President Joe Biden’s most important accomplishment so far has been to drain the fetid swamp that was Mike Pompeo’s State Department. Pompeo spent nearly three years swaggering about the globe, a faux diplomat who exuded arrogance and sanctimony while spewing dictates, demands, threats, ultimatums, orders, and insults.
America’s image and credibility suffered accordingly. Indeed, his policies were collectively an almost complete, total, abject, and humiliating failure.
During his tenure China continued to rise. Russia still occupied Crimea. Iran resurrected its nuclear program. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad refused to accept American suzerainty. The Europeans proceeded independently. North Korea advanced new armament plans. Venezuela withstood US sanctions and mercenaries. Palestinians refused to submit as Israel’s Helots. Castro’s communists still ruled Cuba. And the Saudis continued to bungle their aggression against Yemen, visiting murder and mayhem upon among the poorest, most distressed people on earth.
Pompeo was so reviled that before he left office the foreign minister of tiny Luxembourg refused to meet with him. His departure was greeted with relief by allies and adversaries alike. Foreign governments recognized that productive dialogue was impossible with such a malicious political partisan.
In a short tenure filled with discreditable, foolish, and counterproductive acts, the former secretary’s shameless subservience to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stood out. He dedicated himself to protecting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the latter seized solitary control of the Kingdom, tyrannized his people, destabilized the Mideast, destroyed Yemen, and embarrassed America.
Indeed, under President Donald Trump Saudi influence over US Mideast policy rivaled that of Israel. Trump’s first foreign trip was to Riyadh, where the royal family appeared to bewitch America’s chief executive. Observers speculated whether the cause was pleasure from the flattery-infused trip, joy at participating in the famed Sword Dance, or expectation of profit from secret promises of future investment in Trump enterprises.
Whatever the reason, the White House turned into an adjunct of the Saudi embassy in Washington, dedicated to satisfying royal whims and protecting the crown prince from his bloody irresponsibility. Indeed, after shielding Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler from accountability for the gruesome murder of dissident journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi, Trump declared that he "saved [MbS’s] ass." One week Pompeo would hold the crown prince’s thobe as the latter kidnapped, imprisoned, and murdered dissidents, and the next week complain of Iranian human rights violations, showcasing a unique toxic mix of cynicism and hypocrisy to the world.
Worse, the administration enthusiastically underwrote Saudi aggression against Yemen. America sold and serviced the Kingdom’s warplanes, refueled them in combat for years, supplied the bombs dropped, and provided targeting intelligence. That is, the U.S. acted as a co-belligerent against a people who had done nothing against Americans. Trump, Pompeo, and other US officials shared responsibility for the murder of thousands of Yemenis.
In the face of rising congressional opposition to the slaughter, the secretary falsely declared an "emergency" to force through additional arms transfers to the KSA military. Worse, shortly before leaving office he delivered a final gift to the royal dictatorship, labeling as terrorists the Houthi movement, which led the forces overthrowing the previous Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
The Trump administration treated the terrorist designation as purely political, penalizing regimes on Washington’s naughty list, not governments which actually employed terrorism against anyone, let alone Americans. In this case, Pompeo cited the fact that Yemen returned fire against Riyadh, which has spent six years bombing weddings, funerals, hospitals, school buses, markets, apartment buildings, and other civilian targets. The real "terrorist" was obvious: Not only was the Kingdom the aggressor against Yemen, but two decades ago financed al-Qaeda and provided 15 of the 19 9/11 terrorists against America.
To his credit, almost immediately after his inauguration Biden acted on his promise to treat the KSA’s wannabe dictator as a pariah. For instance, the administration announced that the president would deal with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud rather than the crown prince. Although correct from the standpoint of protocol, the king is largely infirm and MbS handles daily government affairs. Biden’s calculated rejection of the official heir might be intended to encourage a rethink over the planned royal succession, encouraging the choice of someone other than a brutal, reckless megalomaniac.
Even more important, certainly from the standpoint of the Yemeni people, Washington suspended arms sales to the marauding Saudi military and ended US support for offensive KSA operations against its impoverished neighbor. Moreover, the new State Department reversed Pompeo’s last-minute designation of Riyadh’s Yemeni opponents as "terrorists."
The speed of the Biden administration’s new course likely represented embarrassment at the genesis of US support for Riyadh’s aggressive war. Initial support for the royals’ murderous invasion dated to the Obama administration, in which Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and several other top Biden aides served. Thus, they share responsibility for the resulting horror and hope to clean up after their bloody blunder. Indeed, an anonymous former Obama official was quoted as saying "We knew we might be getting into a car with a drunk driver." Alas, not just any drunk driver, but a very well-armed one.
Yemeni history is complicated. A relatively young nation, it once was two separate states. However, for decades Yemenis have been at war with one another. The 2011 Arab Spring led to another round of internal unrest, including the ouster of the long-serving president, who in 2014 joined with Ansar Allah, a religious-political movement typically called the Houthis, to overthrow his successor.
None of these maneuverings had anything to do with anyone else, whether Iran, Saudi Arabia, or America. However, Riyadh wanted to reinstall a pliant regime and the United Arab Emirates desired economic and territorial advantages; the two created a "coalition" by hiring weaker governments, such as Egypt, and available forces, mostly from Sudan. The Obama administration backed this amalgam in hopes of winning Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s support for its nuclear deal with Iran. Officials convinced themselves that they could moderate their allies’ deadly ambitions.
Alas, a war that was supposed to run a few weeks will soon enter its seventh year. It has been a humanitarian disaster, with roughly 80 percent of the Yemeni civilian population in need of international assistance. While the Houthis have been callous and brutal, the coalition has been ostentatiously cruel and murderous. Humanitarian organizations blame two-thirds to three-quarters of civilian damage and casualties on the Saudis and Emiratis, which seemed to specialize in targeting noncombatants. The KSA’s atrocious behavior far outranged Houthi misdeeds. The State Department even warned the Trump administration that American officials were potentially guilty of war crimes, given their complicity in the killing of tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians.
However, despite its sharply critical stance toward the ruling royals, especially its offensive military operations against Yemen, the Biden administration affirmed its military relationship with Saudi Arabia. For too long the US has allowed Riyadh to treat American troops like mercenaries, bodyguards hired to guard the royal family. Playing that role in Yemen, where the KSA is the unabashed aggressor, makes even less sense. Yet the president promised to continue defending the Kingdom from Yemen.
For instance, though ending US backing for "offensive" operations, the president told State Department employees: "At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries. We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people." Afterwards Blinken called the Saudi foreign minister to discuss, the State Department explained, "regional security, counterterrorism, and cooperation to deter and defend against attacks on the Kingdom."
US special envoy Timothy Lenderking said the president and Blinken "both made clear we’re not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice." The Pentagon said it would continue to "help Saudi Arabia defend its borders, which are very much under threat." US Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth McKenzie opined: "Over the last several weeks, a number of attacks have been launched out of Yemen against Saudi Arabia. We will help the Saudis defend against those attacks, like giving them intelligence when we can about those attacks."
The administration even displayed moral equivalency when discussing Yemeni military operations. State Department spokesman Ned Price urged "the Houthis to immediately stop these aggressive acts" and insisting that the "Houthi leadership will find themselves sorely mistaken if they think that this administration is going to let off the pressure – is going to let them off the hook for the reprehensible conduct that they continue to undertake."
Of course, the Houthis’ behavior is awful – both authoritarian rule and indiscriminate warfare – but Yemen has been aflame more than a half century since first one, then two, which ultimately became one, states emerged. In 2015 an existing domestic conflict was inflamed and expanded by the "coalition." And not just the Saudis. The Emiratis became more involved in the south and empowered secessionists against the legally recognized Hadi government which the "coalition," including Washington, was formally supporting. This outside intervention magnified and multiplied the humanitarian catastrophe.
Even without US backing, the Saudis continue to run offensive operations in Yemen. Against which the Houthis and their allies are retaliating. That is, the royals are whining that their victims are still fighting back. No doubt, the Saudis thought that their blue blood meant they could wage war without consequence. The administration’s priority should be to end outside interference – by U.S.-backed and -supplied states which expanded the war – in Yemen. Once that is achieved, it will be possible to speak of defense by and of the KSA. Until then the royals will remain the unabashed aggressors.
If Riyadh stopped killing Yemenis, there would be greater hope of finding a domestic political solution. Unfortunately, though, six years of Saudi/Emirati aggression, backed by Washington, have substantially lengthened the odds. Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper of the International Crisis Group observed: "Yemen is no longer the country it was when the war began. As the conflict has ground on, power has become diffused across a multitude of armed actors on the ground – not just the Houthis and the Hadi government but also separatist forces in the south and militias under the authority of Tareq Saleh, a nephew of Hadi’s predecessor. The war now rages on multiple fronts, each with its own political dynamics and lines of command and control."
Moreover, the Saudi royals, used to the Trump administration’s complete submission to their wishes, have not accepted Biden’s decision. The Kingdom’s agents are promoting the desperately dishonest meme that everything is Tehran’s fault. I have appeared on television opposite several Saudi representatives since the administration announced its new policy, and all have promoted the line: Iran made everyone do it. Because of Iran, the Houthis took over Yemen. The Saudis invaded Yemen. The KSA air force bombed Yemeni civilians. The UAE abused prisoners, promoted separatism, and supplied terrorists with weapons. Everything is Tehran’s fault!
To listen to Riyadh’s (and Abu Dhabi’s) well-funded minions, you would think that the Saudis were much-maligned, heroic defenders of human liberty and regional stability, facing the Yemeni juggernaut backed by superpower Iran. Indeed, even now the hour is late: Despite being the third biggest military spender on earth, after only America and China, Riyadh is tragically helpless before the tremendous combination opposing it. Without US help, the entire Middle East – and perhaps the rest of the world – might be conquered by determined Yemeni aggressors and terrorists. Then a new Dark Ages would descend upon the entire globe.
Thus, whatever the genesis of the war, the Saudis insist, America cannot leave the royals until the Iranians abandon Yemen. For instance, National Review’s Isaac Schorr made the nonsensical complaint that ending Washington’s backing for Saudi war crimes was "part of an effort to cozy the US up to Iran." Argued Varsha Koduvayur of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the "US must not abandon Yemen to Iran." Lenderking, who was stationed at the American embassy in Riyadh as the US armed Riyadh with weapons and munitions used to kill thousands of Yemeni civilians, complained that Tehran "played a very negative role in Yemen by supplying the Yemenis."
Energy analyst Victoria Coates fantasized that "the Houthi, bolstered by the formidable Iranian propaganda machine, have successfully cast themselves in the court of public opinion as brave rebels battling Saudi imperialism." In fact, as she, along with everyone else in Washington, is aware, it is the Emiratis and Saudis, not Iranians, who generously fill the coffers of elite opinion-shapers, including think tanks, PR firms, lobbyists, universities, associations, publications, and businesses. The Houthis appear to be battling Saudi imperialism because … that is precisely what they are doing. That doesn’t mean Yemenis don’t suffer under Houthi depredations – they surely do – but Coates’ supposedly impecunious, innocent, angelic invading royals have visited much more death and destruction on civilians.
Having come this far, the Biden administration should not be fooled by Saudi propaganda. First, Yemeni missile attacks on the KSA began only after the Saudis invaded. That is, the strikes were retaliation for MbS’s murderous invasion. Of course, Yemen – the Houthis dominate the current de facto government, but are not alone in opposing the exiled "legal" authority which called down Saudi and Emirati airstrikes on its own people – should not be attacking Saudi civilian targets. However, without a multi-billion-dollar air force supplied, serviced, and guided by Americans, the Yemenis must rely upon less accurate weapons. The easiest way for Riyadh to defend itself would be to stop its attacks on Yemen. Halt its airstrikes, withdraw its forces, and end the war.
Second, the Houthis have never been tools of Tehran. Although no friends of the West, they never have had as close a relationship with Iran as, say, Hezbollah. Rather, Saudi Arabia’s invasion, backed by the globe’s greatest military power and biggest arms merchant, left Yemen little choice but to turn to Tehran. Iran was only too happy to help bleed the incompetent, conscienceless, and careless KSA military. Had Riyadh and Abu Dhabi not attacked their neighbor, there would be no Iranian "threat" in Yemen. Alas, the Saudis mistakenly assumed that their royal prerogative at home would protect them abroad, preventing the victims of their aggression from returning fire. This illusion is the Kingdom’s, not America’s, problem.
The Biden administration should announce that the US is transferring the burden of Saudi Arabia’s defense back to the well-armed Kingdom. Then MbS and the rest of the privileged royals should adopt political reforms that encouraged the Saudi people to defend their nation.
Moreover, the royals should pursue a dialogue with Tehran, seeking to moderate the two government’s cold war before it bursts into flame. Most important, the Kingdom should halt its depredations against Yemen and other countries in the region. As long as Riyadh is waging war on others, the royals have no complaint against attacks on their territory. Nor does Washington have any responsibility to insulate the Kingdom from its own folly. If the Saudis are determined to make Sanaa burn, why shouldn’t the Yemenis do the same to Riyadh?
The State Department again is open for business. Mike Pompeo is gone, now just a torturous nightmare to most of the world. The Biden administration has begun disengaging from Yemen, but much more remains to be done. Washington should stop pandering to Saudi Arabia. Protecting the Saudi royals no longer should be America’s responsibility.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.