Congressman Mark Pocan

Representing the 2nd District of Wisconsin
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Bipartisan Group of 16 Lawmakers Threaten to Block U.S. Military Escalation in Yemen if not Briefed by Pentagon

May 3, 2017
Press Release
Members of Congress seek urgent clarification on whether the White House intends to pursue diplomacy and warn against U.S. military escalation that could trigger famine in Yemen

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Justin Amash (R-MI), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), John Conyers (D-MI), Jim McGovern (D-MA) and 10 other members of Congress sent a bipartisan letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis urgently calling on him to brief Congress at his “earliest opportunity” before the U.S. approves or assists a potentially catastrophic military action by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Secretary Mattis was reported to have proposed U.S. military support for a Saudi-led assault on the Yemeni port of Hodeida, through which the vast majority of food shipments must pass before reaching millions of Yemenis on the brink of famine. Aid agencies, experts, and the United Nations have warned that a U.S.-backed Saudi operation could trigger mass starvation in a country ravaged by the two-year-old war and Saudi-imposed blockade.

“In the face of Yemen’s senseless humanitarian tragedy,” write the Members of Congress, “we are committed to using our Constitutional authority to assert greater oversight over U.S. involvement in the conflict and promote greater public debate regarding U.S. military participation in Yemen’s civil war, which has never been authorized by Congress.” They conclude: “Should the administration remain unresponsive to our repeated inquiries into the nature of U.S. engagement in a potentially catastrophic Saudi attack on Hodeida, we will pursue legislation to explicitly prohibit U.S. involvement in any such an assault.”

Last month, in a bipartisan request, Rep. Pocan and 54 of his colleagues asked President Trump a simple question: what legal justification is the White House claiming for escalating U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen—a war that’s never been authorized by Congress?

The letter to Secretary Mattis was signed by U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Justin Amash (R-MI), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), John Conyers (D-MI), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HA), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR), Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Darren Soto (D-FL), Colleen Hanabusa (D-HA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), and Karen Bass (D-CA). An electronic copy can be found here

The full text is below.

May 2, 2017

Dear Secretary Mattis:

We write to applaud your public comments, made on April 18th, indicating your intent to put the two-year-old, U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen “in front of a UN-brokered negotiating team and try to resolve this politically as soon as possible.” We were encouraged by your resolve, en route to Saudi Arabia, to “work with our allies” to have the crisis “brought to an end” in light of “the number of innocent people dying inside Yemen.”

Yet one week after your departure from Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-led coalition of militaries reportedly “dropped thousands of leaflets” from fighter jets over the Yemeni port city of Hodeida, a lifeline for a country on the brink of famine. The leaflets warned residents of an “impending offensive,” and encouraged local support for a military assault. Press accounts considered this measure a “countdown” for an attack. 

In light of these provocative Saudi actions, we wish to raise to your attention a recent letter to President Trump and Attorney General Sessions sent by a bipartisan group of 55 U.S. Representatives, which insisted that any direct U.S. involvement in the escalating war between the Saudi military coalition and Yemen’s Houthi rebels be brought to Congress for debate and authorization before being carried out. That letter specifically questioned the legal basis for a proposal you were reported to have made in March: the provision of direct U.S. assistance for a Saudi coalition assault on Hodeida.

As you know, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen has stated, “We are definitely, unequivocally against any military operation” against Hodeida, which would have “very, very disastrous consequences” and could “tip the country into famine.” Indeed, shipments imported through Hodeida amount to over 60 percent of all of Yemen’s food, although “the Saudi navy is blockading” the port currently, “letting only a trickle through.” For this reason, we concur with Senator Todd Young (R-IN), whose principal demand—“refrain from bombing the port of Hodeida”—was one of a number of sensible requests he directed to “our Saudi partners.”

We are deeply disturbed by the words of UN Secretary General António Guterres, who warned that in Yemen “we are witnessing the starving and the crippling of an entire generation.” And yet as children die in “the world’s largest hunger crisis,” he argued, “all those deaths could have been prevented.” He concluded, “Only a cessation of hostilities and a political settlement can bring about a permanent end to the conflict and the suffering of the Yemeni people.”

While we welcome your comments pressing for a diplomatic solution to the Yemen war, we note with concern that Pentagon officials continue to advance “logistical and intelligence support” for a Saudi coalition attack on Hodeida. As the administration weighs whether to “provide additional targeting help and other military aid” to the Saudis, some U.S. officials have alarmingly justified an assault on Hodeida to the press by claiming that “both sides would be more likely to compromise after one more military fight,” and that “the Saudis need a face-saving way to justify a two-year war that has damaged their image abroad.”

Due to the conflicting comments coming from the administration, we cordially invite you to come to Congress to brief us in person on the White House’s overall strategy in Yemen at your earliest opportunity. In particular, we seek clarification on whether the administration is pursuing an immediate end to the violence by advocating multilateral negotiations—as we may infer from your comments—or if it is the case, as press reports seem to indicate, that the White House is “sympathetic” to the view that further “military pressure can force the Houthis to return to the bargaining table.” We also seek urgent answers regarding the Saudi leafleting of Hodeida, and whether this prelude to an attack was performed after securing U.S. approval and assistance for an assault. In light of previous reporting of administration deliberations, any Saudi operation to seize Hodeida would be perceived as a U.S. effort.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) has publicly made clear that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to counter al-Qaeda would not apply to the Shia Houthis in Yemen. “Certainly engaging in a war” against the Houthis, he told the press, “is a step beyond the current authorization.” As we await a response from the White House and the Office of Legal Counsel regarding their rationales for a U.S. escalation of hostilities in Yemen absent Congressional authorization, we ask for your cooperation in upholding the Constitutional principle of Congress’s war powers by briefing us on the administration’s plans.     

In the face of Yemen’s senseless humanitarian tragedy, where 19 million people need emergency support, we are committed to using our Constitutional authority to assert greater oversight over U.S. involvement in the conflict and promote greater public debate regarding U.S. military participation in Yemen’s civil war, which has never been authorized by Congress. Should the administration remain unresponsive to our repeated inquiries into the nature of U.S. engagement in a potentially catastrophic Saudi attack on Hodeida, we will pursue legislation to explicitly prohibit U.S. involvement in any such an assault.

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