During his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Secretary of State-designate Anthony Blinken said President Joe Biden’s administration would end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, which in Blinken’s words had “contributed to … the worst humanitarian situation anywhere in the world.”
As part of this shift in posture, Blinken said the administration would immediately review an order issued by former secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels a terrorist organization. Pompeo’s order, which went into effect Tuesday, was emblematic of the Trump administration’s spiteful and chaotic exit, being one of several parting booby traps set by the outgoing secretary in an apparent attempt to undermine Biden’s foreign-policy plans.
At best, Pompeo’s last-minute order will be quickly forgotten as a pointless, spiteful gesture toward the new administration. Unlike most petty pranks, however, this one has potentially devastating consequences: The U.N. warned that it could cause Yemen to experience “a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years” by making it impossible for aid agencies and NGOs to deliver assistance to areas controlled by the rebels (even with an exemption carved out for those groups). Biden’s incoming foreign-policy and national security teams tend to agree, hence their commitment to quickly review and most likely reverse this designation.
Beyond revisiting the terrorist label for the Houthis, the Biden administration intends to cease helping Saudi Arabia prosecute the Yemen war with logistical support and arms sales. Weapons sales to the Saudis and other countries were among the actions former president Donald Trump considered to be foreign-policy achievements. In late December, the Trump administration notified Congress that it was pushing ahead with another sale of $500 million worth of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia. Lawmakers had until Thursday to pass a resolution of disapproval.
Writing in the Washington Post on Wednesday, Yemeni human-rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman urged Biden to halt the sale before it is completed; it is not clear whether the administration has taken any action yet. On the campaign trail, however, Biden made clear his intent to change our posture toward Saudi Arabia and its catastrophic misadventure in Yemen. In an October statement marking the anniversary of the murder of Saudi Arabian dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden pledged: “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is indeed staggering; Blinken was not exaggerating when he described it as the worst in the world. Over 200,000 people have died in the ongoing war, which has gone on for nearly six years. Millions more have been injured, displaced, or otherwise traumatized. Of the country’s 30 million people, some 24 million (80 percent) are dependent on outside assistance. Schools, hospitals, water, and sanitation infrastructure have been destroyed. Extreme poverty, hunger, and childhood malnutrition are rampant. The country was already running out of water due to climate change and population growth; now, much of that water is polluted, poisoned, or inaccessible.
The Yemeni civil war began in late 2014, when the Houthis took over the capital city Sana’a and drove out the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saudi Arabia launched a coalition intervention on behalf of the ousted government in March 2015, and the war quickly spiraled into an intractable proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the Houthis. Biden, as vice-president, supported the Obama administration’s decision to back the Saudi intervention at the time with diplomatic support and weapons sales. The Trump administration maintained and expanded that support, ignoring or overriding congressional objections after Saudi Arabia was accused of committing war crimes in Yemen.
Biden’s challenge as president will be to extricate the U.S. from its current position of making this crisis worse and find a path toward mitigating or resolving it instead. This is not a matter of picking between good guys and bad guys, because there are no good guys to pick. The Houthis, too, have committed atrocities and violated human rights, and their Iranian patrons are no less brutal theocrats than the Saudis. However, in the complex calculus of the Middle East, they have also been valuable allies against international terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Saudi-led coalition, by comparison, got caught paying off members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to abandon their strongholds or join up with coalition forces. Very bad people on both sides.
Yemen is a massive crisis on its own, but it is also a microcosm of a larger regional puzzle. Realigning the U.S. position in the Middle East away from “Saudi Arabia, right or wrong,” as Biden wants to do, will be challenging, especially given the risk of overcorrecting and becoming too solicitous of Iran. What Biden can do to differentiate his policy from Trump’s is put the interests of the U.S. ahead of those of Saudi Arabia and define those interests more broadly than profits from arms sales.
Of course, the Saudis are aware that Biden is not their biggest fan. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was personally friendly with Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and enjoyed blanket support from the Trump administration as he worked over the past few years to consolidate power and crack down on dissent within the kingdom. The Trump White House blocked attempts by other elements of the U.S. government to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for its actions in Yemen and for Khashoggi’s brutal murder, which Prince Mohammed is widely believed to have ordered.
If the Saudis are to expect any support from the Biden administration, they will have to earn it. The crown prince has spearheaded a reform initiative that has expanded social freedoms in the kingdom, such as allowing women to drive, which has earned him much more praise than he deserves in American media and political circles. Saudi officials have been touting the progress they have made on human rights in the past year, including a dramatic decline in executions. It won’t be surprising to see the Saudis advertising those changes even more aggressively in the coming months to curry favor with the Biden administration.
At the same time, however, Prince Mohammed has behaved like a typical paranoid dictator, jailing and likely murdering his critics, persecuting activists, and stifling any perceived threats to his power. The Saudi Arabia emerging under his rule is perhaps less repressive, less theocratic, and more economically dynamic, but still decidedly totalitarian, with destructive ambitions of regional hegemony and little regard for the lives it destroys. It cannot, and should not, impress Biden with relatively small-bore social reforms while it continues to violate human rights at home and abroad.
If Riyadh can no longer buy America’s acquiescence along with its tanks, planes, and bombs, that is a positive change in U.S. foreign policy by any standard. Approaching the Middle East with an emphasis on diplomacy and moral leadership is much better than making bellicose threats and seeding a regional arms race. If Biden can find a way to resolve the conflict in Yemen, then unlike his predecessors, he might actually deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. Stopping the bloodshed, or at very least ending our complicity in it, is a good first step.