Joe Biden Said He's Against the Yemen War. He Needs To End It on Day One.

Here’s what Biden can do to halt all U.S. assistance to the onslaught he helped start.

Sarah Lazare

Joe Biden speaks in Tampa, Florida on September 15, 2020. Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden bears direct respon­si­bil­i­ty for a host of griev­ous for­eign pol­i­cy harms, from the 2003 U.S. inva­sion of Iraq to the occu­pa­tion and per­se­cu­tion of Pales­tini­ans to the still-ongo­ing war in Afghanistan. The list of actions he must take to even begin to repair the wreck­age left by this lega­cy is long, and much of what he has done can­not be fixed: Peo­ple, after all, can­not be brought back from the dead. 

But due in part to the role of the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion in expand­ing pres­i­den­tial war-mak­ing pow­ers (unfor­tu­nate­ly, toward the end of uni­lat­er­al­ly wag­ing mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions), there is plen­ty Biden can do on his own, no mat­ter who com­pris­es the Sen­ate, to put a stop to the for­ev­er wars” that he him­self claimed on the cam­paign trail to oppose — even as he also traf­ficked in mil­i­taris­tic rhetoric, par­tic­u­lar­ly toward Chi­na.

One thing Biden can do, start­ing on day one, is end U.S. involve­ment in the Yemen war — involve­ment that he helped ini­ti­ate. By exec­u­tive order, Biden could get the Pen­ta­gon to end intel­li­gence shar­ing for the Sau­di coali­tion airstrikes, end logis­ti­cal sup­port, and end spare parts trans­fers that keep Sau­di war­planes in the air,” Has­san El-Tayyab, lead Mid­dle East pol­i­cy lob­by­ist for the Friends Com­mit­tee on Nation­al Leg­is­la­tion, a pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tion, tells In These Times. He could restore human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance to north­ern Yemen. He could use his pow­er as pres­i­dent to put pres­sure on oth­er nations that are sup­port­ing the Sau­di coali­tion — like France, the Unit­ed King­dom and Cana­da — and get them to fol­low suit. He could have the State Depart­ment put a stop on all arms sales to Sau­di Ara­bia unless they meet cer­tain benchmarks.” 

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion recent­ly approved near­ly $3 bil­lion in sales of drones to the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, a coun­try that has played a dev­as­tat­ing role in the mil­i­tary coali­tion, and is plan­ning to sell 50 F‑35 fight­er jets to the coun­try — all deci­sions that El-Tayyab says must imme­di­ate­ly be reversed by Biden.

Accord­ing to El-Tayyab, were Biden to with­draw U.S. sup­port from the war, this would almost cer­tain­ly have the effect of end­ing it. U.S. mil­i­tary par­tic­i­pa­tion is keep­ing war­planes in the air,” he says. Our spare parts trans­fers are absolute­ly crit­i­cal for the func­tion­ing of these air­craft. If they did­n’t have a steady flow of parts to fly the F‑15s that are reign­ing ter­ror on the peo­ple of Yemen, they don’t have a lot of options to get supplies.”

If Biden were to end U.S. sup­port, this would also have tremen­dous polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions. With­out the moral cov­er from the Unit­ed States, they would be dis­in­cen­tivized to con­tin­ue the war,” says El-Tayyab. 

Erik Sper­ling, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Just For­eign Pol­i­cy, which oppos­es the Yemen war, says there is plen­ty Biden can do before he even enters office. Biden has com­mit­ted to end U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war on Yemen as pres­i­dent. But he must make clear that it will include any kind of assis­tance — as Oba­ma offi­cials Rice, Pow­er, Rhodes and oth­ers have urged — includ­ing intel­li­gence shar­ing, logis­tics sup­port and spare parts for war­planes.” Sper­ling was ref­er­enc­ing last year’s pub­lic call from sev­er­al Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion alum­ni for the Unit­ed States to take sim­i­lar steps (though these offi­cials were notably silent when they were in posi­tions of pow­er in the Oba­ma administration). 

He should pub­licly and pri­vate­ly tell the Saud­is that he will do this on day one,” Sper­ling added. This will pres­sure them into nego­ti­a­tions and may end the war before he even enters the White House.” 

Sper­ling under­scored that it will be impor­tant for Biden to be explic­it about end­ing all forms of U.S. assis­tance, and it won’t be enough for Biden to mere­ly claim he is work­ing to achieve a polit­i­cal solu­tion — a mis­lead­ing rhetor­i­cal line adopt­ed by Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and the Sau­di gov­ern­ment that does not, in fact, amount to imme­di­ate­ly end­ing the war.

On the cam­paign trail, Biden claimed that he is in favor of end­ing U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Yemen war, although he has not made end­ing the war cen­tral to his polit­i­cal mes­sag­ing. Vice Pres­i­dent Biden believes it is past time to end U.S. sup­port for the war in Yemen and can­cel the blank check the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has giv­en Sau­di Ara­bia for its con­duct of that war,” Biden cam­paign spokesper­son Andrew Bates told the Wash­ing­ton Post last year. Biden has a remark­able respon­si­bil­i­ty to hold his own admin­is­tra­tion to this stan­dard, par­tic­u­lar­ly in light of his own role in sup­port­ing the war, and only speak­ing out against it when he was no longer in a posi­tion of polit­i­cal power. 

The Sau­di-led war on Yemen began in March, 2015, and the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion ini­ti­at­ed U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion. Under Oba­ma, the Unit­ed States pro­vid­ed direct intel­li­gence sup­port, refu­eled Sau­di war­planes, helped the coali­tion iden­ti­fy bomb tar­gets and expe­dit­ed weapons ship­ments. But beyond this direct mil­i­tary par­tic­i­pa­tion, the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion gave the war polit­i­cal cov­er and shield­ed the coali­tion from the most mod­est scruti­ny at the Unit­ed Nations. Under the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion, it was no mys­tery that this war was unleash­ing hor­rors on the peo­ple of Yemen. The coali­tion bombed a cen­ter for the blind, a funer­al, a wed­ding, a fac­to­ry and count­less homes and res­i­den­tial areas, and block­ad­ed Yemen’s ports, cut­ting off vital food and med­ical ship­ments — all while the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion was in pow­er. Indeed, the Oba­ma White House was so com­plic­it in war crimes in Yemen in that its own State Depart­ment inter­nal­ly warned key U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel could be sub­ject to war crimes pros­e­cu­tion, accord­ing to a Reuters inves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished in Octo­ber 2016. By July 2015, a Unit­ed Nations offi­cial was already warn­ing that Yemen was on the verge of a famine, a pre­mo­ni­tion that hor­rif­i­cal­ly came true.

For his part, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump over­saw an esca­la­tion of the war. While deaths had been ris­ing since the war began, they spiked sig­nif­i­cant­ly in 2018. And while the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion helped hold off the attack on the port city of Hodei­dah, under Trump, the bru­tal assault took place. And, in 2019, Trump vetoed con­gres­sion­al efforts to end the war using the War Pow­ers Resolution.

Many Democ­rats who had been large­ly silent under Oba­ma final­ly found their voic­es to oppose the Yemen war once Trump was in pow­er and it could be framed as a par­ti­san issue. But by then, the sit­u­a­tion was a human­i­tar­i­an cat­a­stro­phe for Yeme­nis, who have seen their med­ical sys­tem bat­tered by U.S.-backed war­planes and now con­tend with a Covid-19 cri­sis whose scope is severe but dif­fi­cult to mea­sure along­side oth­er dis­ease out­breaks, like cholera and dengue. Biden will be inher­it­ing a dis­as­trous war that he helped start, and one that he can take a mean­ing­ful step toward end­ing. A ded­i­cat­ed grass­roots move­ment has been push­ing dili­gent­ly for the Unit­ed States to end the onslaught. Biden must cor­rect the mis­take he made back­ing the Saud­is under the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion,” Jehan Hakim of the Yemeni Alliance Com­mit­tee, which oppos­es the war, tells In These Times. Biden has no excuse not to heed this call.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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