Tuesday's debate and vote in the U.S. Senate on whether to end (technically whether or not to vote on whether to end) U.S. participation in the war on Yemen can certainly be presented as a step forward. While 55 U.S. Senators voted to keep the war rolling along, 44 voted not to table the resolution to end it. Of those 44, some, including "leaders" like Senator Chuck Schumer, said not a word in the debate and only voted the right way once the wrong way had won. And conceivably some could say they were voting in favor of having a vote, upon which they would have voted for more war. But it's safe to say that at least most of the 44 were voting to end a war -- and many of them explicitly said so.
I use the phrase "end a war," despite the fact that Saudi Arabia could continue its war without U.S. participation -- in part, because it's easier, and in part because experts have suggested that Saudi Arabia could not do anything like what it is doing without the participation of the U.S. military in identifying targets and refueling planes. It is of course also true that were the United States to go beyond what was under consideration on Tuesday and cease providing Saudi Arabia with planes and bombs, and use its influence as an oil customer and general war partner to pressure Saudi Arabia to end the war and lift the blockade, the war might end entirely. And millions of human lives might be spared.
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine has for years been a leading proponent of getting Congress to authorize wars, making clear that he wanted to keep those wars going but with Congressional authorization. This time was different. Kaine pushed publicly for votes to end U.S. participation in the war on Yemen. He and even his colleague from Virginia Mark Warner (!) voted to end the U.S. war. I'm not sure any senator from Virginia had ever done such a thing before. And, in fact, no senator from anywhere had ever voted on a resolution raised under the War Powers Act before, because this was the first time any senator had bothered to try such a thing. Kaine tweeted:
"Millions in Yemen may starve and 10,000-plus are dead because of a war with no end in sight, that the U.S. has stumbled into. Proud to support this proposal to direct the removal of U.S. armed forces."
"Stumbled into"? Forget it, he's rolling.
And Kaine was the least of it. To watch Dianne Feinstein argue for ending a war had a very Twilight Zone aspect to it. Look through the list of who voted "Nay" and re-define them in your mind as people who under just the right conditions (possibly including guaranteed failure to reach a majority) will sometimes vote to end a war. I'd call that progress.
But if you watch the debate via C-Span, the top question in your mind might not be "What incredible activism, information, accident, or luck got 44 people to vote the right way?" but rather "Why did 55 cheerful, well-fed, safe people in suits just vote for mass-murder?" Why did they? Why did they take a break for political party meetings in the middle of the debate, and debate other legislation just before and after this resolution, and walk around and chat with each other exactly as if all were normal, while voting for genocide?
The facts of the matter were presented very clearly in the debate by numerous U.S. senators from both parties. They denounced war lies as "lies." They pointed out the horrendous damage, the deaths, the injuries, the starvation, the cholera. They cited Saudi Arabia's explicit and intentional use of starvation as a weapon. They noted the blockade against humanitarian aid imposed by Saudi Arabia. They endlessly discussed the biggest cholera epidemic ever known. Here's a tweet from Senator Chris Murphy:
"Gut check moment for the Senate today: we will vote on whether to continue the U.S./Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen which has killed over 10,000 civilians and created the largest cholera outbreak in history."
Senator Jeff Merkley asked if partnering with a government trying to starve millions of people to death squared with the principles of the United States of America. I tweeted a response: "Should I tell him or wait and let his colleagues do it?" In the end, 55 of his colleagues answered his question as well as any history book could have done.
The ridiculousness of arguments for continuing the war was called out by senators on the floor. Senator Mitch McConnell and others made the claim made to them by Secretary of War ("Defense") James Mattis, that ending U.S. participation in bombing civilians in Yemen would mean more civilian deaths in Yemen, not fewer. Others trotted out the claim made by Trump's lawyers, parroting Obama's lawyer Harold Koh, that bombing a nation flat is neither "war" nor "hostilities" if U.S. troops are not on the ground being shot.
Senator Bernie Sanders put a stop to such nonsense. He recommended trying telling the people of Yemen being bombed with U.S. bombs and U.S. targeting and U.S.-fueled planes that the United States is not really involved.
The idea that the full Senate should leave to a committee a matter the committee had not bother to touch in years was also appropriately laughed out of court.
Senator Mike Lee reassured his colleagues that ending the U.S. war on Yemen on grounds of illegality wouldn't slow or halt any other illegal US wars. (I'm sure you're relieved to hear that!)
To their credit, Senators Murphy and Lee and Sanders were very clear that a vote to table, rather than directly vote on, their resolution to end the war, would be a cowardly vote not to have a debate and not to obey the U.S. Constitution. And to their greater credit, they went ahead and had the substantive debate prior to the vote to table. In the past on at least one occasion of the many times that we've seen such resolutions brought forward in the House, the war-proponents talked substance while the opponents talked only procedure. This change, too, was progress.
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