President Joe Biden is fulfilling one of his top foreign policy campaign promises by cutting off assistance to the brutal Saudi Arabia-led military coalition in Yemen, he announced at the State Department on Thursday.
“We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” Biden said, after describing the suffering that Yemenis have endured throughout a civil war that began in 2014. According to the United Nations, the country is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
He also announced that he was appointing well-respected career diplomat Tim Lenderking to be the first-ever American envoy to facilitate a ceasefire between the warring parties — the Iranian-back Houthis, and the Saudi-led coalition with the United Arab Emirates and their Yemeni partners.
Biden’s remarks suggested the U.S. role in Yemen will move from squarely supporting one side of the war to acting as a mediator whose chief goal is stopping the fighting. The shift has huge implications for millions of people in Yemen. With American backing, the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign and other offensive operations have killed tens of thousands of civilians.
It also signals how the politics around a key national security issue, the U.S. role in the Middle East, has evolved since Biden was last in government.
“This should hearten any foreign policy activist, any human rights activist in America about the difference we can make,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a leader in congressional resistance to the Yemen policy, told HuffPost on Thursday.
In March 2015, then-President Barack Obama greenlit U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in its fight against a militia backed by the Saudis’ regional rival, Iran. His administration ― staffed by many of the same people now back in positions of power under Biden ― continued that approach despite growing evidence that it involved war crimes and complaints from Democratic lawmakers.
Under President Donald Trump, Congress repeatedly passed bipartisan legislation to end the policy, but Trump vetoed it as he cultivated close ties with the Saudis and Emiratis. He did, however, end one aspect of support, aerial refueling for the coalition’s bombing runs, amid public outrage over the Saudi role in murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden’s move shows how a small but committed group of legislators, national security analysts and activists successfully shifted the thinking in Washington by demanding a more progressive foreign policy and greater concern for how America’s power can cause vast humanitarian suffering abroad.
“Years of grassroots organizing is finally paying off,” tweeted Kate Kizer of Win Without War. Will Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute, one of the conservatives who has rallied crucial GOP opposition to the Yemen, cheered the decision and urged Republicans to avoid “partisan pushback.”
How far Biden will reshape the historically warm relationship between the U.S. and those controversial Gulf Arab regimes remains unclear.
The president and his top aides agree with the Saudis and their allies that Iran is a threat, and Biden’s use of the word “offensive” was notable. He was likely referring to intelligence and logistical support for the coalition’s air and ground operations against the Houthis, the pro-Iran group in Yemen. By mentioning the Saudis’ defense, Biden made it clear that he will permit some intelligence and aid to combat consistent Houthi efforts to hit Saudi Arabia and the UAE with missiles.
For anti-war advocates, it’s important to ensure that that support does not ultimately enable more conflict or give the Arab governments the sense that they are not actually being held accountable.
“While this is a welcome change, we need to make sure that there is no intelligence cooperation when it comes to the Yemen war,” Khanna said, citing as an example information that could help the Saudis continue their bombing of Houthi-linked targets within Yemen.
Additionally, critics of the Yemen war want Biden to hold the Saudis and Emiratis accountable for their behavior as he reviews major Trump-era plans to send more U.S. weapons to both regimes. The UAE is seeking $23 billion in equipment ― including $10 billion in bombs and missiles of the kind used in Yemen ― and Saudi Arabia wants to buy more than $750 million in two packages of new bombs.
The president is expected to decide by April on whether to allow all or part of those arms deals to proceed.
“I don’t see how you can now approve those sales,” Khanna said.
And humanitarian groups and key members of Congress also want Biden to clearly indicate that the U.S. will stop assisting and diplomatically shielding a broad Saudi-led blockade of Yemeni regions controlled by the Houthis. That plan has dramatically increased food prices and pushed millions of Yemenis closer to starvation.
The reaction to Thursday’s announcement from the Saudis and their partners — as well as Iran — will be significant for Biden’s broader foreign policy. His move could produce regional goodwill that eases new American negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program, and decision-makers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could feel a greater incentive to pursue less belligerent policies in the Middle East, starting with moving faster to cut a deal to end the war in Yemen.
Officials in those regimes already feel some pressure. Top UAE diplomat Anwar Gargash tweeted a response to Biden’s remarks soon after they concluded, arguing his country had withdrawn from Yemen and was eager to support peace and aid efforts.