Lift the Criminal Blockade on Yemen

The Biden administration hasn’t followed through on its commitment to end U.S. support for the Saudi coalition war on Yemen. Almost four months since Biden announced the end to US support for Saudi coalition "offensive operations," the administration refuses to tell Congress what kind of support it has halted and what it has continued. A request from 41 members of Congress to clarify the extent of ongoing US support for the Saudi coalition went unanswered for months, and then last week the State Department delivered a "non-answer" that failed to provide any new information. Meanwhile, the coalition blockade that has delayed and diverted ships and prevented the delivery of essential goods remains in place with deadly consequences for the civilian population, and the US has approved additional arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates earlier this year.

Biden appears to have used his February announcement to check off a box to placate antiwar progressives and since then he seems to have forgotten about the issue entirely. Congress needs to reassert itself once again and pass a resolution requiring an end to all US assistance to the Saudi coalition war effort, and opponents of the war need to press the Biden administration to insist on an end to the killing blockade. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis continues to worsen the longer that the war drags on, and Biden has burned four months without making any real progress in alleviating the crisis or establishing a ceasefire.

When Biden made the initial announcement about cutting off support for "offensive operations," opponents of the war were cautiously hopeful that this was just the first step in curtailing US assistance to the governments that had been starving and wrecking Yemen for the last six years. The caveat that Biden was ending support for "offensive" operations was worrisome because the Saudi coalition has dishonestly described their entire war effort as one of self-defense, and this loophole may have allowed most US support for the Saudi coalition to continue uninterrupted. The administration’s opacity makes it difficult to know what, if anything, has changed since Trump left office.

The State Department’s letter told members of Congress nothing that they could not have learned in a newspaper. It rehearsed the Biden administration’s previous announcements and mostly focused on what the Yemen special envoy, Tim Lenderking, has been doing for the last two months. Like Lenderking himself, who famously said that he was "not totally in that information loop" on current US military assistance to the Saudi coalition, the State Department had nothing to say about the nature or extent of US support except to say that "the United States will continue to support Saudi Arabia with its defense against inbound threats." It is telling that the White House asked the State Department to respond to the letter when it seems clear that no one at State knows anything about what the Pentagon is or isn’t doing to support the Saudi coalition. The president fobbed off the request to the people that didn’t have the desired information, and then they dragged their feet in sending back a pro forma response that leaves Congress in the dark. The Biden administration is not as boastful and enthusiastic about US support for the Saudi coalition as Trump was, but it appears to be unwilling to take the necessary steps to cut off US backing for their war in its entirety.

The Saudi coalition continues to commit crimes against humanity by keeping this blockade in place. No one can seriously claim that the blockade has successfully prevented the Houthis from obtaining whatever weapons they want. Like the blockade of Gaza that it resembles, the blockade of Yemen slowly strangles civilians to death without doing anything to halt the flow of weapons. Lifting the blockade must be separated from a ceasefire. Keeping it in place does nothing to end the fighting, but we know that it is killing the weakest and most vulnerable Yemenis every day.

Fifteen senators recently wrote to the president and called on him to press for an end to the killing blockade, which is unquestionably part of the Saudi coalition’s attack on Yemen. The senators reminded Biden of the severe effects that the blockade is having on the population: "The UN estimates that 16 million Yemenis will face hunger this year and 400,000 children younger than five years old are at risk of dying of starvation if the conflict continues and these war tactics persist." Lifting the blockade will not end the war, and it is not a panacea for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, but it will make it easier to bring in essential goods and fuel so that more Yemenis can get the food and medicine they need.

Just as the Biden administration reversed Trump’s unwarranted designation of the Houthis because of the dire consequences it would have had on the civilian population, they must now insist on the full and unconditional lifting of the air and sea blockade for humanitarian reasons. The US has considerable leverage with Saudi Arabia if it would only be willing to use it. Failure to do this will ensure that the US remains complicit in worsening the suffering of the people of Yemen, and our government will share in the blame for the deaths of countless innocents.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.