Many congressional Democrats believe that the country sits at a similar juncture now. The War on Terror, they argue, enabled a second imperial presidency, and the decline of the Islamic State has created an opportunity to change direction. “Since 9/11, presidents have taken more authority with relatively little pushback from Congress,” one Senate Democratic aide told me, “and Yemen is where Congress makes its stand.” Democrats pushing a War Powers Resolution on Yemen want not merely to expand oversight of the Pentagon’s sprawling anti-terrorism operations, but to reorient American foreign policy away from terrorism altogether. “As an organizing framework,” Sanders declared in a foreign-policy speech last year, “the Global War on Terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership.”
Read: Life in Yemen is Sophie’s choice
Two interrelated shifts within the Democratic Party are easing Sanders’s path. The first is the growing activism of the party’s base. Although most of that activism is focused on domestic issues, the culture of militant protest has influenced the debate on Yemen, too. According to Stephen Miles of Win Without War, the group’s activists have made and sent more than 200,000 phone calls and emails to members of Congress on Yemen in the last two years. Last month, activists protested outside the district offices of Speaker-in-Waiting Nancy Pelosi and Representative Adam Schiff. Within a day, according to Robert Naiman of the nonpartisan advocacy group Just Foreign Policy, both Pelosi and Schiff committed to co-sponsor the House version of the War Powers Resolution.
As part of this activist turn, progressive Democrats have begun spurning corporate contributions, and challenging those in their party who accept them. This makes it harder for Democrats to quietly do the bidding of the defense contractors who benefit from American participation in the Saudi war. In November, when the House voted to prevent a floor vote on his War Powers Resolution on Yemen, the resolution’s sponsor, California Representative Ro Khanna, tweeted, “Those who voted to block my resolution on ending U.S. involvement in Yemen received an average of $48,047 from the defense industry. Those who voted against it received an average of $27,505.” When Democrats take over the House in January, Khanna’s resolution will likely get a vote on the floor.
Yemen is likely only the beginning of a Democratic insurgency not merely against Trump’s foreign policy, but also against the legacy of Obama’s. On the same day last week that the Senate voted on Sanders’s resolution on Yemen, Elizabeth Warren declared in a speech, “It’s time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan—starting now.” Naiman predicts that next year House Democrats will vote to express their disapproval of the war in Afghanistan, which Obama championed in his 2008 campaign, sharply escalated in 2009, and decided in his final years not to end. It’s a good bet given that Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, who last year denounced Congress for having “acquiesced time and time again to Democratic and Republican administrations when it comes to war,” will become chairman of the House Rules Committee, which determines which bills get a vote on the House floor.
These anti-war insurrections represent the rebirth of a spirit—suspicious of military entanglements and the unchecked presidential power that enables them—that marked Democratic foreign policy from the last years of Vietnam through the struggle over the Reagan administration’s proxy wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. Turning that spirit into a coherent post-Obama foreign-policy vision will be the task of those Democrats who seek the presidency over the next two years.