Calling Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran’s proxies in Yemen, the Houthis, a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” President Joe Biden on Thursday ended arms sales to the Kingdom, reversing four years of the Trump administration’s support against the Tehran inspired insurrection.
The move did not surprise the Saudis, since Biden had promised to stop selling them arms during his presidential campaign, and as soon as he took office he interrupted the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia worth $478 million—over Congress’ angry objections. He also blocked Trump’s announced sale of F-35 stealth fighters to the United Arab Emirates.
But the Saudis did not expect the second shoe Biden dropped on Thursday, namely to also stop providing them with targeting data and logistical support in their attempt to push back the Houthis.
In 2014–2015, even as Iran was negotiating its nuclear deal with the US, its Houthi proxy militias took over the government in the Yemenite capital Sanaa. The Houthis gained control of most of the northern part of Yemen’s territory and since 2015 have been resisting the Saudi-led military intervention that’s seeking to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government to power. The Houthis have since been launching repeated missile and drone attacks against Saudi cities, which everyone in the West sees as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
President Biden doesn’t. Or he does and his policy in the region will be nothing like Trump’s, or even Obama’s for that matter.
Interestingly, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had this to say about his new boss when he introduced him on Thursday: “For more than two decades, I’ve had the privilege of watching President Biden at work. I’ve seen his commitment to the American people, his expertise in foreign policy, his steadfast belief in diplomacy, and his rock-solid support for our diplomats and development experts. […] And I can say without fear of contradiction that in the history of the presidency, no one has brought as much foreign policy experience to the job as Joe Biden. Wherever he goes, he’s been a champion for American leadership and a defender of American values.”
From what President Biden was saying on Thursday, he has given up on winning the war in Yemen and is focusing on stopping the civilian deaths there. Last March, Amnesty International reported that “gross human rights violations, including what could amount to war crimes, are being committed throughout [Yemen]. By the end of 2019, it is estimated that over 233,000 Yemenis would have been killed as a result of fighting and the humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 20,000 civilians killed and injured by the fighting since March 2015. A man-made humanitarian crisis has spiraled with approximately 16 million people waking up hungry every day.”
It sounds very Vietnam-like and Biden would have none of it. He wants to force the Saudis to seek a diplomatic solution—never mind that such a solution would mean Iranian control over the Red Sea and traffic in the Suez canal. Biden has already picked his Henry Kissinger for the solution, Timothy Lenderking, a career diplomat who served under President Barack Obama as Senior Democracy Advisor at the US Embassy in Baghdad; Policy Advisor to the multi-national forces in Iraq; Director of the Pakistan Office at the Department of State; and Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Riyadh.
And if your recollection of the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East is of a declining role in a region that was being taken over by Iran and Russia, well, Timothy Lenderking was right there, every part of the way.
Biden, all heart, said the US would still be selling defensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, to protect against Iranian and Iranian-inspired missiles, drones, and cyberattacks. But unlike Trump’s message, that his finger was on the Tomahawks’ red button to retaliate for such attacks, Biden, in his first major foreign policy speech, said stuff like, “This war has to end,” and yet he insisted that his speech was intended to “send a clear message to the world: America is back.”
He might as well have said Jimmy Carter’s America was back. “We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people,” Biden said, even as he was cutting off military supplies to one of the US’s most loyal ally. And director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, later hinted that the President wants to pursue whatever evidence there may be against the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on his involvement in the Khashoggi killing.
And, this being his first major foreign policy speech, there was a whole lot of this gobbledygook, some of it was real but mostly he was covering all the bases:
America is back, America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy. As I said in my inaugural address, we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s. American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States, and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy. We must meet the new moment of accelerating global challenges from the pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation, challenging the will only to be solved by nations working together. Rebuilding the muscle of Democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect, and I would argue, abuse. American alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners, once again. Today, I’m announcing additional steps to course correct our foreign policy and better uniting our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership. To begin, Defense Secretary Austin will be leading a global posture review of our forces so that our military footprint is appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities. And while this review is taking place, we’ll be stopping any planned troop withdrawals from Germany. We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, a war which has created humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.