When Will Washington End the Forever War?
By now, Americans born after the 9/11 attacks may already be deploying overseas to avenge them. The Authorization for Use of Military Force—which passed just three days after the attacks, with only one dissenting vote and was followed by an expanded AUMF the following year—has been used to justify military actions in at least 20 countries from the Sahel to the Pacific Rim. The combined death toll from just Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan is estimated at half a million people. Presidents as different in ideology and temperament as George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have expanded what has been called the Forever War—and their own executive powers to wage it—even as all three initially ran on some version of a more humble foreign policy.
Still, when I asked Bernie Sanders whether he would hope and expect Congress to rein in his ability to make war should he win the presidency, he didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. Absolutely. Look, the Constitution is clear…. Congress has for a very long time abdicated that responsibility,” he said. “If I’m president, I will certainly be an advocate of that process.”
Left-wing intellectuals and anti-war activists have long called for the United States to end its permanent war footing across the Muslim world and to reconsider its close alliances with illiberal governments, like those of Saudi Arabia and Israel. But such views are much rarer in Washington, where lawmakers like Sanders are only beginning to meaningfully challenge the status quo. Somewhere between these two perspectives—that of the progressive policy-maker and that of the radical critic—a new vision for America’s role in the world is being shaped. I went to Capitol Hill to explore why non-interventionists eager to realize this vision have homed in on one particular war.
Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia but has roughly one-twentieth its per capita GDP, is currently suffering through what the United Nations, Sanders, and others I spoke with described as the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The United States has been fighting Al Qaeda in Yemen since 9/11, using the AUMF as its justification and drone strikes against terrorism suspects as its main tactic. But in 2015, a Shiite militant group called the Houthis overthrew Yemen’s Saudi-aligned president, an ally in the US war on terrorism. In response, Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign that has since killed tens of thousands of civilians through bombings, cholera, and famine.
The Obama administration supported this campaign from the start, arming the Saudis and providing targeting information and refueling for Saudi jets, in what many in Washington see as a tacit trade-off for Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The Saudis see the Houthis as proxies for Iran, their main rival in the region.
“In hindsight, no, it was not the correct position,” said Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s closest foreign-policy advisers. “But it was not without logic. The Saudis were hell-bent on doing something in Yemen…. And they also saw it as part of a broader Iranian ascent in the region. And frankly, we didn’t share that analysis. We did not see the Iranians as directing the Houthis.”
Rhodes denied that there was any quid pro quo of US support for the Saudis in exchange for the Iran deal. “Our basic theory was that by being somewhat engaged, we could deal with the inevitable Saudi intervention in Yemen while seeking to impose limits on what they did and to try to broker something diplomatically,” he said. He and his colleagues expected that Hillary Clinton would prevail in 2016 and would continue to use diplomatic levers to rein in the Saudis. When Trump won instead, it was immediately clear that the Saudis would be given a freer hand and that the situation would deteriorate.
And deteriorate it has. The Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to capture the port of Hodeida last summer intensified what amounts to a crippling economic war against northern Yemen, where millions of people are at imminent risk of starvation. Images of emaciated children have become emblematic of the Yemen campaign. At the same time, Democrats in Congress have become much more willing to criticize the war and the Saudis, especially since the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last fall. While US efforts against Al Qaeda in Yemen are covered by the AUMF, US support for the Saudi campaign against the Houthis is not, which makes it especially vulnerable to congressional opposition.
“I thought the Obama administration was totally wrong to launch a military partnership with Saudi Arabia that set the stage for the devastation that has become Yemen,” said Senator Chris Murphy, who was the first lawmaker to attempt to end US support for the war. Murphy’s campaign was initially a lonely one, beginning with a 2016 bill co-sponsored by libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul that focused on ending arms sales to the Saudis. Only 27 senators supported it.
“I came here as a critic of this boneheaded US military intervention,” recalled Murphy, who first ran for Congress in 2006 as an opponent of the Iraq War. “I was interested in having a competing narrative with neoconservatives who said that the only way to fight terrorism was to be at war in the Middle East.” That led him to study the roots of the extremist ideology motivating groups like Al Qaeda, from which he concluded that “Saudi Arabia and Gulf states were playing an enormous role.” That, in turn, made him an early critic of the war in Yemen at a time when most Democrats were reluctant to challenge Obama’s foreign policy.
While Sanders was not involved in Murphy’s initial efforts and really started speaking out about Yemen only after Trump took office, Murphy credited Sanders for “a really fantastic idea, which was to take the War Powers Act and turn it into a modern tool to end illegal wars.” That 1973 resolution, passed over Richard Nixon’s veto, theoretically reasserts Congress’s constitutional powers over the executive branch. This spring, in calling for cessation of US support for the Saudi war, a war powers resolution passed both houses of Congress—the first time this had ever been accomplished—only to be vetoed by Trump.
Representative Ro Khanna, who introduced the House version of the resolution, sees implications beyond Yemen. He said he hopes that his bill “would make future presidents think twice about getting into military conflicts and…would embolden Congress to check presidential overreach.” He cited a recent bill introduced by his colleague David Cicilline to preemptively prohibit the use of military force in Venezuela as another example of this approach. Ultimately, Khanna said, “we have to repeal the [AUMF],” but he also envisions using the War Powers Act to rein in other wars.
Khanna, who is a co-chair of Sanders’s presidential campaign, said that a Sanders administration “would certainly consult and get Congress’s consent” for any military intervention and “would be very reluctant to use force overseas.” He said he would anticipate a reduction in military spending, currently at record highs. However, he noted that many congressional Democrats, including some 2020 presidential candidates, have supported Trump’s military budgets. “You can’t criticize Trump’s foreign policy and then allocate him all the resources he wants for the overseas wars,” said Khanna.
At first glance, Democrats seem united on Yemen, having voted almost unanimously to end US support for the Saudi war. But this superficial consensus papers over real divisions on what progressive foreign policy should mean in a post-Obama, post-Clinton era. When I brought up Rhodes to a Democratic Hill staffer who has been deeply involved in the House Yemen resolution, the staffer grew agitated.
“Where was Ben Rhodes on Libya in 2011? Where was he on Syria in 2013? Where was he on Yemen in 2015? Despite having people like him who ultimately ended up opposing the Iraq War and coining the term Blob,” the staffer said, using the now-ubiquitous term for the pro-interventionist Washington foreign-policy establishment, the Obama administration “did the utmost Blob decision-making, a 48-hour process behind closed doors without any democratic input at the behest of this brutal Saudi dictatorship.”
“I will get pretty defensive about this,” Rhodes said in response. “I’m not the problem…. I was willing to essentially walk up to the line of having my own reputation eviscerated to avoid another war with Iran.” He denied that he was involved in the meetings the staffer referenced, noting that he and the Saudis had an infamously strained relationship, although he insisted he doesn’t want to let himself off the hook.
“I’ll take all the lumps, and people can pick apart those policies,” he added, “but at the end of the day, the challenges in our politics that lead to these outcomes have to do with much more deeply entrenched forces not just in the US government but in Congress itself. Where was Congress in helping us close the prison in Guantánamo? Where was Congress in passing [a more restrained] AUMF that we were asking them to do?”
Last November, Rhodes and more than two dozen other former Obama-administration officials—including his CIA director John Brennan, UN ambassador Samantha Power, and national security adviser Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy adviser Jake Sullivan—signed an open letter urging an end to US support for the Saudi war. “We did not intend for U.S. support for the coalition to become a blank check,” the letter reads. “But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened.”
Rhodes said that he would support a fuller accounting of the Obama administration’s role and that one was already underway but that the purpose of the letter was to lend the credibility of mainstream policy-makers to try to win over centrist Democrats in Congress. He added that a more introspective letter might have received fewer signatures.
Ending wars isn’t such a radical idea outside Washington. Recent polling shows an overwhelming majority of Americans support going to war only as a last resort, winding down existing commitments, and cutting military aid to allies like Saudi Arabia. As Representative Mark Pocan, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said, “I think if you ask the average American…they don’t want us in endless wars overseas.” But “inside the Beltway it becomes far more difficult because there are a lot of lobbyists, think tanks, and organizations that are all trying to get in our ear about foreign policy.”
Perhaps the clearest difference between left-wing anti-war activists and Democratic lawmakers concerns the Israel-Palestine conflict. To many on the left, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians recalls South African apartheid as a human-rights cause. Suffice it to say this is not how the issue plays on Capitol Hill, where the leadership in both parties rushed to condemn freshman Representative Ilhan Omar this year after her comments about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its financial sway over Congress.
AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington, during which everyone from Vice President Mike Pence to Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer took shots at Omar from the microphone, took place the same week I was in town. “I believe that you have organizations, like AIPAC and many, many others, who do exert obviously enormous impact over American policy,” said Sanders, who reached out to Omar to offer support after her remarks.
Khanna said he didn’t support the “piling on” against Omar and called it disproportionate but nonetheless added that her comments were “inappropriate.” Murphy, while noting he doesn’t always agree with AIPAC, was more critical, saying Omar “used terminology that has absolutely been used in the past by people who were less than sincere about their criticisms of Israel.”
Israel is a loaded issue in Washington. While J Street, which calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” has given progressive Democrats cover to distance themselves from an increasingly Republican-aligned AIPAC, challenging the basic premise of a close US-Israel alliance remains almost impossible. Omar, who is a Somali Muslim and wears a hijab, has quickly found herself the main target of the Israel lobby.
Besides her comments on Israel, Omar drew criticism from the Blob after she grilled Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, about his complicity in Reagan-era war crimes in Central America. It wasn’t just Republicans who criticized Omar for this; Kelly Magsamen, a former Obama-administration Pentagon official who now works on national security at the liberal Center for American Progress, defended Abrams on Twitter as a “fierce advocate for human rights and democracy.”
Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign-policy adviser and a former CAP staffer, takes a different view of Omar. “People often use accusations of bigotry and anti-Semitism to suppress criticism of Israeli policy and particularly the occupation,” said Duss, who has been the target of similar attacks. Of Omar’s tussle with Abrams, Duss said, “I thought it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. As the grandson of a refugee woman, to see this refugee woman take the opportunity as an elected representative to put this person on the spot for supporting the kind of violence that she survived…I felt like she honored my grandmother.”
Omar, it’s worth noting, went to Congress directly from an advocacy background, and she still sounds more like an activist than a conventional politician. Anti-war activists have labored for many years against the Washington foreign-policy consensus, and politicians are finally starting to listen.
“Democrats, particularly since 9/11, have essentially ceded the national security conversation to Republicans because there’s overarching fear of appearing weak,” said Kate Kizer, the policy director of Win Without War, an advocacy group that has played a key role in supporting the Iran nuclear deal and the Yemen resolutions. “It’s really interesting to see the new Congress come in and have a solid set of progressive members who are actually thinking about foreign policy differently…. You see this with Ilhan, who’s not afraid to speak her mind and challenge the status quo.”
In addition to Omar, Kizer was referring to Rashida Tlaib—a Palestinian American who shares with Omar the distinction of being the first Muslim women in Congress—as well as socialist superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Those three new members of Congress are women, and so are the other advocates Kizer cited as being critical to the shifting conversation on Yemen, including Elizabeth Beavers at Indivisible, Iram Ali at MoveOn, and Kate Gould, until recently at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “None of this would have been possible without women on the outside leading this fight,” said Kizer.
Shireen al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-born professor of education at Michigan State University who has become an outspoken advocate against the war, is a case in point. She has been coordinating with Yemeni activists across the United States to lobby members of Congress since 2015. “They became much more clearly anti-intervention when it was no longer Obama’s war,” she said, adding that the scope of the humanitarian crisis was evident from the very start. “If Democrats had really taken the opportunity to critique Obama at the beginning, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Kizer identified Yemen as a key issue in mainstreaming progressive foreign-policy goals, in part because it’s less politically fraught than Israel-Palestine. “Yemen represents a really critical on-ramp to change the conversation in DC, because even though there are the parallels to the Israel-Palestine conflict or US military support for Egypt,” she said, “Yemen doesn’t necessarily have the same domestic constituency, and it isn’t automatically alienating.” In other words, while the Blob may support the US-Saudi alliance just as fervently as the US-Israel alliance and while the Saudis engage in influence campaigns via think tanks and media outlets, there’s no Saudi equivalent to AIPAC and no significant electoral constituency in favor of famine in Yemen. The conflict there is the perfect example of a war that is politically feasible only in the absence of public debate.
To understand why progressives in Congress have unified around Yemen, it’s useful to compare it with one of the biggest foreign-policy fights of the past decade. Throughout Obama’s second term, he faced constant pressure from the Blob to intervene militarily to stop Bashar al-Assad’s human-rights abuses in Syria—pressure Obama mostly resisted, covert actions notwithstanding. He even took the rare step of punting to Congress the decision to strike Syria, correctly assuming that congressional Republicans wouldn’t take up the issue. Many hawks in Washington accused Obama of complicity in Assad’s atrocities through inaction.
But the geopolitical context of Syria is completely different from Yemen’s. Assad is not a US proxy and enjoys the backing of Iran and Russia. Obama saw no clear way to intervene in Syria without setting off an escalation of violence. In Yemen, meanwhile, an ally is carrying out atrocities with direct US support. To many on the left, the enthusiasm for air strikes in Syria and simultaneous silence about the US role in Yemen speak volumes about the sincerity of the Blob’s humanitarian intentions.
“Yemen is a case of humanitarian non-intervention,” said Stephen Wertheim, a historian of international relations at Columbia University. “It marks a generational shift from the Samantha Power–esque humanitarian interventionism that sounded progressive a few decades ago but no longer does.” Power is a longtime advocate for military intervention to prevent genocide and human-rights abuses. “The Yemen campaign suggests the opposite principle: If we want to help suffering humanity, we should first and foremost make sure that the United States is not causing the suffering.”
For now, any anti-war legislation is dead on arrival at the White House. Despite sometimes gesturing at a different approach while campaigning, as president, Trump has consistently deferred to some of the most hawkish voices in Washington, from Abrams to John Bolton, and has doubled down on the alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel. At least for the next two years, Washington will continue to wage war across the Muslim world with few checks on the executive branch’s ability to do so. But depending on who succeeds Trump, perhaps the Forever War can finally end, as all wars eventually must.