Joe Biden was vice president when President Barack Obama began providing American assistance to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, which killed more than 6,000 civilians by the time Obama and Biden left office. Under the watch of what Biden now calls the Obama-Biden administration, the Saudis relied on U.S.-provided intelligence to run missions in U.S.-provided planes that dropped U.S.-made bombs on hospitals, schools, markets and funerals.
But now, as he seeks the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Biden says “it is past time to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen.” Scores of fellow Obama alumni agree. In public appearances, op-eds and joint letters, prominent figures including former national security adviser Susan Rice and her deputy Ben Rhodes have said President Donald Trump must end the policy that they initiated.
“Our decision in the Obama administration to launch a partnership with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, not so much launching it but continuing it when it went off the rails ... that’s something that, given how that conflict has unfolded, people of conscience have reason to regret,” Rice told HuffPost.
Yet Obama hasn’t weighed in himself ― not on the Yemen policy nor on the Saudi government’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, two issues that official Washington sees as linked because of what they both reflect about America’s closest Arab partner. A spokeswoman for Obama declined to comment.
Asked about the prospect of the former president saying something about Yemen or Khashoggi, Rice said: “You know, the Khashoggi thing is over a year old.”
“I don’t expect him to speak out on a wide range of foreign policy issues,” she added. “I think he, despite all the provocations coming at him and his team from the Oval Office, has worked very hard to respect the tradition that predates this president which is that former presidents are highly reluctant, and the bar is extremely high, to criticize the decision-making of their successors.”
That’s a dodge. Obama would not have to comment on Trump to reflect on his own moral responsibility for the devastation in Yemen between March 26, 2015, and Jan. 20, 2017. Nor would he have to reference his successor to say it was wrong for Saudi government agents to lure a citizen to a diplomatic facility and chop up his body.
It’s possible to argue that anything Obama said, particularly on the latter, could be seen as implicit criticism because Trump largely continued the Obama-era approach to Yemen and defended the Saudis even after the CIA implicated their leadership in the murder. But by that logic, it was inappropriate for Obama to barnstorm in 2018 for Democrats whose platforms are squarely opposed to Trump’s plans. And it’s clear that when Obama does feel strongly moved, he says what he feels he must: condemning Trump’s Muslim ban, saying the U.S. shouldn’t leave the Paris climate pact, or bemoaning “woke” culture.
What Obama has is a choice. He’s chosen so far not to acknowledge his culpability for what the United Nations calls the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe or to try to publicly atone for it. He’s also assessed that the killing of a U.S. resident by a U.S.-aligned government with whom he worked closely — selling them more weapons than any other president — doesn’t meet the bar he’s set and Rice talked about. It’s possible to debate whether expectations of apology tours are fair or smart politics. It’s indisputable that the current situation is a curious one for a man whose moral authority is often cited as his defining characteristic.
“He should have never allowed support for the intervention back in 2015,” said Jehan Hakim, the chair of the Yemeni Alliance Committee, a Yemeni-American advocacy group. “The Yemeni community does not see the war in Yemen as a Trump war.”
“An apology is a moral imperative,” she added, but it’s only the beginning of a process of accountability that she said should include more aggressive support from Obama and his team for attempts to immediately end the U.S. role in the conflict.
That leaves Biden with a quandary.
Nostalgia for the Obama era is integral to his campaign, and it’s a political boon to have a unique connection to a man who has an 88% approval rating among Democratic voters, according to HuffPost polling in May. Biden has to decide if his campaign strategy can include a frank discussion of where the administration should have done better — or any claim that he can be bolder and more ethical than Obama. He has to make that call about a host of policies, from deporting massive numbers of people to prioritizing bailing out the financial sector over saving people’s homes.
It’s not clear that honesty would be politically expedient, and Biden, like Obama, disdains the current vogue for public performances of remorse.
But on Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the right thing to do might actually be the smart thing to do. A striking number of Democrats, led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), were already openly challenging Obama’s position while he was in office. Since then, pressure from dedicated lawmakers and activists has led every Democrat in the Senate and the vast majority of those in the House, joined by a small but significant number of Republicans, to vote to end U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemeni militants.
For Biden to say that the team he was part of was wrong and that he’s learned from that would be to align himself with the rest of his political family in an area ― global affairs ― where he’s selling himself as clearly superior to Trump. It would also leave him in a stronger position against critics and rivals ― most notably fellow presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who’s crafted landmark legislation against the Yemen war and is already highlighting Biden’s foreign policy record, specifically his vote for the invasion of Iraq, as a weak point.
Biden’s posture so far isn’t quite that assertive.
In his first public comment on the war during the 2020 campaign, he told The Washington Post this May that he supported congressional efforts to back out of it. But he did so through a spokesman, not in his own name, and he framed it as a bid to “cancel the blank check the Trump administration has given Saudi Arabia for its conduct of that war.” At the Democratic debate in November, he went even further, saying he would make Riyadh “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s killing and the slaughter of children by no longer supplying them with weapons of war. “I would ... make them in fact the pariah that they are,” Biden said. “They have to be held accountable.” He didn’t mention the record Obama-era weapons sales or the word Yemen.
The Biden campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Biden’s strategy reflects the approach of other former officials. “I don’t think it’s appropriate or fair to say that the Obama administration has to take responsibility for what the Trump administration has done,” said Ned Price, a former White House spokesman now with the group National Security Action.
A Nov. 11, 2018, statement signed by Price and others points to Trump permitting a weapons transfer to the Saudis and their partner the United Arab Emirates that Obama had halted weeks before he left office, an increase in civilian casualties in Yemen that year, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling Congress that the Saudi-led coalition had improved its targeting of airstrikes in response to dozens of reports of suspected war crimes.
“It’s undeniable, as we have said, that the Obama administration’s approach did not succeed at limiting and ultimately ending the conflict in Yemen,” said Price. “You won’t find anyone who isn’t heartbroken at the tragedy that has unfolded there. But it’s also demonstrably wrong to argue that the Obama administration forged a glide path for the Trump administration’s approach toward Yemen. The two approaches are fundamentally different in terms of the strategies, objectives, and values that undergird them.”
The Obama team knows it could have saved civilians from deaths by violence, disease, and starvation caused by the war, and team members are capable of reflecting on their choices. An extensive report on their approach from the International Crisis Group, headed by Obama’s former Mideast policy chief Rob Malley, discusses other options they could have taken, like limiting the midair refueling by U.S. planes that made long bombing runs by the Saudis possible (a step Obama never took but Trump ultimately did) and suspending the licenses that allowed U.S. contractors to work for the Saudi-led coalition.
Based on more than 40 interviews, the ICG report identifies major problems in the procedures the Obama administration cited as proof that it was controlling the humanitarian toll of its support for the Saudi-led campaign. The report also shows that many American officials remained committed to the policy and problematic justifications for it long after they had seen how ugly the war could get. In a section on the prospect of changing the U.S. diplomatic position to one less overwhelmingly favorable toward the Saudis and their allies, it reads: “[O]ne former senior official who tried to shift the State Department’s course during this period recalls that the resistance was greater than anything this official had faced on any other issue.”
“The war in Yemen was one on which the U.S. could have an immediate, direct impact ― simply by ceasing military support,” Malley told HuffPost. “The Syrian conflict was far more costly in terms of the human toll, but unlike in Syria, the U.S. didn’t have to intervene [in Yemen] to end the killing. It had to stop intervening. ... That’s one reason why U.S. policy toward Yemen has attracted more political attention” than U.S. policy toward Syria, another country where there was major bloodshed on Obama’s watch.
But all the former officials interviewed for the ICG report spoke on background. Multiple Obama alumni contacted for this story asked to do so, too, including some who had signed public statements calling for an end to the Yemen policy.
The Obama administration has engaged in an “incomplete reckoning,” according to Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“We repeatedly provided evidence [of Saudi misconduct] to Obama administration officials, but they would insist, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, that the support they were providing was reining in the Saudis and helping improve their ability to comply with the laws of war,” she wrote on the Just Security blog last year. “This is not a case of hindsight knows best. The Obama administration should have known back then.”
Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018 energized efforts to press Saudi Arabia on Yemen, among other issues. But as the ICG report notes, “the shock of the Khashoggi killing will not last forever.” With the blessing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats, Congress just this week decided not to put two measures targeted at the Saudi kingdom in a must-pass defense bill — avoiding the step that former Obama officials and other experts have been saying is crucial.
Yet as Malley said, “there’s little mileage to be gained today from being pro-Saudi in American politics.” And failing to deal with history makes repeating America’s mistakes inevitable. Real honesty about the last administration’s track record on Saudi Arabia should be a no-brainer for Biden — and for Obama, too.