The War Powers Act seems a relic. It seems musty and outdated, hearkening back to a time when the Presidency was a small office fit for mustachioed nobodies put in place by various Conklings. Or it seems even older, a throwback to a more fractious time when Congress was worried about kings. But it is from 1973; it is exactly as old as Dark Side of the Moon, which still fucking brings it.
That is to say, in the lifetime of many readers, and nearly in the lifetime of the writer, Congress actually asserted its authority to say that the President wasn’t allowed to wage war wherever he or she (ok, he) wanted. He had to actually follow the Constitution, and get funding for his wars.
That has, of course, been superseded by a few things: in the modern media age, the President has ascended to the status of father-confessor to the nation, a towering giant instead of a co-equal head of one branch of the government. He’s the only person we see every day, and though it is easy to forget, this was true before Trump. The President could rally a nation around the idea of war, because war stirs up the blood, and Congress decided they’d rather go along than get in the way.
The bigger factor (although it ties into this) is the Authorization of Military Force from 2001, passed just three days after the terrors of September 11th. Over the years, that has been interpreted to mean whatever the President has wanted it to mean, just so long as he could invoke terrorism.
In Yemen, that has meant successive Presidents aiding Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their proxy war against Iran, and very real and deadly and genocidally indiscrimnate war against the people of Yemen. It has meant training, working with, providing arms for, and subsidizing a campaign that targets civilians, bombs infrastructure, attacks food supplies, and bears a lion’s share of responsibility for the deadly specters of starvation and disease that are overtaking the land.
But that might stop.
Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, has introduced a bill invoking the War Powers Act of 1973. As The Intercept reports, Khanna finds authority by:
declaring that Congress never authorized U.S. support for the coalition in Yemen and directing President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from “hostilities” against the Houthis, the Iranian-backed rebel group at war with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The resolution would not affect U.S. forces who are on the ground in Yemen fighting Al Qaeda.
In addition, Bob Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey and admittedly not an icon of ethics, is holding up a $2 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, sickened as we are by US munitions being launched at Yemeni schoolchildren. This sale was once touted by Trump as proof of his genius, because selling weapons to rich warmongers is a huge challenge. Trump actually touts the arms sales numbers as $110 billion, which is considerably more theoretical than real at this point.
Khanna introduced his bill last year, to crickets. This time, though, top Democrats are co-sponsoring. It could be cynical politics; we’re far enough away from Obama’s complicity to blame it on Trump, who has indeed increased the savagery of our involvement. It is most likely partially sincere, as US involvement is sickening. Whatever it is, there is momentum. Which leads to the question: what if it works?
This week we’ll be looking at the outcomes of these congressional actions, taken as a whole. For the purpose of this series, we’ll assume that it’ll all be lumped together, and taken as a “US to stop writing blank and literal checks for the coalition”.
We’ll be looking at Saudi Arabia, the US, the broader Middle East, and most importantly, Yemen.
What Khanna’s Bill Might Mean For Saudi Arabia
I don’t want to overstate nor understate this case: the cessation of support from the United States would be a political and military disaster for Saudi Arabia in general and a personal disaster for Mohammed bin Salman in particular.
For years it has seemed like MBS has been coming close to overplaying his hand, but still somehow hasn’t busted. Kidnapping the PM of Lebanon? Sure, no worries. Kidnapping the Saudi elite, torturing them, and extorting billions from their pockets? That’s called fighting corruption, baby, and it was a play backed by guys like Tom Friedman and the international monied class for whom he is an amiable front.
The war in Yemen seemed a part of this. His actions threatened to starve millions, helped cholera run rampant, decimated agriculture and infrastructure, and completely shattered the country. It wasn’t just MBS of course: the Houthis have shown themselves incapable of real governance, and perhaps unwilling to try. And the Emiratis are just as bad.
But still: there is a mostly-justified sense that, from an international perspective, this is MBS’s war (we’ve talked about how it is a Yemeni war first and foremost, and will be afterward, but the internationalization was promoted primarily by MBS). When he first sent his planes to bomb, he was treated as a hero in the Kingdom, and largely feted in the outside world. It’s a primary reason why, a little more than a year ago, he jumped his place in line and was named the next king, the first of his generation.
So this war is his. And for years, almost since the jump, the war has been little more than a stalemate punctuated by brief bursts of attention-grabbing carnage: a wedding destroyed here, a bus full of children blown up there. But even with recent advances up the highlands by the “government”, it seems unlikely that any side is close to a victory. Indeed, it is impossible to define what victory might even mean in these circumstances, something we’ll cover more when we get to Yemen.
I think one could make the case that, in Yemen, MBS dramatically overplayed his hand. It is harder to notice, if you aren’t particularly inclined to care about genocidal war crimes, since he still has held a place of pride in the international firmament. He’s entered a war he can’t win and whose eventual outcome will not produce a Saudi-leaning stable Yemeni government. At best, he can keep his enemies tied up, but to do so means pretty much constant war. That’s usually known as a quagmire.
But what has kept him afloat is that there have been very few Saudi casualties, and Houthi incursions in the form of rocket and missile attacks have been few and far between. And, of course, he has access to basically all the weapons he wants in addition to the encouragement, or at least the shrugging indifference of, the rest of the world.
Until the last week.
The probable murder of Jamal Khashoggi has rocked the Kingdom in the way the deaths of tens of thousands of Yemenis failed to. It has stirred the battered conscience of the international community, and even Donald Trump promised very “aggressive” retaliation if it turns out the Saudis were involved.
(Of course, he also said he didn’t want to interfere with arms sales, upending the idea of leverage and essentially turning the US into a client state. It’s also probable he said this because there has been some heat, and he has no problem lying to change the subject for a second. But we’re talking now about if the US were to go through with cutting ties, so we’ll imagine for a second the admin is capable of doing the right thing.)
It’s easy to see why this is a big deal; it is very personal and brutal, without the sanitary distance of some far-flung war. But the reaction is nonetheless surprising. It’s even threatened the success of his “Davos in the Desert” conference. The Kingdom has flailed, offering outright denials, angry threats, and offers to help with the investigation. But there is no version of his death that seems to square with Saudi denials.
Now, let’s say this is somehow a tipping point, and Khanna’s bill passes and all arms sales are cut off. Let’s say the US no longer supports Saudi Arabia in its war. No more refueling, no more arming, no more pointing out targets. Can Saudi continue?
Not for long, and then not for a long time. I’ve seen the argument that the Saudi will just turn to Russia or to China for weapons, pushing the Kingdom into those spheres of influence, and that may well be the case. We’ll discuss that more when we get to the “bigger picture” later this week. But from a military point of view that makes no sense.
Russia won’t be able to supply replacement parts for the US arms the Sauds are using. They won’t be able to keep weaponry active and in the field. That’s not how it works in a modern army. Parts are incompatible.
Saudi Arabia would have to find vendors they trust in Russia or China or elsewhere. The act of making deals, inspecting goods, planning with generals to understand what to buy, maneuvering through political implications, etc, could take years. This isn’t like McDonald’s refusing your business and sending you across the street to Burger King. It’s a huge, even generational process.
They would need to overhaul their entire fighting forces to be compatible with new arms and a new system. Slowly, everything they are using now would have to be phased out and replaced. It isn’t a plug-and-play type of operation.
So in essence, it would hamstring the Saudi war effort to an intolerable (for them) degree. They would quickly have to achieve their goals, which as we said are essentially impossible. They may have to withdraw, end active hostilities, or at the very least cut back. But it seems like there is no way they’d be able to keep up the same level of activities.
What would that mean internally? Well, let’s not forget that MBS isn’t actually the king. There are plenty of princelings with knives out for him. His global disaster would most likely be a personal disaster as well. How could the man who lost Yemen and lost the relationship with the US be king?
That might also mean a stop to his “reforms”, as surface-level as they are. Women driving, being able to participate more in society, and other things seem way behind the times and too little, but they do actually make a difference in the lives of women. And his desire to open up the economy is actually a good thing: reliance just on oil created this culture of insular corruption and sclerotic greed.
It would still be wildly corrupt. It would still be repressive. But there might be a spark of something new being born. Reforms have a way of getting out of control, and even though I don’t think MBS has a democratic bone in his body, economic and political reforms could crack a door open, and might make lives better.
Or of course, they might not. It is probably the case that he’d give an inch to make people like Steve Mnunchin say “it’s a new era etc now how do I get some more money?” and it would be business as usual. But who knows?
Absent MBS though, we’ll most likely see a slowdown to any reform. Scary times tend to lead to conservative reactions (see: everywhere), and the loss of the US as a primary patron will probably be the scariest time in the Kingdom’s short history.
That’s the takeaway right now. A loss of US support would be the single-most tumultuous event in the Kingdom. It would force a massive realignment, which, given Russia’s tangled regional alliances, would be very difficult. It could upend the political order, and cause generational changes in internal policy.
Or maybe it would cause it to open up to get in good graces again, but given that the US is leaning authoritarian, it seems unlikely. It seems less likely that reform is genuine, given authoritarian affinities between MBS, Trump, and Kushner. So I don’t think this is going to happen, but I know that the power centers are desperately hoping it won’t.
The starving people of Yemen, however, may feel otherwise.
(Tomorrow: Looking at US politics and Saudi Arabia)