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Biden’s Pledge to Pull Back in Yemen Is Full of Holes

While he’s breaking with his predecessors, Biden’s rhetoric leaves room for the Saudis to slip out of commitments.

Mohammed Huwais/Getty Images

In a major foreign policy address at the State Department on February 4, President Joe Biden announced an end to U.S. support for the war in Yemen waged by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, marking what activists hope is a significant turning point in the years-long effort to halt the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe. For the past six years, the United States has provided essential support to the coalition—training pilots, providing targeting assistance, supplying hardware, refueling fighter jets (until 2018), and selling weapons. 

“Today marks the beginning of a new era in our foreign policy,” Representative Ro Khanna, one of the most outspoken congressional opponents of the war, remarked. “Today’s actions by President Biden are a decisive first step to bring this nightmare to an end,” Senator Chris Murphy applauded.

Biden’s remarks represent a strong change in tone from the Trump and Obama administrations. But this is the easy part. Despite all of last week’s hopeful fanfare, a closer examination suggests that there is still ample reason to be cautious, if not skeptical, about the prospects for peace. Biden, a president who took office with far more foreign policy experience than most of his recent predecessors, offered a few subtle qualifiers and caveats that, absent more specific information, may undercut or water down his proclamation that “this war must end.”

For one, Biden said he would terminate support for “offensive” operations. While Saudi Arabia’s intervention could rightly be described as a campaign of aggression to reinstall a regime­—that of exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, ousted by the Houthis in 2014—that funnels much of Yemen’s wealth into the kingdom, Saudi leaders have been considerably slippery in their selling of the conflict, framing their efforts as defensive in nature. This raises the question of what exactly Biden is ending assistance for, and whether that proverbial door is being left ajar.

It’s well worth noting that in his next breath, Biden said, “We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people” from “missile attacks, [unmanned aerial vehicle] strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.” This language does not sound all that different from that used by the Obama administration when it announced, on the war’s first day, that it would help the coalition “to defend Saudi Arabia’s border and to protect Yemen’s legitimate government”—as if the Houthis were trying to invade the kingdom (which they weren’t).

And while Biden said that he would cancel “relevant” arms sales, he has yet to specify any criteria for relevancy. A week earlier, Biden announced that his administration would be reviewing the $23 billion purchase of fighter jets and armed drones by the United Arab Emirates and temporarily pausing the half-billion-dollar sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia.

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, fears that the United Arab Emirates is going to try to save its deal by claiming that it is not involved in Yemen anymore. Although Abu Dhabi’s drawdown of forces in 2019 is often described in the media as the end of its intervention, Emirati forces are still heavily involved, occupying Yemen’s remote island of Socotra. “They’re going to try to peel that off from the definition put forward by the president, and I hope the administration doesn’t fall for it,” Hartung told The New Republic.

Beyond arms sales, Hartung hopes Biden’s policy shift includes a consideration of any naval support, given that the coalition’s naval blockade is responsible for an enormous amount of the suffering Yemenis are currently experiencing. “If they only include the Saudi bombs, I don’t think that would be fully effective in helping bring an end to the killing,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways they could split hairs, and I’m hoping they take an expansive view of what are offensive operations and what are the relevant weapons that sustain those.”

For some observers, Biden’s hedged language does not offer much hope for peace. Instead of the type of change necessary to stem the humanitarian disaster, it reads as a hollow concession to the constituency that has demanded an end to the war for years. It’s possible for Biden to send a stronger signal in this regard: The effort to end the conflict culminated in the passage of a congressional resolution in 2019 directing Trump to withdraw support, which Trump vetoed. Biden can thus take advantage of the political opportunity to do what Trump refused to do and make good on a campaign pledge.

Observers aren’t imputing this sort of promise from Biden’s most recent remarks. “I think they’re treading very gingerly here. There were a lot of squishy words in that address,” Robert Vitalis, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, said.

“There are plenty of ways of getting out of this seemingly shallow promise or gesture toward changing policy,” Isa Blumi, professor at Stockholm University and author of Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us About the World, told The New Republic. “There are many ways to nuance these statements, which is why they’ve phrased it in these ways. They’re quite clever in doing that.”

For Blumi, Biden’s harsh words for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates signal the ascendence of Qatar as Washington’s primary ally in the Gulf and its reentry into the war in Yemen. It’s often forgotten that Qatar, which benefited most from the Hadi government, was one of the original 10 countries that initiated the intervention into Yemen in 2015 with support from the Obama administration. Qatar was then expelled and blockaded in 2017 by coalition members, with a green light from the Trump administration. That blockade was ended just weeks before Biden took office.

Now, with many Obama administration officials back in power, Blumi said, “Qatar will be reinvested with a new purpose in that southern Arabian region to the detriment of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” Unlike to those countries, “the arms shipments will continue to flow to Qatar.”

Neither was Blumi enthusiastic about Biden’s appointment of Timothy Lenderking as special envoy to the Yemen war. Given that Lenderking oversaw the initiation of the war as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, “he’s an old face and an old hand; all the players on the ground know who he is, and that doesn’t really reassure some of the parties,” Blumi said. “The reason why the war dragged on and why it’s such a messy situation for some of the coalition partners is because of the strong-arming and arm-twisting that was taking place in the embassies that Lenderking was gravitating around on behalf of the Obama administration. So nothing has changed in that regard. People on the ground are not happy with these theatrics.”

In his address, Biden also said that Lenderking’s diplomacy would be “bolstered by USAID, working to ensure that humanitarian aid is reaching the Yemeni people.” Waiting for her confirmation hearing as USAID administrator is noted humanitarian interventionist Samantha Power, who would be the most high-profile figure to hold that office if confirmed. Biden said he would elevate the role of USAID administrator to match Power’s reputation by giving the position a seat on his national security council.

Blumi suggests that these moves from Biden could be the groundwork for further potential escalation and destabilization. If the Houthis reject USAID, Blumi predicts, the Biden administration might use that as justification to rethink its approach to ending the war and decide to stage an intervention on humanitarian grounds, to “do what the coalition could not do over the last six years and end this quickly.”

Biden’s messaging to the Houthis may suggest that an approach along these lines, one that is perhaps more aggressive than his nods to diplomacy lead on, is already underway. Just two days after his administration announced its intention to revoke Trump’s eleventh-hour designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, the State Department issued a statement saying that the U.S. is “deeply troubled by continued Houthi attacks.” The statement called on the Houthis to “immediately cease attacks impacting civilian areas inside Saudi Arabia and to halt any new military offensives inside Yemen, which only bring more suffering to the Yemeni people” and to “refrain from destabilizing actions and demonstrate their commitment to constructively engage in UN Special Envoy Griffiths’ efforts to achieve peace.”

This diplomatic gaslighting sets the tone and conditions on which the Biden administration seeks to conduct peace negotiations—namely, in a way that is most favorable to the side in the war that Washington has supported for the past six years. The statement essentially is telling the Houthis to give up their resistance to foreign intervention.

What happens next largely depends on how the Saudis interpret Biden’s signals and how much slippage the White House will grant them as Riyadh reinterprets the meanings of “offensive” and “defensive.” For historians who’ve long covered the region, Riyadh’s claims to be acting in its own defense are nothing new; they apply to “every one of their interventions in Yemen,” Victor McFarland, professor at the University of Missouri and author of Oil Powers: A History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance, told The New Republic.

“In the 1960s, the Saudis claimed they were being encircled by [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser and his allies, and they funded a royalist militant movement in Yemen during a very destructive long-lasting civil war and portrayed that consistently as a defensive move against Nasser,” McFarland said. “In the late ’60s and through the ’70s, they portrayed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen as part of a Soviet-led move to encircle Saudi Arabia with leftist regimes, and they sponsored anti-PDRY forces and tried to encourage an insurgency against the South Yemeni government, they backed the North Yemeni government, all in the name of defending Saudi Arabia.”

With this history in mind, McFarland said, “a lot rides on how assertive the Biden administration will be in defining offensive operations in Yemen in an expansive way.”

While McFarland called Biden’s remarks a “welcome change in tone,” he said the “proof will be in the pudding.” Over the course of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, “the two governments have gone to considerable lengths to hide the more controversial or more criticized elements of the relationship from public view.” Until the Biden administration offers more clarity or acts more decisively, the public will be left wondering and the Yemenis suffering.