As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to put some reasonable limitations on how the United States conducted its post-9/11 wars across the Middle East.
“The legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray, a mess,” he said in April 2016, during his first major speech about foreign policy. “We’ve made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before.”
Since taking office, Trump’s track record has been decidedly mixed. He launched missiles into Syria. He ordered American troops home from Syria. He then reversed himself and sorta-kinda agreed to keep them there for a while longer.
But on Tuesday night, Trump unambiguously backed Forever War. He vetoed a congressional resolution that would have ended American military involvement in the Yemeni civil war—a conflict that has killed an estimated 50,000 people (scores more have died in a famine triggered by the conflict) without having any significant bearing on U.S. national security.
“This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future,” Trump said in a statement. The congressional resolution is unnecessary, Trump says, because “the United States is not engaged in hostilities in or affecting Yemen.”
That’s being too clever by half. Yes, there are no American troops fighting on the front lines in Yemen, but the Trump administration has been providing logistical support and intelligence to the Saudi-backed coalition that’s fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. American-flown planes are being used to refuel Saudi aircraft in mid-air, for example. Trump’s own veto statement belies the internal contradiction, with its nod to American “service members” who are very much participants in the bloody, seemingly intractable conflict.
The resolution calling for an end to that military support, sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.), says “the activities that the United States is conducting in support of the Saudi-led coalition, including aerial refueling and targeting assistance, fall within” the authority of the War Powers Act of 1973. That law was passed in the closing stages of the Vietnam War, with the intention of preventing a president from getting America into another years-long conflict without congressional authorization (please, hold your laughter).
The resolution cleared both chambers of Congress with bipartisan approval, but not a veto-proof majority in either. (Notably, libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) voted against the resolution in the House due to concerns over how it might expand congressional authorization for other Middle Eastern wars.)
Still, it’s something of an accomplishment, since this is the first time a congressional resolution invoking the War Powers Act has reached the president’s desk.
But that won’t be enough until America has a president actually willing to rein-in America’s foreign military excursions—instead of merely promising to do so to get elected.