President Joe Biden recently announced three decisions that significantly reshape U.S. foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia and the role of the U.S. military in Yemen’s protracted and complex civil war. These decisions also provide the first example of how Biden will assess the provision of U.S. military support during an armed conflict and how his administration will weigh humanitarian concerns and human rights with military and strategic objectives. Biden’s approach clearly favors a more balanced use of diplomacy, aid, and military force than that of his predecessor President Donald Trump, who preferred a short-term and transactional approach, particularly for arms sales and military support. Trump’s broader foreign policy approach often showed little concern for humanitarian need or human rights and little relationship to a coherent strategy other than the empty mantra of putting America first.
While it should come as no surprise that Biden’s approach marks a break from the Trump administration, his reshaping of U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia and the role of U.S. military support in Yemen offers the first glimpse into how this approach will work in concrete terms. Here, I examine how these policy changes will affect the war in Yemen, including prospects for ending the conflict and addressing the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and how this first application of Biden’s approach likely will shape the administration’s response to similar situations that will arise throughout its term. After contextualizing these policy changes, I assess the mostly positive outcomes, but also note the limitations to this approach as well as remaining uncertainties.
Contextualizing Biden’s Policy Reboot
On Feb. 4, Biden announced an end to offensive U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign in Yemen. Biden also named career Foreign Service Officer Timothy Lenderking as special envoy to Yemen, signaling the priority that the administration places on ending the Yemen conflict and its desire to rebuild the State Department after four years of turbulence and politicization, which left career staff feeling undermined and sidelined. The next day, the State Department announced that it would remove the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation on the Houthis, a last-minute decision by the Trump administration that would have all but stopped humanitarian aid in Houthi-controlled territory within Yemen and promised to make a dire humanitarian crisis even worse. In addition to ending offensive U.S. support for an indefinite and ineffective military campaign rife with abuses, these decisions show the administration’s emphasis on diplomacy, democracy, and human rights and a move away from an overreliance on military solutions.
In his first visit to the State Department as president, Biden correctly characterized the Yemen conflict as “a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” calling for an immediate ceasefire, opening humanitarian corridors to facilitate the delivery of aid, and for a resumption of peace negotiations. Saudi Arabia entered the armed conflict in Yemen on March 26, 2015, responding to a request from Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to assist the country in its fight against the Houthis, an armed opposition group supported, to some degree, by Iran. Saudi Arabia did so by forming a coalition of States to join it in Operation Decisive Storm. Saudi Defense Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman drove the government’s decision to enter the conflict and promised a quick and decisive victory. Salman is a close ally of Trump, although he faced intense scrutiny after the 2018 murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Although Salman continues to deny responsibility, the CIA concluded that he ordered Khashoggi’s assassination. And while Khashoggi’s killing enraged many U.S. leaders and government officials, Trump remained a stalwart supporter, dismissing evidence of Salman’s involvement and even considering granting Salman immunity from an ongoing federal trial alleging that he attempted to kill a former Saudi intelligence officer now living in Canada.
The day before the Saudi-led coalition commenced military operations in Yemen, the Obama administration stated it would provide “logistical and intelligence support” intended “to defend Saudi Arabia’s border and to protect Yemen’s legitimate government,” but that it would not take “direct military action.” It also announced the establishment of a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia. (For a longer assessment of the many international legal issues that arose through U.S. support for the coalition, see here.) The administration took this approach to avoid committing combat troops to another Middle East conflict and to minimize civilian casualties, particularly during coalition air strikes. It also did so to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia after concluding the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), which outraged the Saudi government.
A series of coalition air strikes that killed numerous civilians and destroyed critical civilian infrastructure led President Barack Obama to reconsider this support. An October 2016 strike of a funeral that killed 140 people proved to be the final straw and prompted the administration to restrict intelligence related to targeting and to cancel a planned sale of munitions valued between $350 and $400 million. The Trump administration—almost certainly guided by Trump’s relationship with Salman—took a much more hands-off approach, resuming weapons sales and focusing on Houthi abuses while minimizing those of the coalition and fiercely defending Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration also deployed troops to Saudi Arabia in 2019 after a cross-border attack on Saudi infrastructure halved the country’s oil output. While the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, U.S. officials and most experts believe that Iran was responsible.
Despite Saudi assurances of a quick victory, the Houthis proved resilient and capable of taking and maintaining territory, including cities and other strategically important areas in Yemen. Since 2015, neither the Saudi coalition nor the Houthis have gained a decisive military advantage and the conflict has now splintered, resulting in a complicated stalemate with a handful of groups holding pockets of territory throughout the country. Both the Houthis and coalition forces have violated international humanitarian law—most frequently by attacking civilian targets—and committed human rights abuses, including torture and forced disappearances. Coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of children and civilians, both from attacks targeting civilians directly and from indiscriminate attacks that caused civilian casualties. (See Adil Haque’s excellent post on indiscriminate attacks in Yemen here.) At the same time, Houthi forces employ child soldiers and use landmines indiscriminately. As the U.N. Panel of Experts starkly concluded in its last report: “Violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law continued to be widely committed by all parties in Yemen with impunity.”
Biden’s decision to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive military operations could not come soon enough. The timeliness of the decision shows that the administration will not ignore human rights and international humanitarian law violations as the previous administration often did. It also rebukes a foreign policy approach relying largely on transactional diplomacy and ad hoc deal making.
Biden looks to change this approach by empowering the State Department and by committing to work with international partners and Gulf States to stop the fighting and reach a peace deal. Biden’s appointment of Lenderking to serve as special envoy underscores the administration’s commitment to ending the conflict as soon as possible. Lenderking has significant Middle East experience, including serving as deputy assistant secretary of State during the Trump administration. His appointment will allow for a coordinated and focused effort to ending the conflict, and, as a veteran diplomat, his selection signals a return to process and expertise rather than “let’s make a deal” negotiation where relevant experience or knowledge of the issue was optional at best.
Biden also reversed the Trump administration’s last-minute decision to designate the Houthis a FTO and the State Department announced that it would remove the designation on Feb. 5. The FTO designation, which took effect on Jan. 19, sparked an outcry from congressional leaders who received almost no notification before the announcement of the designation. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the most outspoken critics of U.S. involvement in the Yemen war, issued a Jan. 11 statement calling the designation “a death sentence for thousands of Yemenis.” Senate Republicans also criticized the designation, though much more mutedly in public. Still, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) offered a joint statement that acknowledged Houthi violence, but stressed the need to pair the designation with acts to mitigate its negative effects on Yemeni civilians, noting a potential “devastating effect on Yemen’s food supply and other critical imports.”
The designation served no practical purpose, as the Houthis do not rely on U.S. dollars to support their operations. It did promise a profoundly negative effect on humanitarian organizations working to provide aid in the country, as nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s population lives in Houthi-controlled territory, including Sanaa, the capital city home to nearly 4 million people, and Hodeidah, the contested port city where the majority of humanitarian aid is delivered. The designation sent a chilling effect throughout humanitarian groups working to deliver food, medicine, and other essential goods in this territory, as aid workers could face criminal penalties for actions as removed as negotiating with the Houthis to access vulnerable populations. More broadly, Sarah Leah Whitson notes how the Houthi designation politicized the FTO designation, misusing this policy tool in a way that undermines U.S. credibility and hurts chances for peace.
Reversing this decision allows humanitarian aid to continue, a critical need for a population where food insecurity, cholera, and a lack of clean water have already devastated the country. Further, Yemen’s humanitarian response is already significantly underfunded, including a U.S. suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in 2020. (See Scott Paul’s detailed analysis of USAID’s decision to suspend 80 percent of funding to Yemen last July here.)
By ending U.S. support for offensive coalition military operations, naming a special envoy to lead a concerted push for peace, and reversing the harmful FTO designation, Biden has reset U.S. policy in a positive way. This approach removes potential U.S. legal responsibility for future violations of international humanitarian law by the coalition, while reestablishing the importance of respecting human rights and international humanitarian law within U.S. foreign policy. It also sends a clear message to the Saudi government that the time to reach a political deal to end the conflict is now.
Biden’s decisions redirect U.S. policy in a way that should reduce civilian casualties and increase the likelihood of ending the conflict. But, as with any policy approach, it has limitations and the administration has little leverage to force either side to stop fighting. Likewise, the administration should do more to increase humanitarian aid, although recent indications, including reports of a donor conference scheduled for early March, suggest that it will.
While removing the Houthi FTO designation will allow humanitarian aid operations to continue, the humanitarian crisis remains the worst in the world. More than 230,000 Yemenis have died because of the war and at least 80 percent of the country relies on humanitarian assistance. One in five children are malnourished and the coalition’s blockade pushed food prices higher so that even where food is available, many Yemen citizens cannot afford to buy it. The diversion of humanitarian aid is also a growing problem. The last U.N. Panel of Experts report found the Yemeni government and the Houthis engaged in economic warfare, and given the dearth of accountability in the country, “national wealth and external aid are increasingly either diverted or lost owing to corrupt practices by officials of the Government of Yemen and the Houthis.”
And although the Saudi government expressed its desire to cooperate with the Biden administration, and that it welcomes international diplomacy in the conflict, there is no indication that it will immediately cease its military operations against the Houthis. Biden is clearly pressing for an end to the conflict, but the Saudi government has invested heavily in this war after assuring skeptics that it would be a short and decisive campaign. Accordingly, the Saudi government will not cease its war efforts without salvaging some positive outcome. And despite its lackluster military performance, an unstable Yemen creates a legitimate security concern for Saudi Arabia, as the two countries share a 1,100-mile border. Regional experts expect the Saudi government, and perhaps especially King Salman, to see the “writing on the wall” if the United States and allied countries withdraw their support for the coalition, but as long as Mohamed bin Salman remains Defense Minister, fully abandoning the war is unlikely.
Likewise, the Houthis will be reluctant to join peace talks given the group’s relatively strong military position. Houthi attacks continued following the removal of the FTO designation, including a Feb. 10 cross-border attack on Abha Airport in southern Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken condemned the attack during a conversation with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. The next day the Houthis launched another cross-border strike, using an armed drone to target a Saudi base near Abha Airport, although Saudi forces intercepted the drone before it reached its target. U.S. sanctions placed on Houthi leaders remain in effect and the Biden administration admonished the group’s “reprehensible behavior.” But lacking leverage over the group, these actions are unlikely to alter its strategy. Thus, while Biden’s approach is a considerable improvement and at least limits negative outcomes, it also illustrates the limitations of any foreign policy to end a protracted armed conflict between entrenched adversaries.
It also remains unclear exactly what Biden’s announcement means for U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia. For now, it seems likely that the administration will cancel or at least modify a $500 million weapons deal to Saudi Arabia, as well as a massive $23 billion deal to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a key Saudi partner in the coalition. (In contrast to Saudi Arabia, the UAE withdrew most of its troops from Yemen in 2019 and has advocated for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.) Both deals faced strong bipartisan opposition and went ahead only because Trump was able to override Congress. Still, details are lacking and proceeding with these sales (or at least some version of these deals) is not unrealistic after a strategic pause or assurances that these weapons will not be used for offensive military operations. Such a result could be seen as a reasonable compromise between meeting security imperatives and upholding legal rules and ethical values, but, depending on the specifics of the deal, it also would risk undermining Biden’s message.
Likewise, ending support to offensive military operations likely will not mean the end of all U.S. military operations in Yemen. Within the larger Yemen conflict, U.S. forces remain engaged in a smaller conflict with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), also known as Ansar al-Sharia. AQAP is one of the most active and most dangerous of the al-Qaeda franchises. U.S. forces killed AQAP leader Qasim al-Raymi last year. The killing was reported in February 2020, but it may have occurred earlier. Al-Raymi trained al-Qaeda recruits in Afghanistan in the 1990s, was captured in Yemen in 2005, and spent years in prison after plotting to assassinate the U.S. ambassador before escaping. He replaced Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who also was killed in a U.S. drone strike in June 2015. As long as AQAP remains a threat to U.S. interests, U.S. forces will not disengage entirely.
More immediately, the United States still intends to provide support to “defensive” coalition military activities (likely intelligence and training), although it is unclear precisely what this support will entail. Indeed, despite his tough rhetoric, including characterizing the Kingdom as a “pariah,” Biden made clear that the United States will continue to help protect Saudi territory and critical infrastructure and to ensure shipping routes, including the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait, remain open.
In this sense, while Biden changed U.S. policy considerably, key continuities remain in place and U.S. forces will continue to assist Saudi Arabia and pursue AQAP. This recalibration is a sound strategy, as it removes U.S. support for what has become an unwinnable war with thousands of civilian causalities, and returns the emphasis on finding a political settlement to the conflict. Above all, it shows that this administration values diplomacy, democracy, and human rights and understands that lasting peace and security are just as dependent on these aims as military force. Whether the administration maintains this balanced approach throughout its term remains to be seen, but it is certainly a good start and a welcome departure from the past four years.
Image: President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2021. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images