O Lenderking, the Lies You Bring: a Look at Biden’s Special Envoy for Yemen

On February 4, in his first major foreign policy address since taking office, President Joe Biden announced that he was “ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”

In the same speech, Biden announced, not without fanfare, the appointment of “career foreign policy officer” Tim Lenderking as special envoy to Yemen.  Lenderking is attempting to forge peace between Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition which is at war with the Houthis.

On December 16, Lenderking appeared on public radio’s The World.  Lenderking told World host Carol Hills, presumably with a straight face, that one of the Biden Administration’s “first principles” for ending the war “is to get outside actors out of the conflict.”

Good idea.  Let’s start with the US.  Since 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states intervened in Yemen to restore President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi who the Houthis had overthrown the year before, the US has provided the Saudi coalition with intelligence, targeting assistance, arms sales, and (until November 2018) in-flight refueling of coalition warplanes.

US assistance to the coalition has decreased since President Biden’s February 4 announcement, but Pentagon-authorized private contractors still service Saudi warplanes and the US continues to supply spare parts for Saudi aircraft.  Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution says that without US spare parts Royal Saudi Air Force warplanes would be “grounded.”

“That’s Just Not True”

Between December and March 2021 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did not allow a single oil tanker to dock at Hodeidah, Yemen’s principal port which at that time was controlled by the Houthis.  CNN reported that a “vessel tracking app” showed fourteen oil tankers detained off the Saudi coast.

Lenderking denied that the tankers were being detained.  In an email to CNN in March, Lenderking claimed that “those boats are currently off the port of Hodeidah.”  “That’s just not true,” said CNN senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir during a March 10 appearance on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”  She added that Lenderking “also says that food continues to flow through Hodeidah unimpeded.”  And, also, that is just not true.”  Elbagir reported seeing “hundreds of food aid trucks … parked in a line stretching for miles,” their cargoes rotting.

The blockade is a major part of a deliberate Saudi strategy of starving Yemen into submission.  Kamel Jendoubi, chair of the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, told the UN Security Council in December 2020 that “Civilians in Yemen are not starving; they are being starved by the parties to the conflict.”  The World Food Programme states that “20 million people”—roughly two-thirds of Yemen’s population—“are suffering from hunger and malnutrition.”  David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme told the UN Security Council in March 2021 that Yemen is “headed straight toward the biggest famine in modern history.”

Blaming Iran, Whitewashing Saudi Arabia

Peace activists accuse Lenderking of bias toward the Saudi Royals (Spencer Ackerman, “Biden Official Is Toeing the Saudi Line, Activists Say,” Daily Beast, Apr. 14, 2021).

A Democratic congressional staffer who works on Middle East issues told the Daily Beast that it was “baffling that Lenderking, who both publicly celebrated U.S. support for the Saudi war and opposed the attempt by Congress to reassert its constitutional authorities, would be put in charge of negotiating a peaceful settlement for Yemen.”

Actually, it’s not baffling at all.  Lenderking’s mission is to achieve peace without pissing off the Saudis and while blaming the Houthis and Iran for the war and the attendant humanitarian crisis.

With that aim, Lenderking told World host Carol Hills that “the key factor that really plays the most detrimental influence, I think, in our view, is Iran” (emphasis added).  Iran didn’t invade Yemen; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did.

Even the blockade which is conducted by the Royal Saudi Navy and enforced by coalition warplanes, is Iran’s fault.  CNN reported:

“On fuel, we need to be clear where the problem lies,” [Lenderking] said, pointing to a UN accusation against the Houthis that they had siphoned fuel taxes earmarked to pay Yemeni civil servants to fund its war effort as the main reason the fuel tankers have been barred from docking.

Asked during a December 21, 2017 press briefing whether the blockade and Saudi bombing make the Saudis “responsible at all for the humanitarian crisis on the ground in Yemen?”, Lenderking replied that there’s “a lot of blame to go around.”

During his World interview, Lenderking scolded Iran for “continu[ing] to try to smuggle weapons into Yemen in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.”  Somehow, Lenderking didn’t think to mention the billions of dollars’ worth of deadly weapons the US sells Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  The most recent is a $650 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of air-to-air Raytheon AAMRAM missiles.  The US Senate had the opportunity on December 7 to block the sale and potentially save thousands of lives.  Instead, the Senate voted down a joint resolution of disapproval (S.J. Res. 31) of the sale by an overwhelming margin, 37 to 60.  Peacenik Joe Biden pressed the Senate to reject the joint resolution and allow the sale.

Iran does supply the Houthis with training, missiles, and armed drones.  Iran, however, is much less involved in Yemen than the Saudi-led coalition.  Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, says that the war costs the Saudis “billions of dollars, if not tens of billions, a year.” One scholar estimates that Saudi Arabia has spent $100 billion on the war in Yemen. Whereas supplying the Houthis, Riedel says, costs Iran “a pittance. Maybe $20 million at most a year.” Supporting the Houthis is a relatively low-cost means for Iran to harass and bankrupt its Saudi adversary.

Yemen Can’t Wait

Hassan El-Tayyab, Legislative Director for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, has stated that Biden could have ended—and should have ended—US assistance to the Saudi coalition on Day One of his administration through an executive order.

Instead, Biden has placed all his chips on negotiating a permanent ceasefire in Yemen.  Negotiations have deadlocked, however, since the Houthis will not agree to a ceasefire until the coalition lifts the blockade and the coalition will not lift the blockade until the Houthis agree to a ceasefire.

Blockade and ceasefire must be delinked.  The Saudis must lift the blockade now, with or without a ceasefire.  The US can pressure Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade by freezing arms sales.  Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has said “It is simply unconscionable to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue to slaughter innocent people and starve millions in Yemen, kill and torture dissidents, and support modern-day slavery.”

Fifty-six per cent of Americans want to cut off assistance to the Saudi coalition.  The task now is to find a way to make Congress listen.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.