In his first major foreign policy address on February 4, President Joe Biden announced that he was “ending all support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
Biden’s announcement sounded too good to be true. A Saudi Arabian-led coalition has been at war with Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. Since 2015, the US has provided the coalition with intelligence, targeting assistance, spare parts for coalition aircraft, arms sales, and (until November 2018) in-flight refueling of coalition warplanes. Yemenis speak of the “Saudi-American war.”
The UN calls Yemen “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Two hundred thirty-three thousand Yemenis have died since the Saudi-led intervention began. The country is on the brink of famine; twenty-four million Yemenis rely on humanitarian aid to survive. Two million children are acutely malnourished.
Welcome as it was, President Biden’s February 4 announcement left many questions, along with doubts among Yemenis about Biden’s sincerity. What operations are “offensive operations”? Which arms sales are “relevant arms sales”? In his February 4 speech, Biden recommitted the US to its decades-long defense of Saudi Arabia. Biden singled out “threats” to Saudi Arabia from “Iranian-supplied forces.” Iran supplies the Houthis with missiles and drones which the Houthis employ in cross-border attacks on Saudi territory. Conceivably, the Biden Administration could regard any operation against the Houthis as defensive. That would be nothing new. Dr. Shireen Al-Adeimi a Yemeni-American activist who teaches at Michigan State University, told The Nation magazine that “this whole war from 2015 was framed as a defensive one.”
Seeking answers, forty-one House Democrats wrote President Biden in February. The lawmakers requested a response from the White House before March 25, “the 6th anniversary of the disastrous Saudi-led military intervention.”
They are still waiting for Biden’s reply.
Nor are they the only ones waiting by the mailbox. On April 6, 70 civil society organizations, including the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers) and the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, and celebrities such as actor Mark Ruffalo and comedian Amy Schumer, wrote to Biden. Also on April 6, Congressional Democrats—75+ of them this time—sent another letter. None of these letters has elicited so much as a peep from the White House. There’s a term for deliberately ignoring texts and other communications: “ghosting.” Is Biden ghosting Yemen?
How the US Perpetuates Saudi Aggression
Biden may not want to admit that the US still provides crucial assistance to the Saudis which keeps the war going and Yemenis dying. There are three areas we should look at.
1) Fueling the War with US Arms. The Biden Administration has decided to allow a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates agreed to by the Trump Administration in its final days. In addition to participating in the airstrikes on Yemen, the UAE deliberately transfers US weapons to extremist militias in Yemen. These include militias loyal to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Fortunately, The Hill reports the assurance from a “State Department spokesperson … that the Biden administration would communicate with the UAE that the weapons must be used appropriately.” So, everybody can stop worrying.
2) Keeping ‘Em Flying. There have been a staggering 20,000 Saudi-UAE airstrikes on Yemen, including an August 9, 2018 attack on a school bus, which killed 29 children. The bomb used in the attack was supplied by Lockheed Martin, the American defense contractor.
What keeps coalition planes in the air with their payloads of death? Dr. Shireen Al-Adeimi calls the Saudis “incompetents” who cannot maintain or repair their own aircraft. Thanks to the US, they don’t have to. The US continues to service and maintain Saudi warplanes through private contractors.
3) The Blockade. Biden promised in his February 4 address that the US would “ensure that humanitarian aid is reaching the Yemeni people.” Yet prior to an exposé in March by CNN senior correspondent Nima Elbagir, the Biden Administration did not even acknowledge the existence of a land, sea, and air blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The blockade keeps all but a fraction of food, medicine, and fuel from reaching the Yemeni people. Elbagir reports seeing “hundreds” of trucks carrying rotting food lined up outside Yemen’s port of Hodeidah. The trucks cannot move because they have no fuel. The Saudis did not allow a single fuel tanker into the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah for the first four months of 2021.
The Way Forward
Biden must pressure the Saudis to lift the blockade immediately. There is a petition which asks members of Congress to sign a letter from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) urging President Biden to act to end the blockade. Please sign.
There must be no preconditions to lifting the blockade. The Houthis have said that they will not agree to a ceasefire until Saudi Arabia lifts the blockade. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, will not lift the blockade until the Houthis agree to a ceasefire. Yemenis cannot wait for a ceasefire. Starving Yemenis need the blockade lifted now.
Though no progressive, President Joe Biden is a welcome change from Donald Trump. Biden has accomplished some good things. Yet, Biden has so fair failed Yemen. We should hold our applause until Biden actually ends American support for the Saudi coalition destroying Yemen.