Biden’s move on Yemen sparks new questions
Advocates cheered when President Biden announced an end to U.S. support for offensive military operations in Yemen, but questions are now being raised about what will actually change.
The Pentagon has said it halted intelligence sharing related to offensive operations, but that it is also reviewing how best to implement the new policy. The Biden administration has also pointed to its suspension of two precision-guided bomb sales to Saudi Arabia approved late in the Trump administration.
But the administration has also made clear it will continue defending Saudi Arabia from attacks, including after one this past week at an airport near the kingdom’s border with Yemen that singed a civilian plane. And the Pentagon has previously characterized U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia, including intelligence sharing, as largely defensive.
The question at hand now is what the administration will consider offensive support versus defensive.
“That is the real question and from my understanding, it’s still a live debate in the administration where they’re trying to figure out what the president’s decision actually means in practice,” said one advocate familiar with the discussions. “From conversations I’ve had, it seems part of that is due to the fact that there’s division within the government about basically how to define offensive and I think also what to consider in terms of past behavior by these actors.”
In Biden’s first visit to the State Department, he announced he would end U.S. support for a Saudi-led military coalition’s offensive operations against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who the United States says receive weapons and other support from Iran. Biden also named as his special envoy to Yemen veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking, who traveled to Saudi Arabia this past week to begin his push to end the war.
Biden’s announcement was seen as a major victory by advocates who have long fought to end U.S. support for the war amid thousands of civilian casualties blamed on the Saudi-led coalition.
The support started during the Obama administration, in which many of the same officials in the Biden administration served, to soothe tensions with the Saudis after their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. But many of those officials have since said they regret their initial support for the war as civilian casualties mounted and Saudi Arabia engaged in other bad acts, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
The Biden administration also later announced it was lifting the terrorist designation against the Houthis, an 11th-hour designation made by the Trump administration that humanitarian organizations warned would exacerbate the crisis by blocking needed aid shipments to civilians in rebel-controlled areas.
But Biden and other administration officials also stressed the United States would continue defending the Saudis from attacks, as well as continue counterterrorism operations inside Yemen against al Qaeda and ISIS.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has led congressional efforts to end U.S. support for the war, hailed Biden’s announcement as a “dramatic shift in American foreign policy,” but expressed some concern about Saudi Arabia characterizing its strikes inside Yemen as defensive.
“My understanding and reading of the Biden administration is they view all of that as offensive. And if you are bombing a Yemeni’s village, if you are striking Yemen, that is offensive, and that defensive would literally be, if someone is launching a missile into your country, to figure out how that doesn’t hurt civilians,” Khanna said at an event hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “And so I think we have to be vigilant to make sure that the twisted definition that the Saudis use doesn’t prevail, and Congress will be vigilant on that.”
While praising Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Khanna also suggested “there are certain people in the National Security Council we have to have a close eye on.”
The advocate familiar with the Biden administration’s debate also suggested some opposition in the National Security Council exists to cutting off support for the Saudis.
“There have been good signals that it’s more than a rhetorical change, but I think, ultimately, after six years of enabling war crimes and mass famine we need more than steps in the right direction,” the advocate said of Biden’s policy. “The real question for me is, which part of the administration wins? Is it parts of NSC that want to keep doing business as usual or are we actually going to lead with our values and human rights and let the State Department be in charge of the decision?”
A spokesperson for the National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.
After Biden’s announcement, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said intelligence sharing related to offensive operations, as well as “some advice and best practices” that was intended to curtail civilian casualties, has “been terminated.” But he would not elaborate on what support will end, saying he “wouldn’t want to get ahead of any decisions that haven’t been made yet.”
Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, also stressed the U.S. interest in Yemen is in fighting ISIS and al Qaeda and argued U.S. support in the fight against the Houthis “has actually been extremely limited even up until now.”
“We will move out smartly to comply with the direction that we’ve been given. However, we will also continue to support the Saudis as they defend themselves,” McKenzie said at a Middle East Institute event. “Over the last several weeks, a number of attacks have been launched out of Yemen against Saudi Arabia. We will help the Saudis defend against those attacks by giving them intelligence when we can about those attacks. But what we will not do is help them strike, continue to conduct offensive operations into Yemen, so that won’t continue.”
With questions lingering about how the new policy will be implemented, advocates are zeroing in on billions of dollars in arms sales to the Saudis, as well as the United Arab Emirates, saying both countries’ past misuse of U.S. arms should factor heavily in Biden’s decision-making.
In a letter to Biden on Thursday, more than 80 organizations and individuals identified 28 arms sales worth $36.5 billion approved since 2017 they said Biden should cancel.
“Curtailing U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) should not be limited to arbitrary definitions of what equipment and services are ‘offensive’ or ‘defensive,’ but instead should be guided by these countries’ past behavior as required by U.S. and international law, within their borders and in the wider region, particularly regarding respect for human rights and civilian harm,” said the letter, which was organized by Win Without War, the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation and the Yemeni Alliance Committee.
The list includes the two precision-guided munition sales the Biden administration identified when it announced its Yemen policy.
It also includes a $23 billion package of F-35 fighter jets, MQ-9B drones and munitions for the UAE the Trump administration approved as part of Abu Dhabi agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. The Biden administration previously said it was reviewing the sale, but did not discuss it during the Yemen announcement.
The list also includes weapons from the $8.1 billion package for Saudi Arabia and the UAE the Trump administration pushed through in 2019 by invoking emergency authorities despite congressional opposition.
The letter also argues Biden should cancel sales of spare parts and support services even though they aren’t munitions because they are “critical” to conducting offensive operations.
“Permanently cancelling these transfers is an essential step toward ending the cycle of impunity that U.S. policy has helped create, but it does not on its own constitute peace, healing or justice for the Yemenis – as well as countless other civilians throughout the region – who have long suffered, in significant part as a result of a virtual blank check of U.S. military support for these countries,” the letter said. “We are ready to support your administration’s bold commitment to peace in Yemen, and humbly suggest that emerging as an effective diplomatic broker in the midst of this complex conflict requires ending the blank check for impunity that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have enjoyed in Washington.”