Don’t Forget About Yemen

The war on Yemen has not ended, and unfortunately neither has U.S. backing for the Saudi coalition. As Bruce Riedel and Annelle Sheline explain in their recent analysis for Brookings, Biden has failed to cut off support for Saudi coalition offensive operations as he said he would: "As long as the US materially and rhetorically backs the Saudis’ war of choice, Biden’s assertion that the US would end support for offensive operations is a lie." The most significant failing of Biden’s Yemen policy concerns the coalition blockade, which is the most devastating ongoing offensive operation against Yemen. As long as the blockade remains in place, it proves that the president has not kept his promise to halt US backing for the war. The antiwar coalition in Congress that challenged Trump over unauthorized US involvement now needs to bring similar pressure to bear on the Biden administration to hold the president to his word.

The Biden administration has not pressed the Saudi coalition to end its killing blockade of the country. The blockade continues to strangle the people of Yemen by preventing or delaying the delivery of essential goods, including and especially fuel. Fuel shortages drive up the price for transporting goods, and that in turn has driven up the price of those goods so that they are prohibitively expensive in a country suffering from mass unemployment and inflation driven by the coalition’s economic warfare.

That economic warfare rarely makes the headlines, but it is deadly to the civilian population all the same. Riedel and Sheline comment, "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." Aid groups and activists have implored the US government not to make the lifting of the blockade contingent on a cease-fire or larger political settlement, since the blockade is daily starving and killing Yemeni civilians right now and their lives should not be used as leverage.

The State Department just announced the approval of a $500 million maintenance contract for Saudi Arabia that would provide for the upkeep of the kingdom’s helicopter fleet. This is the first major military contract with Saudi Arabia since Biden became president, and it flies in the face of the promised cutoff of support. Antiwar activists immediately decried the decision to approve the contract. Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow for conventional arms control and transfers at the Arms Control Association commented on Twitter, "If the US is serious about ending blockade of Yemen, and to not provide "offensive weapons" to Saudi Arabia, it certainly is not using its leverage when its plans a half $billion agreement to continue service of Saudi helicopters." Failure to use our government’s considerable leverage with its reckless clients is a familiar story, and there is absolutely no excuse for it in this case.

The maintenance contract highlights the essential role that the US has in keeping the Saudi military running. It reminds us of just how dependent the Saudis really are on US assistance. As Riedel noted three years ago in an interview with The Intercept, "If the United States of America and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman, ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. Because the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American & British support." Far from forcing the Saudi government to halt their war, the Biden administration is making a new contract with them.

The US must insist that the blockade be lifted. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis remains the worst in the world, and there are already famine-like conditions in many parts of the country. U.N. officials have been warning of a broader, deeper famine that threatens millions of innocent lives. Mass starvation in Yemen is the result of deliberate policy choices by all belligerents, and because of its influence with the Saudi coalition the US is in a unique position to alleviate the worst of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Biden still has an opportunity to correct his earlier failure. In doing so, he would not only be undoing his predecessor’s disastrous policy, but he would also start to make amends for the Obama administration’s indefensible backing for the war at the beginning. The war on Yemen is the ugliest and most destructive part of Obama’s legacy. Biden needs to act quickly to make sure that it doesn’t become a black mark on his record as well.

The people of Yemen have been largely forgotten by the rest of the world for the last six and a half years, but their need is greater now than it has ever been. Our government has had a major role in causing the starvation and wreckage of their country. It is incumbent on our government to do as much as it can to correct the injustices caused by its backing for the war, and that starts by ending its support for every part of the Saudi coalition’s war on Yemen.

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.