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When Will Washington End the Forever War?

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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.”

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