Coauthored with Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute. This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on March 19, 2018.
“In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found,” wrote James Madison, “than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.” Madison, the chief architect of our Constitution, would know. He understood that the executive branch is “most interested in war, & most prone to it.”
Looking over the last century of US foreign policy, however, that wisdom would be hard to detect. A hundred years ago, in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson unilaterally sent a US expeditionary force to intervene in the Russian Civil War. Decades later, President Truman sent US forces to a far more significant intervention in the Korea War without Congressional authorization. Yet too many scholars have falsely concluded from this that enough flagrant violations of our highest law — deliberately established to constrain the executive — somehow all add up to give the president a pass.
Lawmakers sought to clarify these authorities through the historic War Powers Resolution of 1973, which they enacted over President Nixon’s veto. Yet the struggle over war powers remains as fraught and consequential as ever in the 21st century.
For three years, the United States has been engaged in a brutal, strategically counterproductive, and unauthorized military campaign in Yemen — and Congress’s war powers are finally being flexed. A bipartisan team of senators is bringing a reckoning by initiating the first-ever Senate vote to end an illegal war.
Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) are invoking the War Powers Resolution to trigger a floor vote on their bill, S.J.Res. 54, to terminate US involvement in hostilities on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. Since March 2015, the US has been engaged in fighting alongside the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, providing logistical and targeting support and midair refueling services for warplanes conducting aerial bombings against Houthi rebels of Yemen. The Houthis have no association with al Qaeda or ISIS.
The war has brought devastating human costs. Saudi and UAE attacks have been indiscriminate and have resulted in massive civilian casualties. They’re part of a broader Saudi-led strategy that has included forced famine and the denial of medical aid. Facing blockades and bombardments, over a million Yemenis are believed to have contracted cholera. Foreign Policy has reported that the daily bombings “would not be possible without the constant presence of U.S. Air Force tanker planes refueling coalition jets.”
Congress has been loath to interject in complex foreign policy questions. And the war in Yemen is indeed enmeshed in questions about the balance of power in the Middle East. But this issue should nonetheless be simple. Beyond the humanitarian imperatives to end the war, there are also strategic imperatives. A July 2017 finding in the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism 2016” showed that the conflict has “continued the security vacuum that has enabled al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS’s Yemen branch to deepen their inroads across much of the country.”
It’s time for lawmakers to support the Lee-Sanders-Murphy initiative. Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to declare war. Absent an imminent threat or attack, the president, as commander in chief, can only introduce U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress or a specific statutory authorization.
If the Pentagon insists on perpetuating a senseless, unauthorized war first launched by President Obama in order to appease Saudi Arabia, the White House must persuade majorities of the House and Senate to approve of U.S. hostilities against Yemen’s Houthis.
The new measure from Lee, Sanders, and Murphy would restore the rightful balance of power in our government. By adhering to principles of limited and constitutional governance, we can both advance America’s strategic interests and help save millions of lives. Congressional leadership — Republican and Democrat alike — have unsurprisingly opposed House and Senate lawmakers as they reassert the legislature’s monumental and exclusive responsibility. But our founding fathers would surely view S. J. Res. 54 as key to restoring constitutional governance and revitalizing our democracy.
Jason Pye is vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, a nonprofit group working to advance the cause of free markets and individual liberty. Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and has served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Sen. Rand Paul.