Biden’s Broken Promise on Yemen

Co-authored by Bruce Riedel

When Joe Biden included ending the war in Yemen as a key goal during his first foreign policy speech as president, he was breaking with his predecessors. Donald Trump had backed the Saudis and Emiratis, even using a presidential veto to stymie a congressional attempt to end U.S. involvement in the war. When Mohammed bin Salman, then Saudi defense minister, launched his military intervention in Yemen 2015, Barack Obama decided to provide assistance — a Faustian bargain aimed (unsuccessfully) at tempering Saudi criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. Biden’s decision to prioritize Yemen by appointing a special envoy — as well as reversing Trump’s designation just before leaving office of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization — raised hopes that a greater emphasis on diplomacy from the U.S. might finally move the devastating war towards resolution. Yet almost eight months later, little has changed.

Biden’s statement that “we’re stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen” may have betrayed naiveté about the impact the U.S. could realistically have. The war is likely to continue regardless of what Washington does: the lucrative war economy; inflows of resources from foreign sponsors; and the lack of incentives to negotiate spur the myriad combatants to keep fighting, regardless of civilian suffering. But while Biden may not be able to end the war, he can end America’s complicity in it.

Unfortunately, Biden’s approach is fatally flawed. The president stated that he would “end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen.” Yet the Saudi-led war on Yemen by definition, is an offensive operation. Saudi Arabia is bombing and blockading another country: Between March 2015 and July 2021, the Saudis conducted a minimum of 23,251 air raids, which killed or injured 18,616 civilians. The Houthis, known formally as Ansarallah, launch missiles in retaliation but if Saudi airstrikes ceased, the Houthis would have little reason to provoke their powerful neighbor. As long as the U.S. materially and rhetorically backs the Saudis’ war of choice, Biden’s assertion that the U.S. would end support for offensive operations is a lie.

The second crucial flaw in Biden’s approach is that he did not call for an immediate end to the Saudi blockade of Yemen. The blockade primarily blocks fuel from entering the Houthi-controlled Hodeida port; the Saudis also prevent the use of Sanaa International Airport. Blockades cannot be defensive: they are offensive operations, and therefore U.S. involvement should have ended following Biden’s declaration in February. The U.S. tacitly cooperated with the blockade by not challenging it, and the U.S. Navy occasionally announces it has intercepted smuggled weapons from Iran, suggesting a more active role than the administration admits. Congress should investigate.

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