Biden finally wants to stop supporting Saudi war crimes in Yemen
A photo dated March 18, 2018 shows a Yemeni child looking at buildings that were damaged in an air strike in the southern Yemeni city of Taiz.
Photo: Ahmad Al-Basha / AFP via Getty Images
During his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary-elect Anthony Blinken said President Joe Biden’s administration would end US support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, which Blinken said “contributed to … the worst humanitarian situation in the world have. ”
As part of that change in attitude, Blinken said the government would immediately review an order from former Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo that last week labeled the Houthi rebels in Yemen a terrorist organization. Pompeo’s order, which went into effect Tuesday, symbolized the vicious and chaotic exit of the Trump administration and was one of several booby traps the outgoing secretary set up to undermine Biden’s foreign policy plans.
At best, Pompeo’s last-minute order is quickly forgotten as a pointless, malicious gesture to the new government. However, unlike most minor pranks, this one has potentially devastating consequences: the UN warned that it could lead to “a great famine in Yemen on a scale we have not seen in nearly 40 years” by making aid agencies impossible and NGOs to help the rebel-controlled areas (even with an exemption for these groups). Biden’s new foreign policy and national security teams tend to agree, hence their commitment to quickly review and, most likely, undo this designation.
In addition to the re-examination of the terror label for the Houthis, the Biden government intends to no longer support Saudi Arabia in the pursuit of the Yemen war with logistical support and arms sales. Arms sales to the Saudis and other countries were among what former President Donald Trump saw as a foreign policy achievement. In late December, the Trump administration informed Congress that it was promoting another $ 500 million sale of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia. Legislators had until Thursday to pass a disapproval resolution.
Writing in Washington post Office Yemeni human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman Biden on Wednesday urged Biden to stop the sale before it was completed; It is not clear whether the administration has done anything else. During the election campaign, however, Biden made it clear his intention to change our attitude towards Saudi Arabia and its disastrous misfortune in Yemen. In an October statement on the anniversary of the assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden promised: “Under a Biden Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom and end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and sure America doesn’t check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil. “
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is indeed devastating; Blinken wasn’t exaggerating when he called it the worst in the world. Over 200,000 people died in the war, which has been going on for almost six years. Millions more were injured, displaced or otherwise traumatized. Of the country’s 30 million inhabitants, around 24 million (80 percent) depend on outside help. Schools, hospitals, water and sanitary facilities were destroyed. Extreme childhood poverty, hunger and malnutrition are common. Due to climate change and population growth, the country was already running out of water; Today much of this water is polluted, poisoned or inaccessible.
The Yemeni civil war began in late 2014 when the Houthis took over the capital Sana’a and ousted the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saudi Arabia launched a coalition intervention on behalf of the overthrown government in March 2015, and the war quickly turned into a persistent proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran backing the Houthis. As Vice President, Biden supported the decision of the Obama administration to support the Saudi intervention with diplomatic support and arms sales. The Trump administration maintained and expanded that support by ignoring or overriding Congressional objections after Saudi Arabia was accused of war crimes in Yemen.
Biden’s challenge as president will be to get the US out of its current position, make this crisis worse, and instead find a way to mitigate it or resolve it. It’s not about choosing between good and bad because there are no good guys to choose. The Houthis have also committed atrocities and violated human rights, and their Iranian patrons are no less brutal theocrats than the Saudis. In the complex calculation of the Middle East, however, they were also valuable allies against international terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition was caught in comparison to paying al-Qaeda members in the Arabian Peninsula to leave their strongholds or to join forces with coalition forces. Very bad people on both sides.
Yemen is a massive crisis in itself, but it is also a microcosm of a larger regional puzzle. Realigning the US position in the Middle East away from “Saudi Arabia, right or wrong,” as Biden would like to do, will be challenging, especially given the risk that Iran will become overcorrected and overprotective. What Biden can do to differentiate his policies from Trump’s is to put US interests before Saudi Arabia’s and define those interests broader than profits from arms sales.
The Saudis are of course aware that Biden is not their biggest fan. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was personal friends with Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and enjoyed sweeping support from the Trump administration as he worked to cement power and crack down on it in recent years Dissent within the Kingdom. Trump’s White House blocked attempts by other elements of the U.S. government to blame Saudi Arabia for its actions in Yemen and for the brutal killing of Khashoggi allegedly ordered by Prince Mohammed.
If the Saudis are to expect support from the Biden administration, they must earn it. The Crown Prince has spearheaded a reform initiative that has expanded social freedoms in the kingdom, such as women driving a car, which has earned him far more praise than he deserves in American media and political circles. Saudi officials have touted the progress they have made on human rights over the past year, including a dramatic decrease in executions. It will come as no surprise that the Saudis are campaigning for these changes even more aggressively in the coming months in order to ingratiate themselves with the Biden administration.
At the same time, however, Prince Mohammed has acted like a typical paranoid dictator, imprisoning and likely murdering his critics, persecuting activists, and suppressing any perceived threat to his power. The emerging Saudi Arabia under his rule is perhaps less repressive, less theocratic and economically more dynamic, but still decidedly totalitarian, with destructive ambitions of regional hegemony and little consideration for the lives it is destroying. It cannot and should not impress Biden with relatively small-scale social reforms while continuing to violate human rights at home and abroad.
If Riyadh can no longer buy toleration from America with its tanks, planes and bombs, it will be a positive change in US foreign policy in every respect. It is much better to approach the Middle East with an emphasis on diplomacy and moral leadership than to make threats of war and start a regional arms race. If Biden can find a way to resolve the conflict in Yemen, then unlike his predecessors, he may even deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. Stopping the bloodshed, or at least ending our complicity in it, is a good first step.