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At a 2019 Democratic primary debate, candidate Joe Biden pledged to stop U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Once in the White House, in February 2021, President Joe Biden claimed he would end all U.S. support for “offensive operations” in Yemen. And yet, Biden is now backing a proposed $650 million sale of air-to-air missiles and launchers to Saudi Arabia, an apparent betrayal of his campaign-trail promise.
The deal is setting up a fight in the Senate, where Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is planning to force a vote on a joint resolution to block the weapons transfer, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). This would be the first Senate vote on the Yemen war during the Biden administration, and would force Democrats — who opposed the war under former President Donald Trump but have been less legislatively aggressive under the Biden administration — to publicly state their positions.
The Democratic Party rightfully opposed U.S. participation in the Yemen war under Trump, railing against the horrific civilian death toll caused by the Saudi-led coalition and uniting behind a War Powers Resolution to compel an end to the war. (Trump vetoed the resolution in April 2019.) In light of the dismal humanitarian crisis unleashed by the more than six-year-long U.S.-backed war, which has left over half of Yemen’s population without enough to eat, the Biden administration is turning to a peculiar rationale for ongoing U.S. participation. The White House says it is only supporting weapons sales it deems “defensive.”
The missiles proposed in the $650 million deal, a State Department spokesperson said, will only be used for air defense and are therefore “in keeping with the president’s commitment to support the territorial defense of Saudi Arabia.” Such an argument allows the Biden administration to distance itself rhetorically from the well-known abuses of the war while continuing its material support for Saudi Arabia. This is the same war the United States backed during the Obama administration and then under Trump, but Biden now claims to somehow be able to identify, isolate and support only those Saudi actions aimed at protecting — not taking — human life, despite the Saudi-led coalition being responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths.
The argument appears to have purchase with some powerful Democrats, including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who, under the Trump administration, distinguished himself as a leader of efforts to end the Yemen war. Murphy recently told The Intercept that he has not decided whether he will support the Senate vote. “My position generally has been to support truly defensive weapons sales to the Saudis, while opposing sales that could be used in offensive operations, particularly in Yemen,” he told reporter Sara Sirota. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the powerful chair of the House Armed Services Committee, struck a similar note in an interview with The Intercept, saying he agreed with the Biden administration’s reasoning for giving the green light. Given that the U.S.-backed war has largely fallen out of public favor — due in part to such high-profile atrocities as the 2018 bombing of a school bus full of children — Democrats who are not eager to identify their political brand with these acts are likely to lean into this rhetoric about “defense” as the debate heats up.
But, upon closer examination, the distinction between “offensive” and “defensive” Saudi weapons begins to disappear. So-called defensive weapons are part of a military apparatus that is enforcing a brutal blockade, shutting out aid for Yemen and creating a climate of intimidation and fear. The weapons transfer sends a message to Saudi Arabia, at precisely the moment it is refusing to lift its blockade, that U.S. support is unconditional. It enables Saudi Arabia to prolong its deadly incursions.
Since August 2016, air strikes have forced the closure of the Sana’a airport in western Yemen, a reality that persists to this day. As recently as March 2021, Saudi Arabia bombed the runway of the airport, according to the Yemen Data Project. Having a functioning airport is critical for the free flow of commercial products, humanitarian goods, and people. If Saudi Arabia is able to purchase more weapons that it can use to menace those trying to use the airport, this will only strengthen its ability to continue shuttering the transport facility. Air-to-air missiles, after all, can shoot down planes, and given the Saudi coalition’s proven track record of targeting civilians and their infrastructure—including at Sana’a airport — such attacks are certainly not below the Royal Saudi Air Force. Saudi Arabia has created a climate of violence and intimidation that prevents aid workers from even trying to access the airport, whether to move goods or people in and out; air-to-air missiles will only put more tools in its tool belt.
As Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, tells In These Times, “The missiles provide the Saudi-led coalition another tool to enforce the blockade on Yemen by increasing their ability to threaten aircraft trying to land in Sana’a airport.”
It is difficult to overstate the harm caused to Yemeni civilians by the closure of the airport. In August, the aid organizations Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE released a joint statement warning that the closure of the Sana’a airport for five consecutive years “has left stranded at least 32,000 critically ill Yemeni patients in need of life-saving treatment abroad.” The shuttering of the airport, with rare exceptions, “has also led to an almost complete halt to commercial cargo such as medicine, medical supplies and equipment coming into the country,” the statement continues. “Coupled with restrictions on Hodeidah port in western Yemen, this has caused prices of some medicine to double, making it unaffordable for most of the population and further contributing to the decline of Yemen’s health system, already decimated by the conflict.”
The consequences of the airport closure have been catastrophic. Mahmoud Yahyah Ali, quoted in the statement, was unable to leave the country to get his son the medical care he needed. “The airport is next to my house,” he says. “It takes five minutes to reach the airport gate. My son died despite us living at the gate of Sana’a airport.”
The attacks on the airport are just one part of a much larger Saudi-led blockade. “Saudi Arabia threatens any plane or ship that tries to end the blockade with bombing,” says Aisha Jumaan, public health expert and president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, which “aims to increase awareness of the U.S. public and policymakers about the humanitarian crises underway in Yemen.” As she tells In These Times, “That is how they maintain the blockade preventing essential goods from entering Yemen.”
The full machinations of this blockade are largely hidden from the U.S. public. What we do know is that a Saudi-led naval blockade has prevented vital supplies from getting through, including fuel, food and medicine. An estimated 71% of Yemen’s population is in immediate need of humanitarian aid, and the United Nations estimates 233,000 people have died from the war, “including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure.”
In May, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led a letter from 16 senators to the Biden administration. “We request that you leverage all influence and tools available, including the potential impact on pending weapons sales, U.S.-Saudi military cooperation, and U.S.-Saudi ties more broadly, to demand that Saudi Arabia immediately and unconditionally stop the use of blockade tactics,” the group wrote. Of course, the United States shouldn’t be selling weapons to Saudi Arabia in the first place. But if it is going to, the Biden administration does have the option of using such weapons sales as leverage to force an end to the blockade. Such demands assume the Biden administration is sincerely working to end the war, which is a fairly large assumption; regardless, the administration’s failure to deliver on any leverage at all does show just how unconditional the U.S. support really is. Another weapons sale sends a clear message of U.S. support or, at the very least, complicity.
“This is a message of impunity,” says El-Tayyab. “The Saudis are imposing an unlawful blockade on Yemen, and it’s leading to catastrophic impacts for Yemenis.”
But there’s another piece to this puzzle that goes beyond merely failing to use leverage. By giving resources to Saudi Arabia that will protect the ability of the monarchy to continue fighting the war, the United States is, in effect, prolonging the conflict at the expense of Yemenis. First, it is important to establish just how heavy — and asymmetrical — civilian deaths are. In November 2018, the UN Human Rights Office noted the clear majority, or 61.5%, of all civilian casualties were caused by “airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led Coalition.” And these are just deaths due to direct bombings, not the indirect effects of food shortages and the destruction of the medical system. Saudi Arabia has a vastly superior bombing capacity compared with the Houthi rebels (thanks largely to U.S. weapons), and the country has succeeded at containing the war almost entirely within Yemen.
Of course, any civilian deaths are unacceptable, and not one more person should die as a result of this ruthless war. But the United States is effectively co-signing the idea that it is only people in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, who should have to die — that the war should continue to be fought to the last Yemeni. We know this because the United States is not lining up to sell Houthis “defensive” air-to-air weapons — despite the fact that the Saudi side is responsible for the majority of bombings that lead to civilian deaths, and those deaths are happening in Yemen. And we know this because the Biden administration isn’t telling Saudi Arabia to stop the war.
Instead, the weapons deal sends a different message: We support you holding out a little longer, to get the best possible deal with the Houthis, because preventing a Saudi “defeat” is more important than protecting Yemeni lives. As Erik Sperling, the executive director of Just Foreign Policy, puts it, the weapons deal helps “ensure the Saudis do not have to enter a compromise to end the war.”
Such sentiment is perhaps too nasty and brutish to say out loud, so instead, the Biden administration is using the more palatable, humanitarian-sounding language of “defense.” This notion, that one can divide up support for “defensive” and “offensive” operations in the context of an aggressive war, has been a mainstay of the Biden administration’s approach. In February, when Biden claimed he was ending U.S. support for “offensive operations,” he included this important carveout: “We are going to continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.” In reality, the Biden administration continued providing critical spare parts and maintenance for Saudi war planes, and continued with some intelligence sharing, and provided training to the Saudi navy, which is enforcing the blockade.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has repeatedly declined to define exactly what is meant by “offensive” operations, and has failed to offer basic transparency regarding the ongoing U.S. role.
The notion that one can only support “defensive” operations in a brutal war is absurd. The Saudi military does not have one hangar for “defensive” aircrafts and a separate one for “offensive” ones. The pilots deterred from transporting people or goods into or out of Sana’a airport aren’t comforted by the fact that the Biden administration has decided to replenish only the weapons in the Saudi arsenal that are deemed “defensive.” Saudi Arabia has been waging a brutal war with U.S. backing that is so difficult to defend that the Democratic Party turned against it when a Republican was in the White House. Now that a Democrat is back, members of Congress have the opportunity, once again, to take a firm position — not just in strongly worded letters, but by a congressional vote.
Step one requires being clear about the moral stakes of ongoing U.S. support for the Saudi-led war, and dispensing with glossy terms like “defensive” that are meant to put polish on something unforgivable.
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.