Mark Pocan

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, shown here speaking with reporters in August, is working with other members of Congress to try to end America's  massive support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal military campaign in Yemen. PHOTO BY JESSIE OPOIEN

Yemen, one of the poorest and most neglected countries in the world, is experiencing what UNICEF identifies as “one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.” It is estimated that a million malnourished children are at risk from cholera. The country is on the verge of widespread famine, and 20.7 million people — 73 percent of Yemen’s population — are in need of humanitarian assistance.

What can be done to ease the disaster that Yemen is experiencing?

“Stop the war,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

Lake is blunt. He said that “this, our generation, is scarred by the irresponsibility of governments and others to allow these things to be happening.”

One of the irresponsible governments that has involved itself in the Yemen conflict — via its military alliance with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — is that of the United States.

The United States continues to provide massive support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal military campaign in Yemen. The group Just Foreign Policy observed that “unauthorized and unconstitutional U.S. participation in the Saudi war in Yemen … has created the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, pushing millions of human beings to the brink of famine.”

“Without U.S. participation,” argued a Just Foreign Policy analysis, “the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen would not be possible.”

Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan has, for months, been working to end that U.S. participation. And he has figured out a smart strategy for breaking the congressional gridlock and forcing action on what is literally a matter of life and death for millions.

Declaring that “we aim to restore Congress as the constitutionally mandated branch of government that may declare war and retain oversight over it,” Pocan and one of his ablest colleagues, California Congressman Ro Khanna, are proposing to end U.S. targeting and refueling assistance for Saudi and UAE warplanes that are bombing Houthi forces, which are backed by Iran.

By taking the side of the Saudis and their allies in what has become a proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranians, the United States has not brought stability to the region, nor has it increased prospects for peace. It has only helped to turn a horrible circumstance into a nightmare.

Congress, said Pocan, should act to end U.S. involvement in a “senseless, unauthorized conflict.”

Pocan has, for months, been seeking to pressure the Trump administration to change course with regard to aiding and abetting Saudi wrongdoing. “In April, a bipartisan group of 54 of my House colleagues and I expressed deep concern that factions within the Trump administration are pushing for even deeper U.S. military involvement and escalation in this destructive Saudi-led war, which has directly killed thousands of civilians in indiscriminate airstrikes over the past two years,” explained the congressman from south-central Wisconsin. “The Saudis’ seemingly deliberate bombing of roads, bridges, ports and cranes contributes to the death of a Yemeni child every 10 minutes, every day, according to the U.N.”

When Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May, Pocan urged the president to pressure the Saudis to back off. The congressman argued that any deal to sell arms to the Saudis had to be negotiated with an eye toward ending the brutal assault on the people of Yemen. “If Trump’s deal with the Saudis ignores the suffering of millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation,” the Wisconsin representative wrote at the time, “I can assure you that members of Congress will act swiftly, using every tool at our disposal — from blocking weapons shipments to forcing a debate and vote on U.S. military involvement in Yemen — to end this incomprehensible tragedy."

Pocan is a man of his word. He has aligned with Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, to get Congress to end U.S. aid to the Saudi attacks on Yemen. “I think this can begin a major shift in foreign policy, tilting away from support for Saudi Arabia and a greater restraint in foreign intervention,” said Khanna.

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Pocan and Khanna are Democrats who serve in the House minority. But they are working every angle to force the chamber to debate the U.S. role in Yemen.

By invoking a key section of the War Powers Act, explained Peace Action’s Paul Kawika Martin, “This privileged resolution will force members of Congress to go on record, many for the first time, on the question of whether or not we should be backing a coalition that’s demonstrated an intractable disregard for human rights and the most basic laws of war. To vote for continuing U.S. support is to vote for more indiscriminate bombings of schools, marketplaces, and hospitals in one of the world’s poorest nations, and at the expense of American taxpayers and U.S. national security interests. This is another push for Congress to take back its constitutional authority to declare war, that for political expediency it has handed over to the president.”

Among the House members who are prepared to go on the record are a pair of Republicans who have long been concerned about the failure of Congress to provide adequate oversight regarding U.S. engagement in undeclared wars — Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Walter Jones of North Carolina.

This attempt to get members of Congress to embrace their constitutionally defined duty to make decisions about whether the United States should involve itself in wars around the world will undoubtedly face hurdles. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, has gone out of his way to block congressional action that might check and balance the Trump administration’s military adventures.

But Pocan’s initiative seeks to go around Ryan and force a vote. If it succeeds, this opens up the possibility that a Congress that has been derelict in its duty might actually get on the right side of history — and play a real role in addressing one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises.

jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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