The US Senate recently passed a resolution by 56 votes to 41 calling for an end to US military support to the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war. The Senate not only invoked the War Powers Act, a 1973 law by which Congress sought an end to the war in Vietnam, it questioned the power of the president to decide on matters of war and peace and upheld the legislature’s supremacy in this regard.
This resolution is significant for its bipartisan censure of the Trump administration’s lobby for maintaining arms supplies to Saudi Arabia. As a businessman himself, President Donald Trump clearly had commerce in mind when he made his remarks about Saudi Arabia’s defense purchases amid the controversy over the widely publicized murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He said: “If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China…. Think of that, $110 billion. All they’re going to do is give it to other countries, and I think that would be very foolish.”
Second, from a realist’s perspective, the incumbent administration’s continued strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia is aimed at containing the alleged subversive activities of Iran in the Middle East. The US Congress, at times, acted as a moral check on the executive branch’s assertion of American primacy in the guise of liberal values, democracy and market economy (ideas central to American exceptionalism) and helped promote American exceptionalism in real terms. However, it is a difficult exercise to distinguish American primacy from exceptionalism in clear terms as each has been used for the benefit of the other.
With the end of the Cold War and the dismantlement of the Warsaw Pact, American foreign-policy makers assumed that coercion and use of force if necessary could serve US foreign-policy objectives. The perceived success of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in undertaking humanitarian intervention in Kosovo strengthened the US belief in unilateralism, although enhanced reliance on air strikes led to a high number of civilian casualties.
Instances such as the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns pointed to the fact that force could be used against certain states and legitimacy could be derived from the United Nations later, and this engendered the possibility that pre-emptive strikes could be used whenever and wherever US national interests demanded such actions.
US military superiority and the strategic and economic advantages it provided to other states very often led various regional powers to woo Washington to side with them to maintain the balance against each other, even to the extent of allowing Washington to interfere in regional affairs.
To meet diversified threats, both conventional (threats from regional powers) and non-conventional (terrorism), many states increasingly relied on the US for either the actual provision of security or the training and equipment necessary to perform security functions. The power vacuum created by the Soviet disintegration was filled by the US through formal treaties offering protection under its security umbrella (NATO members) and a host of countries were offered special security provisions as well (non-NATO allies).
The Soviet disintegration was labeled “The End of History” by Francis Fukuyama, an eminent American scholar, to mark the victory of liberal values, democracy and market economy (American exceptionalism) in the Cold War.
The US mission in Somalia, which was conceived in 1993 to facilitate the delivery of aid and humanitarian assistance during the civil war in the East African country, was perceptibly driven by moral imperatives in a bid to prove American exceptionalism and set the tone of a new world order, as there were no clear strategic calculations driving the intervention. However, the deaths of 18 American soldiers and 73 wounded in the city of Mogadishu led to a body-bag syndrome that had clear implications for Rwanda, another African state, where the severity of the humanitarian crisis (1994) failed to inspire US engagement.
While later wars and interventions led by the US/NATO such as in Kosovo (1998), Afghanistan (since 2001), Iraq (since 2003) and Libya (2011) were conceived to wade through difficult humanitarian situations, and while it is almost impossible to know whether humanitarian conditions would not have been worse off without any intervention at all, the West was far from committing to liberal values.
Further, the body-bag syndrome caused enhanced reliance by the US on air power to avoid troop casualties, and US missions abroad were conceived more as counterterrorism or regime-change operations than long-term socio-economic engagements and were likely to be driven by clear national interests. In the case of Libya, it has been argued that the Western-led intervention, although desirable, was conceived without exhausting multilateral, regional and peaceful efforts beforehand.
Liberal values stood in sharp contrast to the US reliance on the support of warlords who had no less violent objectives than al-Qaeda or the Taliban to gain a quick victory in the war against extremists
While US president Bill Clinton sought to promote liberal values, democracy and market economy, his administration was engaged in military deployments with missions that varied from providing logistic support to UN peacekeeping missions to stability operations in the Balkans and rejected “dovish” prescriptions to abandon “America’s forward strategic presence,” showing a preference for American primacy. His successor George W Bush, however, clearly promoted American primacy after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and resorted to pre-emptive attacks that could be seen as self-serving.
In his January 2002 State of the Union speech, Bush preferred to see the international community divided into two neat categories, either as a US ally (upholder of liberal and democratic values) or forming part of an “Axis of Evil,” and thereby promoted American exceptionalism through primacy.
Liberal values stood in sharp contrast to the US reliance on the support of warlords who had no less violent objectives than al-Qaeda or the Taliban to gain a quick victory in the war against extremists. While the administrations of Bush and his successor Barack Obama continued with massive economic and military assistance to Pakistan without delving much into its impacts, the US Congress refused to subsidize the sale of eight F-16 fighter aircraft in 2016, which the Obama administration had committed itself to earlier in an attempt to prevent the Afghan operations from going awry.
While the postwar situations in Iraq and Afghanistan proved difficult to for the US to manage alone, the Obama administration indicated that the American operation against ISIS in Syria would be a surgical one primarily conducted by air strikes without any long-term engagement of ground troops. It was apparent that the US was not concerned about questions related to the weaknesses and stability of the Syrian state and society, and the Trump administration ended funding for Syrian stabilization.
In the Yemeni context, liberal and democratic values would mean that the US and other countries would try to change the civil-war conditions by addressing the sense of injustice and alienation that underwrite the North-South division and developing mechanisms to institute leadership that can gain the trust of people cutting across geographical and societal divisions. However, acute famine conditions must now be addressed on a priority basis.
By preventing the executive branch from sending arms and supplies to the theater of war, the US Congress does not necessarily create positive conditions for peace. Congress has exercised, more often than not, moral control over the executive’s excesses, but American exceptionalism in real terms in these contexts would be judged in terms of the US contribution to long-term socio-economic reconstruction and state-building exercises.