Last February, in his first major foreign policy speech, President Biden declared, “The war in Yemen must end.” But nearly a year later, the U.S.-enabled death and destruction in Yemen continue apace.
Saudi-backed forces loyal to Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his government in exile in Riyadh have conducted a series of offensives in recent days—supported by Saudi airstrikes—against Houthi forces backed by Iran. They seized territory in the province of Al-Bayda, while United Arab Emirates–backed forces retook control of the province of Shabwah.
This directly contradicts the Saudis’ claim last month that they needed U.S. weaponry to defend against Houthi cross-border attacks, claims reprinted in high-profile outlets like The Wall Street Journal. In December, the Biden administration pushed an additional sale of missiles to Saudi Arabia through Congress, arguing that the weapons would be used for “defensive” purposes.
This latest round of violence demonstrates that U.S. support continues to embolden the Saudis, Emiratis, and the Hadi government, perpetuating a war that has already claimed 377,000 Yemeni lives. The Biden administration remained silent on the Saudis’ Christmas bombing campaign and even echoed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud’s talking points about Iran. “The illegal flow of Iranian weapons to Yemen is enabling the brutal Houthi offensive against Marib, leading to loss of civilian lives and prolonging the war,” tweeted State Department spokesman Ned Price.
But if “1,400 AK-47 assault rifles and 226,600 rounds of ammunition from a vessel originating from Iran” prolong the war and civilian suffering, as the State Department claims, what does $650 million worth of advanced American weapons, which Biden just sold to Saudi Arabia, do? Bring peace?
Given the administration’s worries that the fall of another Yemeni city, Marib, to the Houthis would cause massive human suffering, one would expect the Biden White House to firmly condemn MBS’s Christmas massacre of civilians and the latest rounds of violence. Not so. Instead, on Christmas Day, the State Department “strongly condemned the horrific Houthi cross-border attack on the #Jizan province of Saudi Arabia”—but said nothing about the Saudis’ bombing of Sanaa and ongoing coalition offensives.
The pattern is clear. Despite Biden’s promise to end the war in Yemen and his pledge to make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” he has fallen back into America’s hegemonic role in the Middle East: taking sides, making America a party to conflicts, and selling more weapons—U.S. interest, peace, stability, and human rights be damned.
Rather than pursuing American interests in the Middle East—by not getting embroiled in the rivalries of our partners, reducing our military footprint, and ending our endless wars there—Biden is once again following the preferences of regional states like Saudi and the UAE.
Senior Democratic Senate staffers tell us that the administration’s strategy is to provide Saudi Arabia with extensive support now, in the hope that it will give the kingdom momentum in the war in the next few months, at which point MBS will agree to end the war without losing face.
But there is no reason to have confidence in such a charitable gamble on the Saudi dictator. Even if MBS were a cautious and prudent leader, it would be foolhardy to expect that the war will subside if we just turn one more corner. The military promises American political leaders that the war is nearly won and that they’ll just need a bit more time, a few more resources, and the United States—or its partners—will either prevail or be in a position to negotiate peace. But rather than ending the war, the wishful thinking of giving the war “just another few months” has made wars endless.
This is what military commanders told leaders in Washington about Afghanistan. Soon enough, “a couple more months” turned into a 20-year-long unwinnable war. The Trump and later the Biden administration finally acknowledged that the war was futile. As Biden stated in April 2021: “No one wants to say that we should be in Afghanistan forever, but they insist now is not the right moment to leave. So when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years?”
Yet in Yemen, Biden appears to maintain the same flawed logic that kept the U.S. mired in Afghanistan for 20 years: that the situation on the ground in Yemen will change with a U.S. thumb on the scales. But the only change is for the worse. More civilians are dying, whether of violence or disease or starvation. Institutions and services are eroding and collapsing. The currency is depreciating. Already classified as a “failed state” before the war began, Yemen is slipping further into ungovernable chaos, precipitating further military intervention by foreign powers.
Turning Yemen into the next Afghanistan serves the interest of neither the U.S. nor the people of Yemen or Saudi Arabia. Biden must show the same strength that he demonstrated when ending the war in Afghanistan and put an end to America’s shameful U.S. support for MBS’s devastation of Yemen. If not, instead of making the world see Saudi Arabia for the pariah that it is, MBS will have succeeded in making Biden the hypocrite he shouldn’t be.