Two years before Joe Biden won the presidency, 30 national security experts who worked with him under President Barack Obama published a high-profile mea culpa. They called their policy of supporting the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen a “failure,” citing how it hurt civilians, and urged then-President Donald Trump to end it.
The move had big implications for U.S. foreign policy. Critically, it acknowledged that Washington’s pattern of arming and aiding other nations made Americans complicit in their actions ― a truth that the Obama administration spent years denying with regard to Yemen.
Today, 23 of the people who signed that letter are back in government, holding high-ranking jobs under Biden. Their administration is supporting Israel as it pummels Gaza in an offensive that has killed dozens of children and destroyed medical facilities. Although Biden expressed support for a ceasefire during calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday and Wednesday, he and his administration have not publicly urged Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, to lay down their arms.
HuffPost contacted those 23 officials ― including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, domestic policy chief Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and top Pentagon appointees ― to ask how they perceived the situations in Yemen and Gaza differently.
None agreed to comment on the record. The organization of Obama alumni that put together the Yemen letter, National Security Action, no longer hosts the statement on its website.
U.S. weaponry and international diplomatic support are critical for Israel. Hamas, whose indiscriminate firing has killed at least 12 Israelis in the current round of fighting, has no similar relationship with Washington; America’s influence on its leaders is extremely limited.
“If the signers of the Yemen mea culpa truly learned their lesson, now is the time to act like it.”
Many experts believe the humane thing to do is obvious.
“As a global superpower and Israel’s closest ally, the U.S. has a responsibility to do much more to end this escalation,” the influential liberal Jewish group J Street argued in a Monday statement. The organization asked Biden to publicly tell Israel to stop hitting densely populated areas, call for a ceasefire and abandon his hands-off approach to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
In the Yemen letter, the former Obama staffers acknowledged that permitting impunity for U.S. partners for the sake of avoiding public spats can create greater and greater violence. “We did not intend U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check. But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened,” they wrote.
Setting a precedent of unquestioned support for partners like Israel and Saudi Arabia makes it easier for American and foreign leaders who disdain human rights concerns ― like Trump ― to ultimately worsen international conflicts like the Yemen war, they noted.
Whether those insights guide Biden’s team will determine if the president’s foreign policy can actually reflect the values that, shortly after he took office, Biden said it will: “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
“If the signers of the Yemen mea culpa truly learned their lesson, now is the time to act like it,” said Kate Kizer of Win Without War, who was deeply involved in advocacy against the Yemen war. “Just as in Yemen, the United States’ approach to Israel and Palestine is one that is both ineffective and fundamentally in contradiction with our stated policy goals and commitment to human rights.”
Rather than permitting developments which could ultimately spur another apology, “we need immediate action” from Biden’s team, she told HuffPost. “Reckoning with mistakes is challenging but it is nothing compared to the pain that policymakers have asked Palestinians and many others in the region to endure as they make the same mistakes again and again.”
One signatory of the Yemen letter who is now in the Biden administration shared their view on the parallels with the Gaza offensive on the basis of anonymity.
“The loss of civilian life in both contexts is heartbreaking, but they are not analogous — at least not yet,” the person wrote in an email. “The Biden administration has been in office for slightly more than 3 months, and the violence in Israel and Gaza has been ongoing for just over a week. We were not under any illusions that we’d be in a position to change the underlying dynamics of a long-running conflict within the first 100 days. … I hope you judge us over the course of the administration.”
The person presented the Yemen situation as fundamentally different, given the extent of the fighting there, which remains ongoing six years after the Saudis and their partners began bombing the country with U.S help.
“With the letter, on the other hand, we expressed regret that, for too many months, we actively supported an aerial bombardment campaign that started under our watch and with our support,” the signatory said.
As with previous assaults on Gaza, Israel is likely to halt its campaign in a matter of weeks ― not least because of the public pressure from powerful Americans outside the Biden administration.
But hard-right Israelis like Netanyahu and other international figures have already received an early signal about Biden that could undercut his administration’s attempts to promote human rights and peace for years to come. The president’s recently revealed plan to funnel $735 million in new bombs to Israel will strengthen the impression that he quietly condones behavior that the U.S. claims to stand against.
On Wednesday, after Biden issued his strongest encouragement yet for a ceasefire, Netanyahu said he was “determined to continue” the offensive in Gaza.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a prominent member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, gave a warning about the consequences of Biden’s approach in a statement about the new arms deal.
“While I have supported security assistance to Israel, including by funding the Iron Dome defense system, I have serious concerns about the timing of this weapons sale, the message it will send to Israel and the world about the urgency of a cease fire, and the open questions about the legality of Israel’s military strikes that have killed civilians in Gaza,” Castro said on Monday.
In an email to HuffPost, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not address the parallels to Yemen but said the Biden administration wants “the restoration of calm and the protection of civilians, as the current conflict has tragically claimed the lives of both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.”
“President Biden has expressed both his support for a ceasefire and, more broadly, his strong commitment to a negotiated two-state solution as the best path to reach a just and lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” a White House spokesperson said.
Soon after Biden took office, he slashed U.S. assistance for the Saudis in Yemen, saying that withdrawing support from the longtime American partners was essential for pushing them to end the conflict. In its Monday statement, J Street said that drawing a clear line with Israel is the only way to achieve the Israeli-Palestinian peace that Biden’s team says it wants.
“The White House must … recognize that the provision of a financial and diplomatic ‘blank check’ by the United States to the state of Israel means that its current government feels little incentive to end occupation, pursue serious diplomacy and find a solution to the conflict that provides Israel with real security and Palestinians with their rights,” the organization said in its Monday statement.