President Joe Biden will soon fulfill one of his top foreign policy campaign promises by ending U.S. offensive support for the brutal Saudi Arabia-led military coalition in Yemen, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Thursday morning.
Biden will make his own announcement later in the day, Sullivan said.
The shift has huge implications for millions of people in Yemen, where the Saudis and their partners ― primarily the United Arab Emirates ― have killed tens of thousands of civilians with American backing since the Saudi-led coalition began its intervention in 2015.
Then-President Barack Obama greenlit U.S. assistance to the coalition in its fight against a militia backed by the Saudis’ regional rival, Iran. He continued that approach despite growing evidence that it involved war crimes and complaints from Democratic lawmakers. Under President Donald Trump, Congress repeatedly passed bipartisan legislation to end the policy, but Trump vetoed it as he cultivated close ties with the Saudis and Emiratis. He did, however, end one aspect of support ― aerial refueling for the coalition’s bombing runs ― amid public outrage over the Saudi role in murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden’s shift shows how a small but committed group of legislators, national security analysts and activists has shifted the thinking in Washington by demanding a more progressive foreign policy and greater concern for how America’s power can cause vast humanitarian suffering abroad. The new president is also reviewing major Trump-era weapons deals with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which nearly all Democrats now oppose ― a big change from the way the party split on such arms sales under Obama.
How far Biden will reshape the historically warm relationship between the U.S. and those controversial Gulf Arab regimes remains unclear.
The president and his top aides agree with the Saudis and their allies that Iran is a threat, and Sullivan’s use of the word “offensive” on Thursday morning was notable. It likely refers to intelligence and logistical support for bombing and ground operations against the Houthis, the pro-Iran group in Yemen. The U.S. might still, however, provide other forms of intelligence and aid for defensive purposes against Houthi efforts to hit Saudi Arabia and the UAE with missiles. For anti-war advocates, it’s important to ensure that that support does not ultimately enable more conflict or give the Arab governments the sense that they are not actually being held accountable.
“Let’s see how Biden defines offensive operations this afternoon,” tweeted Kate Kizer of Win Without War. “The results of years of grassroots organizing is finally paying off.”
Humanitarian groups and key members of Congress also want Biden to clearly indicate that the U.S. will stop assisting and diplomatically shielding a broad Saudi-led blockade of Yemeni regions controlled by the Houthis. That plan has dramatically increased food prices and pushed millions of Yemenis closer to starvation.
And whether Biden will ultimately permit some of the weapons transfers to the Saudis and Emiratis as part of the earlier arms deals is still an open question. Experts expect his final decision on the matter by April.
The reaction from the Saudis and their partners — as well as Iran — will be significant for Biden’s broader foreign policy. His move could produce goodwill that eases renewed American negotiation to limit Iran’s nuclear program, and decision-makers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could feel a greater incentive to pursue less belligerent policies in the Middle East, starting with moving more quickly to cut a deal to end the war in Yemen.
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