Congress Finally Steps Up on Yemen, Saudi Arm Sales


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A Saudi airstrike in Yemen. Image from



Far from the ISIS-inspired headlines of Syria, Saudi Arabia has pretty calmly and easily been engaged in an endless series of war crimes in Yemen. Its policy had always been to keep Yemen weak, but not in total chaos. A kind of war madness has led them to abandon the second part of that. They are far from the only antagonists in the horrific dissolve of the nation, but they are the most powerful, and they are flexing that power in terrible ways.

And they are doing it with arms and support from the US. It is US-made planes dropping US-made bombs on hospitals and schools, with a ferocity that has led a normally-placid UN to try to stop them. From raw self-interest, this is a terrible policy for the US. From a human level, it is a nightmare.

Finally, nearly 60 congresspeople are trying to at least slow down the arms funnel, as Foreign Policy reports.

In  a sign that frustration is growing in Congress over Saudi Arabia, a bipartisan group of 60 lawmakers have signed a letter seeking to delay the Obama administration’s planned sale of $1.15 billion in arms and military equipment to Riyadh.

The proposed sale, approved by the State Department on Aug. 9, includes up to 153 tanks, ammunition, hundreds of machine guns, and sundry other military equipment. Congress has 30 days to block the sale, but the lawmakers appear irritated that the notification of the sale came in the middle of Congress’s summer recess.

“Any decision to sell more arms to Saudi Arabia should be given adequate time for full deliberation by Congress,” wrote the lawmakers. “We are concerned, however, that the timing of this notification during the August congressional recess could be interpreted to mean that Congress has little time to consider the arms deal when it returns from recess within the 30 day window established by law.”

Part of this is territorial and bureaucratic, of course: Congress is angry about being bypassed. But they absolutely should be. The loss of Congressional prerogative in foreign policy has been a slow-rolling disaster for the US, as it allows enormously important decisions to be shaped, essentially, by the will of one branch, which in turn is shaped by the will of one person. Even when I trust the POTUS, and respect their judgment, having the lives of millions come down to one “decided” is monstrous. Leaving everyone else to deal with the ramifications of those decisions is essentially undemocratic.

So there should be more letters like this, both for the sake of our democracy, and to help the people who are being brutalized and pummeled into dust with our munitions. Slowing down the flow of arms into the Middle East, and particularly to the combatants in Yemen, is never a bad policy.

Colson Whitehead’s Slavery Novel “The Underground Railroad”: A Ferocious History of the Present

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If you want to read a really insightful and incisive review of Colson Whitehead’s deeply disturbing and sneakily-complex new novel, The Underground Railroad, you could do a lot worse than reading Adam Gopnik’s review of a new book on the Attica uprising in last week’s New Yorker. In talking about the slaughter that ensued when the state police, national guard and (tellingly) other prison guards took back the jail from the nearly all-black inmates, Gopnik writes:

In a curious way, the psychology of the (almost exclusively white) troopers and guards, more than the ideology of the inmates, seems most haunting now, as part of the permanent picture of American fixations. The inmates were doing what anyone would do in their situation: having seen a protest turn unexpectedly into a revolt that was sure to be short-lived, they desperately improvised a way to keep their dignity and be heard, to avoid the worst punishment and get some small reforms. Their occasionally overblown rhetoric was the act of men who, stripped of dignity, try to reclaim it. But the troopers and guards retaking the prison were indulging an orgy of racist violence neither ordered nor wholly explicable. There was no need for them to conduct a massacre to reassert their authority. They had all the firepower; the prisoners were armed only with homemade knives; the guards had control of the yard within minutes. Nor were they, so far as anyone can detect, under direct commands to kill. In an American tale already known fully to Mark Twain, a white ethnic proletariat could distinguish itself as superior only by its ability to be brutal to a still more subordinate class of color. When its members were denied their exercise of this “right,” they turned crazy and violent.

If you want to learn more about the novel, look at any Blue Lives Matter Facebook group, flip to a Trump rally, or read some hot takes on Colin Kaepernick. These will tell you as much about Whitehead’s book as any discussion of the past, because, while it is meticulously detailed, and unflinching in its cruelty, Whitehead is describing an American obsession with race, with oppression, and with the assertion of might. The novel isn’t a metaphor for today– it isn’t secretly about Michael Brown or Garfield Park– but it is all the more harrowing because of that. It doesn’t need to be. The story barely changes.

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