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Mattis’ Weak Case for Supporting the War on Yemen

Every reason Mattis gives for continuing U.S. support for the war is actually a reason to end it.
salman mattis

The Secretary of Defense has written to Congressional leaders to express his opposition to S.J.Res. 54, the resolution that would end U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen:

In a letter sent to congressional leaders Wednesday and obtained by The Washington Post, Mattis wrote that restricting military support the United States is providing to the Saudi-led coalition “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.”

He urged Congress not to impose restrictions on the “noncombat,” “limited U.S. military support” being provided to Saudi Arabia, which is “engaging in operations in its legitimate exercise of self-defense.”

The Pentagon has been putting forward very weak legal arguments against S.J.Res. 54, and Mattis’ statement of the policy arguments against the resolution are not any better. The Saudi-led coalition would have great difficulty continuing their war without U.S. military assistance. U.S. refueling allows coalition planes to carry out more attacks than they otherwise could, so it is extremely unlikely that ending it could possibly result in more civilian casualties than the bombing campaign causes now. Mattis is taking for granted that U.S. military assistance somehow makes coalition bombing more accurate and less likely to result in civilian casualties, but that is hard to credit when coalition forces routinely target civilian structures on purpose and when the military admits that it doesn’t keep track of what happens after it refuels coalition planes.

Secretary Mattis says that cutting off support could jeopardize cooperation on counter-terrorism, but the flip side of this is that continuing to enable the Saudi-led war creates the conditions for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the local ISIS affiliate to flourish. The coalition’s war has made AQAP stronger than it was before, and AQAP members have sometimes even fought alongside coalition forces on the ground. Instead of worrying about whether the U.S. is jeopardizing cooperation with these states, we should be asking whether that cooperation is worth very much in Yemen.

He claims that the Saudis and their allies are engaged in “a legitimate exercise of self-defense,” and this is simply not true. The Saudis and their allies were not attacked and were not threatened with attack prior to their intervention. Saudi territory now comes under attack because the coalition has been bombing Yemen for years, but that doesn’t make continuing the war self-defense. If an aggressor launches an attack against a neighboring country, it is the neighbor that is engaged in self-defense against the state(s) attacking them.

Mattis also warns that ending support for the Saudi-led coalition would have other undesirable consequences:

As Mattis put it in his letter to congressional leaders Wednesday, “withdrawing U.S. support would embolden Iran to increase its support to the Houthis, enabling further ballistic missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and threatening vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea, thereby raising the risk of a regional conflict.”

These claims also don’t hold water. Iranian support for the Houthis remains limited, but it has increased as a direct result of the war. The longer that the war goes on, the greater the incentive the Houthis and Iran will have to cooperate. The absurdity of this intervention is that it was dishonestly sold as a war against Iranian “expansionism” and yet it has done more to aid Iran than anything Iran’s government could have done on its own. Missile strikes on Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be happening if the Saudis and their allies weren’t regularly bombing Yemeni cities. If the coalition halted its bombing, the missile strikes would almost certainly cease as well. Continuing the war is a guarantee that those attacks will continue, and U.S. military assistance ensures that the war will continue. Every reason Mattis gives here for continuing U.S. support for the war is actually a reason to end it.

Shipping lanes weren’t threatened before the intervention and won’t be threatened after it ends. Yemenis have every incentive to leave shipping lanes alone, since these are their country’s lifeline. Meanwhile, the cruel coalition blockade is slowly starving millions of Yemenis to death by keeping out essential commercial goods from the main ports that serve the vast majority of the population. Mattis is warning about potential threats to shipping from Yemen while completely ignoring that the main cause of the humanitarian disaster is the interruption of commercial shipping into Yemen by the Saudi-led blockade. The regional conflict that Mattis warns about is already here. It is called the Saudi-led war on Yemen. If one wants to prevent the region from being destabilized further, one would want to put an end to that war as quickly as possible.

Mattis mentions that the U.S. role in the war is a “noncombat” and “limited” one, but for the purposes of the debate on Sanders-Lee resolution that is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that the military assistance the U.S. is providing doesn’t put Americans in combat. That is not the only way that U.S. forces can be introduced into hostilities. According to the War Powers Resolution, the U.S. has introduced its armed forces into hostilities under these circumstances:

For purposes of this joint resolution, the term “introduction of United States Armed Forces” includes the assignment of member of such armed forces to command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany [bold mine-DL] the regular or irregular military forces of any foreign country or government when such military forces are engaged, or there exists an imminent threat that such forces will become engaged, in hostilities.

Any fair reading of this definition has to apply to the regular U.S. refueling of coalition planes that are engaged in an ongoing bombing campaign. The U.S. is obviously participating in the “movement” of coalition forces when it provides their planes with fuel. Indeed, our forces are making the movement of their forces possible through refueling. U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen clearly counts as introducing U.S. forces into hostilities under the WPR, and neither administration has sought or received authorization to do this. No president is permitted to do this unless there is “(1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” There has obviously been no action from Congress that authorizes this, and there is certainly no emergency or attack that justifies it. U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen is illegal, and the Senate should pass S.J.Res. 54 to end it.