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The Daily 202: Biden’s Yemen policy breaks with Obama. There may be more daylight to come.

By February 13, 2021News, Print

As published by Washington Post by Olivier Knox Feb. 5, 2021 at 9:50 a.m. MST

with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Today, we look at Biden’s new direction on the war in Yemen. But don’t miss the latest on Trump’s impeachment trial, Biden’s nominations, coronavirus vaccines and variants. Sometimes local or regional news is national news in disguise, so send me your most interesting items from outside the Beltway.And tell your friends to sign up here.

Barack Obama began U.S. cooperation with the Saudi-led war in Yemen, fueling what is now the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” Donald Trump’s unstinting instincts were to deepen it, even as his administration pared back some key elements. President Biden announced Thursday he’s keeping a campaign pledge and ending America’s five-year involvement.

The news came in the Delaware Democrat’s first foreign policy speech since taking office, a whirlwind 20-minute rhetorical world tour in which he promised a hard line on China and Russia but did not mention North Korea, Afghanistan, or the Iran nuclear deal.

Biden also left open the future of U.S.-Saudi relations more broadly, which are under review. Trump’s immediate and full-throated support for the kingdom’s operations in Yemen, which Obama had come to criticize sharply by late 2016, showed his eagerness to court an ally central to his plans to confront Iran.

President Biden addresses State Department staff on Thursday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock).
President Biden addresses State Department staff on Thursday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock). (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Biden’s decision on Yemen turns the page on a tragic legacy left by the man he served as vice president for eight years and frequently invoked on the campaign trail. It’s also a hint of how the president might break from Obama even after filling the foreign policy ranks of his administration with familiar faces from 2009 through 2017. AD

Obama and Biden both took office facing daunting economic crises dominating the domestic agendas of their early days, each with Democratic majorities in Congress. While Biden’s majority is slimmer, he has thus far seemed to heed progressive warnings not to repeat the errors of 2009, when Obama courted GOP votes by watering down his economic stimulus package. The final Obama legislation drew just three Republican senators. Now, Biden has shown some willingness to negotiate on his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package while still saying he’s ready to act with only Democratic support.

Biden’s top national security and foreign policy aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will meet today at the White House for a conversation expected to focus on Iran and the president’s promise to reenter and strengthen the nuclear deal with Tehran. “The meeting today is part of an ongoing policy review. It is not decisional,” meaning no specific policy recommendation was expected, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Twitter.

The president has the greatest latitude on foreign policy  and the freedom now not just to break with Trump’s approach but embrace a different strategy than Obama. Already, Biden has become the first president in years to take office not explicitly promising better relations with Russia. And his tough talk on China suggests another area in which the two Democratic administrations will differ.AD

As a senator, Biden was all over the map on the use of military action, voting against the 1991 resolution authorizing the Gulf War and in favor of authorizing George W. Bush to use force ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But as Obama’s vice president, Biden was fiercely skeptical of U.S. military action, especially in Afghanistan.

He was regularly described as the loudest voice warning against the late 2009 “surge” of troops there — even faxing a long-hand memo on the subject to the commander-in-chief at one point.

At the State Department on Thursday, Biden did not flesh out his philosophy for when he would use American military might. Instead, he declared “diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”

Of Yemen, he said, “this war has to end … and to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”AD

The president’s announcement of an end to U.S. support for military operations seemed heavily symbolic. At its height, that effort had included providing intelligence logistical help as well as arms sales in the billions of dollars to the Saudi-led coalition, as well as airborne refueling that made possible strikes deeper in Yemeni territory.

The refueling stopped in late 2018. And my colleagues Anne Gearan, John Hudson, and Missy Ryan report:

“According to Mick Mulroy, who served as a top Pentagon official on the Middle East during the Trump administration, the only military support that remained was U.S. coaching of Saudi officials, a program intended to reduce civilian casualties, and intelligence sharing focused on Houthi threats against the Persian Gulf kingdom.”

Biden did not say which arms sales were “relevant,” though the administration has paused a package of weapons Trump intended for the United Arab Emirates, a key Saudi ally.

And he left undefined the full scope of what operations fell into the “offensive” category. The Saudi-helmed coalition maintains a blockade of Yemeni ports, which humanitarian groups charge has worsened the catastrophic conditions afflicting the population. But it’s unclear whether and how the United States supports it.

A Yemeni walks through debris of a destroyed building targeted by a Saudi-led airstrike a day after President Biden ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. (Yaha Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
A Yemeni walks through debris of a destroyed building targeted by a Saudi-led airstrike a day after President Biden ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. (Yaha Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Asked to flesh out the definition of “offensive,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House “it extends to the types of offensive operations that have perpetuated a civil war in Yemen that has led to a humanitarian crisis.”
And “examples of that include two arms sales of precision-guided munitions that the President has halted, that were moving forward at the end of the last administration,” Sullivan said.AD

At the onset of hostilities in March 2015, Obama’s National Security Council declared the U.S. “the United States strongly condemns ongoing military actions taken by the Houthis,” Iranian-linked rebels. By late 2016, the NSC was emphasizing “U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check” while expressing “serious concerns” about how Riyadh was waging the war.

In between, the world watched with anguish as attacks by both sides pushed the civilian death toll upward. In some notable incidents, airstrikes rained on a packed Yemeni school bus or a crowded funeral.

In Congress, those incidents fed growing concerns about just what America was abetting. The killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul added fresh worries Riyadh was reckless.

But it was never enough to fully stop the assistance, leading Biden to act. 

A measure of the symbolic value of his announcement could be drawn from the fact that the Saudis announced the start of their military operations in Yemen in March 2015 from their embassy in Washington.