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“Stop the Unconstitutional War in Yemen”: Rep. Ro Khanna on Growing Opposition to U.S.-Backed War

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The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war and naval blockade in Yemen has sparked a cholera epidemic that has become the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern world history. There are expected to be a million cases of cholera in Yemen by the end of the year, with at least 600,000 children likely to be affected. The U.S. has been a major backer of the Saudi-led war. But in Washington, opposition to the U.S. support for the Saudi-led war is growing. Lawmakers recently introduced a constitutional resolution to withdraw all U.S. support for the war. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Congressmembers Ro Khanna, Walter Jones and Mark Pocan wrote that they introduced the resolution “in order to help put an end to the suffering of a country approaching 'a famine of biblical proportions.' … We believe that the American people, if presented with the facts of this conflict, will oppose the use of their tax dollars to bomb and starve civilians.” We speak with Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Yemen, where the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war and naval blockade has sparked a cholera epidemic that’s become the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern world history. There are expected to be a million cases of cholera in Yemen by the end of the year, with at least 600,000 children likely to be affected. This is UNICEF’s Middle East regional director, Geert Cappelaere.

GEERT CAPPELAERE: Every day we have at least 5,000 to 10,000 newly reported cases throughout the country. That’s unprecedented. But that requires also an unprecedented, massive response from the authorities here, but also from the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: The ongoing U.S.-backed, Saudi-led bombing campaign has killed more than 10,000 civilians, sparked the cholera epidemic by destroying Yemen’s health, water and sanitation systems, and exacerbated a famine that’s left 7 million on the brink of starvation. The Saudi naval blockade has prevented food and medicine from reaching Yemeni civilians.

Saudi Arabia launched its offensive in 2015 to target Houthi rebels currently allied with longtime former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. The U.S. has been a major backer of the Saudi-led war. Earlier this year, the Senate voted 53 to 47 to approve the sale of $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. The vote came just weeks after President Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia in his first foreign trip abroad as president.

But in Washington, opposition to the U.S. support for the Saudi-led war is growing. A surprising number of lawmakers voted against the $500 million weapons deal earlier this year. And now lawmakers have introduced a constitutional resolution to withdraw all U.S. support for the war. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, California Congressmember Ro Khanna, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones,and Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan write they introduced the resolution, quote, “in order to help put an end to the suffering of a country approaching 'a famine of biblical proportions.' … We believe that the American people, if presented with the facts of this conflict, will oppose the use of their tax dollars to bomb and starve civilians,” unquote.

Well, to talk more about opposition to the U.S.-backed war in Yemen, we go to Palo Alto, California, to speak with Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California, co-author of that New York Times piece headlined “Stop the Unconstitutional War in Yemen.”

Congressmember Khanna, welcome to Democracy Now! What are you demanding right now? Explain the scope, the gravity of the crisis in Yemen.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, thank you for calling attention to this issue, because it needs far more attention in the media. As you mentioned, there is a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. There is an outbreak of cholera of unprecedented numbers, almost a million people who are going to be affected, a famine of a nearly 7 million Yemenis. Citizens aren’t getting basic food. They aren’t getting sanitation. And it’s because of the Saudi campaign. And, unfortunately, we have been aiding Saudi Arabia. We have been fueling the Saudi—refueling Saudi planes. We’ve been assisting Saudi Arabia with targeting. And none of this has been approved by the United States Congress. So we invoked the War Powers Resolution, which says, very simply, Congress needs to vote on our actions in Yemen. And we hope both Republicans and Democrats will vote to stop our assistance to Saudi Arabia in a campaign that has violated human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly would that mean? Stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

REP. RO KHANNA: That would mean, very clearly, that we should not be, in any way, refueling Saudi planes. If we were—if we stop refueling these Saudi planes, it would make it much harder for Saudi Arabia to bomb civilians in Yemen. It means we should stop coordinating with Saudi Arabia in targeting any civilians. Now, I asked Secretary Mattis, on the House Armed Services Committee, whether we were still doing these things, and he said that we are not. But up 'til recent reports, there was activity of our refueling or our assisting in targeting. And we want to make it very, very clear, going forward, that this should not continue. And that's what this resolution would do.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, a U.N. report said 683 children in Yemen were killed or injured by the Saudi-led coalition in 2016. Amnesty International and other rights groups criticized the U.N. report for underplaying the role of the Saudi-led coalition in human rights violations in Yemen, while Saudi Arabia rejected the findings as “inaccurate and misleading.” This is Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.N., Abdallah al-Mouallimi.

ABDALLAH AL-MOUALLIMI: We exercise the maximum degree of care and precaution to avoid civilian harm. The regrettable effects of this conflict are a direct result of the Houthi and forces loyal to former President Saleh, use of immoral and illegal actions that put the civilian population at risk, including using children as human shields, and their continued grave violations in this regard with impunity and no accountability. These heinous acts by the Houthis and their allies are committed to advance their goals and objectives in complete disregard to the sanctity of human life. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the coalition reaffirm that we are taking important measures to protect civilians during all military operations, to end the suffering of the Yemeni people and minimize humanitarian cost.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations. Your response to this, Congressman Khanna?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s propaganda. And every human rights group that has looked at this knows that the Saudis have been indiscriminate in some of the bombing of civilians. Look, the Houthi rebels aren’t of clean hands, and they’re not blameless in the conflict. But the Saudis have made this argument that most of the famine and cholera are in areas that the Houthis control. And that’s just false and misleading, because the reality is, yes, the Houthis may be controlling those areas, but the reason that the famine is taking place is because the Saudis aren’t allowing food or medicine to go in there, and the Saudis are bombing those areas.

So, what we’re saying is the United States, one, has no stake in helping Saudi Arabia get another regime in. It’s a proxy war there with Iran. And what we need is a diplomatic solution and humanitarian assistance. And we certainly shouldn’t be picking sides and aiding Saudi Arabia in their bombings.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the extent of U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen. This is the former deputy director of the CIA, Michael Morell, speaking on the Charlie Rose show last month.

MICHAEL MORELL: As we sit here and speak, there are U.S. Special Forces on the ground in Yemen. They were put there by the Trump administration to support what the Saudis and the Emiratis are doing there. That is supporting our allies, and it is pushing back on what the Iranians are trying to achieve in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the former deputy director of the CIA, Michael Morell, saying there are U.S. Special Forces on the ground in Yemen. Congressman Khanna, can you comment on this? What’s the role of these Special Forces there?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, if you talk to military leaders, they will tell you that some of our forces there are engaged in counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda. And that’s why our resolution makes it very clear. Actually, the resolution does nothing to restrict any potential counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, but what it says is we can’t have any of our military forces or Special Forces coordinating with Saudi Arabia in a civil war to try to overthrow the Houthi rebels. And Saudi Arabia is actually aligned with al-Qaeda in this.

What we see here is the United States taking a Saudi side as a counter to Iran. This type of balance-of-power calculations have gotten us in trouble in the past. And my perspective, and some of my colleagues’, is our first principle should be “Do no harm,” to have greater restraint in our foreign policy, not to try to pick winners and losers or side with one foreign power over another, where we’ve had a history of actually doing more harm in the Middle East and in the greater world.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Khanna, your New York Times op-ed headline is “Stop the Unconstitutional War in Yemen.” It begins, “Imagine that the entire population of Washington State—7.3 million people—were on the brink of starvation, with the port city of Seattle under a naval and aerial blockade, leaving it unable to receive and distribute countless tons of food and aid that sit waiting offshore.” You go on to say, “This nightmare scenario is akin to the obscene reality occurring in the Middle East’s poorest country, Yemen, at the hand of the region’s richest, Saudi Arabia, with unyielding [United States military support] that Congress has not authorized and that therefore violates the Constitution.” President Trump’s first foreign trip anywhere abroad was to Saudi Arabia. Of course, that followed President Obama, who went there a number of times—I think four times. Can you talk about this relationship? One of the closest allies of the United States is Saudi Arabia?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, we need to reorient this relationship. And Senator Bernie Sanders gave a speech recently talking about that. And the question is: Do human rights matter? Are we going to stand up for basic human rights and basic values? And in the past, the United States has, in this area, taken a view that “Let’s just balance Iran, and it doesn’t matter what Saudi Arabia is doing. If they’re opposed to Iran, we should be for them.” But this has led to, of course, a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

And here’s the thing. If you talk to ordinary Americans, and if they were to know what we were doing, they would be appalled. They would not want us aiding the Saudis in bombing civilians in Yemen. And they certainly don’t think the United States has a stake in a fight against the Houthis or in a proxy war against Iran. And so, what this resolution is doing is actually bringing this for a debate. That’s why the War Powers Act said it has to be Congress that makes these decisions, because Congress is more accountable to people.

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