to in Washington), has killed more than 50,000 people, according to one independent estimate, and has left more than 20 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance.

The US helps the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates and several other Gulf Arab and African countries, by providing them with intelligence, selling them arms and ammunition, and, until late last year, fueling war planes. That means the US is partially culpable for the death and destruction of Saudi’s enemies in the war — the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels — and even civilians. In fact, a coalition warplane bombed a school bus full of children last August with an American-made bomb — killing at least 40 of them.

The Yemen resolution invokes the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (WPR), which gives Congress the power to direct a president to remove troops involved in “hostilities” abroad “without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization.” Not only does it serve as a clear rebuke of Saudi war efforts, but it’s also a clear check on executive power; if the US wants to be involved in a war in Yemen, Congress has to declare it.

But the final resolution that passed did not carry the full weight that its original progressive authors intended. Late Monday night, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), who co-sponsored the resolution, offered an amendment to ensure the resolution would not “disrupt ... the sharing of intelligence between the United States and any foreign country if the President determines such sharing is appropriate.” The Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote to Democratic lawmakers instructing them to vote against it. But it wasn’t enough. The amendment passed, with the support of 57 Democrats — mostly national security-friendly moderates.

Democratic leaders have generally been supportive of the Yemen resolution (Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is a co-sponsor, as was Nancy Pelosi last year, before she was speaker). Hoyer accidentally voiced support for the Buck amendment in a private meeting with Democratic lawmakers, and then later clarified that he did not support it. The final vote has made progressives, who say Democratic leaders have tacked to the right on foreign policy, skeptical of the enthusiasm leadership had toward the resolution.

“There is a difference between leadership being supportive and leadership leading,” Stephen Miles, the director of Win Without War, a progressive group that advocates against military intervention abroad, told me.

Just last year, they let the same Yemen resolution fail on the House floor, seemingly unnecessarily (although a similar measure passed in the last GOP-controlled Senate). Pelosi also voiced support in January for Trump’s call for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to step down. And more recently, Democratic leadership gave a strongly worded condemnation of Minnesota progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweet about the influence of domestic pro-Israel lobbying groups on US views toward Israel.

There are a lot of unresolved tension points in the Democratic Party on foreign policy, and while progressive grassroots energy has gone a long way toward helping define the domestic agenda it would like to see from Democratic leaders, a clearer progressive foreign policy agenda is now beginning to emerge as well. But getting there is proving to be a tough fight.

Progressives are still skeptical of Democratic leadership on Yemen

On Tuesday, progressive groups Demand Progress, Indivisible, MoveOn, and Win Without War sent Democratic leadership a letter calling on them to be more aggressive when it comes to keeping Democrats in line on supporting the resolution and voting against the Buck amendment.

“Better safe than sorry, given [Democratic] Leadership’s failure to whip during other recent votes on US involvement in the Yemen war, recent Democratic alignment with Trump and Bolton on matters like Venezuela, and the influx of new members who might not be thoroughly versed on the Yemen dynamics,” David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress, said.

As of Wednesday morning, though, Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-SC) office had not clarified how aggressively they would push to keep Democrats in line on this issue. The Congressional Progressive Caucus tried taking up the mantle to whip votes — but it proved not enough.

Progressives wanted to see House Democrats stand united behind the Yemen resolution, not only to influence a strong vote in the Senate but also to send a clear signal to the White House on Congress’ position on Saudi policy in Yemen. Something like Buck’s amendment blows a major hole in their push to fully cut US-Saudi ties over Yemen.

That said, that the war powers resolution is getting a vote at all signals a significant shift within the Democratic Party — one closely tied to the shock and outrage over the death of Saudi journalist, dissident, and American resident Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi was murdered and allegedly dismembered last October inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. Lawmakers, many of whom have historically backed the US-Saudi relationship, are angry about the killing. In October, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a staunch Trump ally, said he felt “completely betrayed” by Riyadh.

Since then, the White House, top administration officials, and Saudi lobbyists, who are well established in Washington, have been working hard to build support for continued US involvement in the Yemen war.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis claimed that stopping US support “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis — all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.” However, last October Mattis also pushed for a negotiated peace deal to end the fighting — a peace deal that remains elusive.

And Washington foreign policy experts continue to argue that the United States should use its support for the Yemen war as leverage to convince the Saudis to change their policies — a strategy that has failed since the beginning.

Democrats, generally, don’t have as much focus and unity on foreign policy as they do with domestic issues like immigration or gun control. US involvement in the Yemen war, though, may be a rare rallying point.

“We saw muddled messaging on Venezuela, we saw muddled messaging on North Korea. Unfortunately, some folks in leadership coopted a little by Kevin McCarthy and others on the case with Ilhan Omar,” Miles said. “Where we are on Yemen is that we have created the conditions that they are on the side of right.”