Last week, a spokesman for Yemen’s Houthi rebels assailed US support for the military coalition led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which has turned Yemen into what the UN calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with other Arab states, attacked Yemen with the objective of restoring the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who the Houthis had overthrown the year before.
The remarks from Houthi spokesman Mohammad Ali al-Houthi came in response to comments made by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on November 20. Speaking at the annual Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain, Secretary Austin reiterated the US commitment to Saudi Arabia’s defense. The US, Austin said, was “significantly enhancing Saudi Arabia’s ability to defend itself. * * * America’s commitment to helping our friends defend their sovereign space is unwavering.”
Al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, responded: “We tell the Americans that they have been involved in the aggression from the first day, and this announcement of support is a cover for the fact that they have not stopped their support despite Biden pledging to do so.”
He’s right. The US has been a silent partner in the coalition from the beginning, supporting the Saudi-led coalition with logistics, intelligence-sharing, target spotting, spare parts for coalition warplanes, and arms sales. President Barack Obama took the US into the war in order to mollify the Arab states which objected to his prospective nuclear deal with Iran.
Al-Houthi is also correct that Biden has not kept the promise made in his first major foreign policy address on February 4 to end US support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” The US remains deeply involved in Yemen. At the Manama Dialogue, Secretary Austin claimed that the US “continue[s] to work to end the tragic war in Yemen, to call on the Houthis to stop their attacks, both on Saudi territory and inside Yemen, and to end the suffering of the Yemeni people.”
If the Biden Administration really wants “to end the suffering of the Yemeni people,” there are several things it can do. It can pressure Saudi Arabia to end its land, sea, and air blockade on Yemen, which, by interrupting deliveries of food and fuel, has brought Yemen to the brink of famine.
Biden should also end the transfer of spare parts for coalition warplanes. Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran now at the Brookings Institution, points out that coalition warplane parts wear out quickly and must be replaced constantly. Without spare parts from the US, Riedel says, the Royal Saudi Air Force would be “grounded.” And they must be spare parts from the US. Spare parts from Russia or China—or even the UK—are not compatible.
Biden also can halt arms sales to the coalition. After initially freezing some Middle Eastern arms sales for “review,” the Biden Administration is going ahead with a $23 billion arms sale to the UAE negotiated by the Trump Administration. In September, the Biden Administration announced that it would provide $500 million of maintenance and support services for Saudi helicopters. Then, on November 4, the Biden Administration notified Congress of an impending $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia. These must not be the “relevant arms sales” Biden said he would end. (On November 12, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced a joint resolution of disapproval to block the $650 million deal.)
Mohammad Ali al-Houthi is on point in his criticism of US hypocrisy. What he leaves out is that the Houthis, like the coalition, are also mammoth human rights violators, guilty of murder, kidnapping, failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants, theft of humanitarian aid, targeting civilian population centers, rape, and torture. None of this exonerates the US and the coalition, of course.
Biden’s inaction has left it up to Congress to end the US role in Yemen. On September 23, the House of Representatives passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, (“NDAA”), the annual defense budget, for fiscal year 2022. The House approved an amendment to the NDAA from Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition.
A similar amendment has been introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The Senate has lagged far behind the House, only taking up the NDAA last week. Even if the Sanders amendment fails, the Khanna amendment will be heading into conference, and, with any luck, will be retained in the final version of the NDAA. You can help bring this about by calling the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Ask to speak to your senators and representatives and tell them that the NDAA must cut off US support for the Saudi-UAE-US war in Yemen.
Congress, unfortunately, may not be in a peacemaking mood after the Houthi seizure of the US embassy in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa on November 12. The US closed the embassy in 2015, but a few Yemeni employees continued to work there. It is unclear how many Yemenis and their families have been released and how many the Houthis are still holding.
Tough guy Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has raised the inevitable comparison with the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. This allows Iran hawks to play up their contention that the Houthis are nothing more than a proxy for Iran and that Yemen teeters on the brink of becoming an Iranian satellite. The Houthis do receive backing from Iran, which supplies them with missiles and drones, but Saudi Arabia spends exponentially more on the war.
We must resist what Hawks will tell us. Hawks will say that “We cannot cut and run from Yemen, the way we did from Afghanistan.” We will be told that the US must not abandon allies. Democrats will be afraid of appearing weak. Forget all about that. There is no reason why the US should be involved in Yemen and every reason to end US support to the Saudi-led coalition now.