Biden Is Still a Hawk on Yemen

Joe Biden has never been antiwar. From Syria to Iraq to Yugoslavia, he’s proudly displayed a high-stakes bellicosity that’s cost millions of American and foreign lives. That’s why many were shocked when he began pushing "to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen" on the campaign trail in 2019. More surprising, still, is the fact that he’s already taken action on the topic as president. In his first foreign policy address barely two weeks into his presidency, Biden announced that the US would be withdrawing its support from the conflict. But did he mean it?

The Saudi-led war against the Houthi rebels is estimated to have caused more than 230,000 deaths – more than half of which can be attributed to the war’s indirect effects, like the scarcity of food and medical supplies. Since the conflict began in 2015, the US has sold the Saudi government hundreds of billions of dollars worth ammunition, weapons, missiles, and vehicles, in addition to providing intelligence, training, equipment maintenance, and mid-air refueling. The US is thus in large part culpable for much of the war’s death and destruction. In his address, Biden offered sympathies for the plight of the Yemeni people, calling it "a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe" and "unendurable devastation" – but those are nothing more than crocodile tears. In reality, he remains as hawkish as ever.

The media has grossly oversold his stance. After all, he never said he was withdrawing all support from the Saudi-led coalition. As he declared in his February 4th address, "[W]e are ending all American support for offensive operations in the War in Yemen, including relevant arms sales." Though this may at first, perhaps, be a heartening proclamation, many skeptics are unsure of what Biden actually had in mind when he said "offensive operations". Ambiguity is a chief tool of deception in political theater, so there’s serious cause for concern that America’s "withdrawal" may be more of a façade than a concrete policy reversal. In an article for SouthFront, foreign policy analyst Dr. Leon Tressell expressed his worries:

"Biden has not specified whether US support for Saudi ‘offensive operations’ includes the continued supply of American surveillance such as satellite imagery and other intelligence. He said nothing about the US taking action to end the air, land and sea blockade of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies that is responsible for mass hunger and malnutrition. 80% of the 30 million people in Yemen are on the verge of famine. According to the World Food Programme over 400,000 children under the age of five are in danger of dying from acute malnutrition [in Yemen] this year."

To find out what Biden actually meant by "offensive operations," we’ll have to simply wait and see. Hopefully, there will at least be an overall reduction in arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. But other than that, there’s reason to think the verdict won’t be good, for Dr. Tressell’s worries are already ringing true. By the admission of General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. – the current head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) – the US will indeed continue to provide sensitive intelligence to the Saudis, at least in some capacity. Probably, that means sharing info about the whereabouts of Houthi combatants and warning about oncoming attacks. But just how much info does the US consider the Saudis privy to? That’s anyone’s guess.

But that’s not the only "non-offensive" tactic Biden intends to continue. Despite rolling back some sanctions imposed late in the Trump era, Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken signaled plans last month to foist new rounds of sanctions on members of the Houthi movement. Already, that’s culminated in the Treasury putting sanctions on two top Houthi leaders, paving the way for more to come. Many seem to view sanctions as a largely harmless way of "pressuring" foreign entities in one direction or the other. "But," as Jacob Hornberger wrote a few years back, "the reality is that sanctions, by virtue of their targeting foreign citizens for death, are every bit an act of war as dropping bombs on them."

To be sure, the Houthis’ record isn’t exactly "A1" – but that’s not the point. With the Houthis in control of much of western Yemen, putting more sanctions on them has the power to make matters much worse than they already are – not only continuing to cripple Yemen’s economy and fuel the country’s horrific famine, but also slowing down efforts to bring charitable aid to the people. New sanctions would, thus, be nothing less than a continuation of US involvement in the war, and the Biden administration would be responsible for the resulting suffering. In fact, even with tougher sanctions, the heads of the Houthi movement will still be able to maintain their rather lavish living conditions – it’s the sick and starving commonfolk in Yemen who’ll inevitably bear the brunt.

When Biden announced the end of American support for "offensive operations" in Yemen, he made sure not to cut ties with the Saudis, and in fact, left the door wide open for continued intervention. "Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries," he said. "We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people." That is to say, while Biden refused to aid the Saudi government in its offensive military engagements, he doubled down on providing it defensive assistance. But that raises the question – what’s the difference between "offensive" and "defensive" support in Biden’s view?

Mere hours after the coalition launched its invasion of Yemen in March 2015, the White House released a statement that joined hands with the coalition forces, aiming "to defend Saudi Arabia’s border and to protect Yemen’s legitimate government" [emphasis added]. In other words, the US has considered its role in Yemen to be defensive since day-one, right in line with the Saudis’ view of the conflict. At that time, of course, Joe Biden was the Vice-President, and – for a man who was often very vocal about his foreign policy views – seemed to have no gripes about backing the Saudis.

If the Houthis continue to carry out targeted, large-scale attacks against the Saudi regime (and, so far, they have), one must wonder – will the US step forward again and aid the Saudi counteroffensive? In mid-February, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed America’s "continued commitment to the 70-year US-Saudi security partnership" over the phone with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Sec. Austin added, "I’m looking forward to working together to achieve regional security and stability". It’s not totally clear what exactly America’s role will be moving forward, but certainly the "war party" appears willing to defend the oil-rich kingdom.

Almost certainly, at least, Biden’s commitment to defending Saudi Arabia will mean continuing to sell its government defensive weapons, like anti-ballistic missiles systems. Even if used in an exclusively defensive manner, weapons like these help the Saudis solidify their hegemonic control in the region and thus indirectly aid them in their offensive engagements. At the same time, al-Qaeda also controls a sizable portion of Yemen and will continue to be the target of American drone strikes, despite the high body counts of civilian noncombatants.

Pacific rhetoric means nothing if the US remains complicit in the Yemenis’ suffering. So why’s Biden playing pretend about withdrawing? There are probably a number of factors involved – like, perhaps, (1) trying to convince the growing body of non-interventionists that his administration is more antiwar than Trump’s; (2) offering administration-affiliated arms manufacturers (like Raytheon) the opportunity to switch to other lines of war production; (3) leveraging power against Iran by satisfying the Qataris and ameliorating sour relations in the Gulf region; and (4) encouraging diplomatic talks with Houthi leaders in order to secure Yemeni oil (and other resources) for the US and its allies.

To consider Biden’s policy on Yemen some great moral achievement, then, is naïveté of the highest degree. In his mind, the Yemenis are nothing more than "pawns" – easily disposable and well worth the price – to help line the pockets of his saber-rattling confrères. Of course, if Biden were to make a serious move towards peace and disengagement, he should be celebrated – unfortunately, though, that doesn’t seem to be what the future has in store.

With the hackneyed excuse of fighting terrorists and protecting allies, the Yemeni crisis will continue forth, fueled in large part by American sanctions, American intelligence, and American weapons. After that, if the Saudis do someday crush the Houthi rebels, it’s hard to deny what the US will do next – continue an indefinite military presence and cash out on the conflict’s spoils. It won’t be the end of American hegemony – that’s for sure. For a long time moving forward, Yemen will have to bear the cross of the war hawks’ sins – and Biden, let the record show, is himself hardly a penitent.

James Ketler is a high school student living in Massachusetts with his brother, sister, and parents. He became interested in libertarianism in 2015 after hearing about Rand Paul’s presidential campaign and followed the rabbit hole straight down to Mises and Rothbard. When he’s able to find the time, James loves to study and write about liberty, ethics, history, and economics.