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.
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.