On the surface, a John Quincy Adams speech from 1821, a 2002 drone strike in the Marib Province of Yemen, and President Donald Trump’s veto of the first invocation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution might not seem related. But upon further consideration, the history of the US’s military involvement in Yemen speaks to a strong need for reconciliation with certain tenets of the infancy of American foreign policy—one initially marked by power in restraint.
A sedan filled with six men was targeted while driving through the arid Marib province of Yemen by a hellfire missile from a US Predator in 2002. The strike was one of the first of its kind and marked the first military intervention by the US in Yemen, apparently justified by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force which authorizes action against “those nations, organizations, or persons he [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”
The targeted strike was successful in killing Qaed Salim Sinan Al-Harithi, the suspected terrorist responsible for organizing the 2000 attack against the USS Cole, but it also marked an alarming moment of military intervention in the face of legal ambiguity.
By lumping certain members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in with “associated forces,” the US attempted to legitimize its role in the Yemeni civil war as one positioned to combat terrorism, all while assisting Saudi Arabia in securing regional proxy power against Iran.
From 2015 and on, the US has increasingly refocused its involvement in Yemen to assisting the Saudi-led coalition consisting of the United Arab Emirates and several other Arab and African nations against the insurgent Houthi Rebels who ousted the US-backed administration—through selling the coalition weapons, providing intelligence, and until last year, fueling and refueling warplanes.
John Quincy Adams anticipated the dangers of “enlisting under other banners” and of “wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition,” but he could never conceive of the extent to which the power of the US would be abused. On July 4, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams delivered an historic vision for what US foreign policy should be, a vision which runs diametrically opposed to that currently practiced:
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
Today, Adams would have likely recognized that a foreign policy marked by restraint does not necessitate a posture of total isolation. With the most powerful military on the planet, the US will never be positioned as an inactive member in the international community. Yet, to have leverage in such a dire situation doesn’t mean that the US must be actively exacerbating it.
Indeed, reconciling US foreign policy with aspects of its restraint-oriented past doesn’t mean jamming war back into an archaic box, or denying the realities of the ongoing threat of terrorism. It does mean that we recognize that to seek to combat terrorism everywhere and all the time is to concretize a perpetual international military presence and to bleed the country dry.
Recently, a bipartisan coalition in Congress recognized Adams’s sentiment by invoking the War Powers Resolution of 1973 which provides Congress with the power to remove troops engaged in “hostilities” if there has been no official “declaration of war or specific statutory authorization.” Congress successfully passed a resolution demanding that the White House end its support of the Saudi war, and demanding that the Executive recognize Congress’s role in declaring war.
President Donald Trump recently decided to veto the resolution in April. This brought the contrast between a modern interpretation of Adams’s foreign policy insight and the actual foreign policy practiced by the US for decades into clarity. President Trump’s administration promptly announced an emergency given the “malign influence” of Iran, a threat never included in the 2001 AUMF, and invoked a clause from the Arms Export Control Act to bypass Congressional review and expedite arms sales to various coalition countries including Saudi Arabia.
The administration has failed to demonstrate how the American people themselves have a vested interest in combating Iran, and instead have taken to “enlisting under other banners” in a regional clash of proxy powers by taking sides in a conflict which the US ought to have never taken sides in.
Ever since that initial drone strike in the Marib province, Yemen has stood as an example of the devastating effects that unilateral foreign intervention can have. A conservatively estimated 85,000 children having starved to death since 2015 as a result of the war and blockade, according to a report by Save the Children. Many of the bombings have even targeted weddings, hotels, and funerals, with one 2016 funeral bombing in particular killing more than one-hundred and forty grievers.
At best, the quixotic intentions of interventionist foreign policy rarely attain good results, at worst, they often encourage the blatant disruption of the balance of power between states by unilaterally intervening in volatile domestic situations. President Trump’s veto of the War Powers Resolution has made it clearer than ever before that the US has gone “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” gripped by “individual avarice, envy, and ambition,” as Adams once warned.