When Joe Biden included ending the war in Yemen as a key goal during his first foreign policy speech as president, he was breaking with his predecessors. Donald Trump had backed the Saudis and Emiratis, even using a presidential veto to stymie a congressional attempt to end U.S. involvement in the war. When Mohammed bin Salman, then Saudi defense minister, launched his military intervention in Yemen 2015, Barack Obama decided to provide assistance — a Faustian bargain aimed (unsuccessfully) at tempering Saudi criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. Biden’s decision to prioritize Yemen by appointing a special envoy — as well as reversing Trump’s designation just before leaving office of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization — raised hopes that a greater emphasis on diplomacy from the U.S. might finally move the devastating war towards resolution. Yet almost eight months later, little has changed.
Biden’s statement that “we’re stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen” may have betrayed naiveté about the impact the U.S. could realistically have. The war is likely to continue regardless of what Washington does: the lucrative war economy; inflows of resources from foreign sponsors; and the lack of incentives to negotiate spur the myriad combatants to keep fighting, regardless of civilian suffering. But while Biden may not be able to end the war, he can end America’s complicity in it.
Unfortunately, Biden’s approach is fatally flawed. The president stated that he would “end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen.” Yet the Saudi-led war on Yemen by definition, is an offensive operation. Saudi Arabia is bombing and blockading another country: Between March 2015 and July 2021, the Saudis conducted a minimum of 23,251 air raids, which killed or injured 18,616 civilians. The Houthis, known formally as Ansarallah, launch missiles in retaliation but if Saudi airstrikes ceased, the Houthis would have little reason to provoke their powerful neighbor. As long as the U.S. materially and rhetorically backs the Saudis’ war of choice, Biden’s assertion that the U.S. would end support for offensive operations is a lie.
The second crucial flaw in Biden’s approach is that he did not call for an immediate end to the Saudi blockade of Yemen. The blockade primarily blocks fuel from entering the Houthi-controlled Hodeida port; the Saudis also prevent the use of Sanaa International Airport. Blockades cannot be defensive: they are offensive operations, and therefore U.S. involvement should have ended following Biden’s declaration in February. The U.S. tacitly cooperated with the blockade by not challenging it, and the U.S. Navy occasionally announces it has intercepted smuggled weapons from Iran, suggesting a more active role than the administration admits. Congress should investigate.
Both the Saudi coalition as well as the Houthis use starvation as a tactic. Yet by not insisting the blockade cease, Biden not only contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe, he signaled that the blockade constitutes an appropriate condition for negotiation. While the diplomats continue to talk, the Saudis are actively starving the Yemenis of the fuel necessary to transport food and water.
Technically, Saudi aggression towards Yemen reflects the wishes of Yemen’s president-in-exile, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. After the Houthis’ seizure of the capital city of Sanaa caused him to flee, Hadi requested that the Saudis intervene, which prompted the United Nations Security Council to pass Resolution 2216 in 2015. This resolution legitimizes the Saudi bombardment and blockade as efforts to reinstate Hadi as president. Yet while Hadi deserves blame for his corruption and his efforts to spoil attempts to resolve the conflict, he does not control the Saudis. They use Hadi and UNSCR 2216 as a convenient excuse to justify their war on the Houthis, whom they fear for their ties to Iran.
Ironically, the Saudis’ — and by extension the Americans’ — tactics have only bolstered the Houthis. For example, the Saudi blockade aims to punish the Houthis, yet has the effect of consolidating their control. In 2015, the U.N. instituted a Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) to ensure that imports to Yemen do not contain smuggled Iranian weapons intended for the Houthis. In addition to UNVIM, the Saudis routinely delay or prevent fuel imports through the port of Hodeida. While unnecessary to counter smuggling, the Saudis wish to block the Houthis from acquiring revenue from fuel sales. This limits the amount of fuel to a trickle, which the Houthis can easily control; no fuel was unloaded at Hodeida in 11 out of 17 weeks since early May 2021.
The absence of imports through Hodeida means fuel is imported at the ports of Aden and Mukalla, controlled by the Hadi government, and transported overland to Houthi-controlled territory. The Hadi government taxes fuel imports, and the Houthis tax the fuel again when it reaches their territory. Multiple layers of taxation, in addition to the cost of transporting fuel overland, has raised the price significantly.
The high price of fuel makes it unaffordable for many. Expensive fuel also raises the prices of food and water, much of which also relies on overland transportation. Already cash-strapped humanitarian aid organizations cannot operate without fuel, to say nothing of Yemen’s economy. The Saudis and Hadi seem to believe that if they force those living under Houthi rule to suffer, they will overthrow the rulers. Yet this same strategy has failed for the past 15 years of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, 40 years of U.S. sanctions on Iran, and 60 years of U.S. sanctions on Cuba.
Outgoing U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths issued a dire warning, stating during an August briefing to the U.N. Security Council that “famine is not just a food problem, it is a symptom of a much deeper collapse.” Griffiths was unable to make any progress while in the role of special envoy, and it is unclear how the U.N. expects his successor Hans Grundberg to achieve anything under the unrealistic terms of UNSCR 2216. Oman tried to coordinate a cease-fire in June, but nothing concrete emerged. Biden’s Special Envoy Tim Lenderking has little to show despite his many trips to the region.
The reason for the lack of progress is that although Biden committed to a more diplomatic approach, in practice the U.S. remains a staunch patron of Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman has not been treated as a pariah as Biden promised. Secretary of State Antony Blinken applauded the Saudis’ March cease-fire proposal and condemned the Houthis for rejecting it, ignoring that the Houthis would have had to accept a total surrender of their weapons and territory. They have no reason to agree to such terms, especially because they feel (rightly) they are winning. The U.S. denounces Houthi rockets, yet is often silent about Saudi air raids, which are routinely more deadly. This likely reflects U.S. discomfort with the support the Houthis receive from Iran. Yet the Houthis are not Iranian puppets and their attempts to control Yemen will continue even if Iran withdraws what assistance they do provide.
So what should Biden do? First, he must insist that the Saudis lift the blockade immediately and unconditionally.
Second, Biden should request that the United Kingdom, the U.N. penholder for Yemen, introduce a new Security Council resolution. The new resolution must provide incentives to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table: As long as UNSCR 2216 remains the basis for negotiations, the Houthis will refuse to engage.
If these two actions — lifting the blockade and introducing a new Security Council resolution — result in the Houthis controlling the former North Yemen, this merely reflects the reality that the Houthis do in fact control North Yemen.
In this, Yemen parallels Afghanistan. Like the Taliban, the Houthis are serial human rights abusers. But both have the legitimacy of fighting against a foreign invading force, while many of the Yemeni and Afghan noncombatants only want the violence to end. Like the Taliban, the Houthis inspire nationalistic support even from those who would otherwise oppose them. Although the Americans and the Saudis possess superior military equipment and vastly greater resources, eventually they will leave; in contrast, the Taliban and the Houthis are in their home country and have no option but to continue fighting. The foreign-backed government maintains the cracked veneer of democracy but is plagued by corruption and lacks legitimacy. In Hadi’s case, he ran unopposed in 2012 for what was supposed to be a two-year term, and he has lived in exile in Riyadh since 2015. Since that time, the territory his forces control has shrunk.
President Biden said of Afghanistan, “I cannot and I will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war,” and finally ended America’s involvement. He should apply the same logic to Yemen, where the U.S. remains entangled with, and implicated in, the Saudis’ futile and catastrophic war.