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Biden Needs to End ‘Maximum Pressure’ in Yemen and Beyond

Where to go on foreign policy? The Biden administration can start by staving off a famine in the Mideast's poorest country.

The Biden administration has inherited a long list of foreign policy crises from its predecessor, and it will have to make major changes to U.S. policies toward several countries very quickly if it wants to stop those crises from getting even worse. Some of the most damaging of these policies are the failed “maximum pressure” campaigns that the Trump administration pursued against Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, and the worst by far is the continued support for the Saudi coalition war on Yemen.

In each case, the U.S. has caused or exacerbated humanitarian disasters through the destructive and excessive use of sanctions, and particularly in Yemen the previous administration compounded the initial folly of supporting the war with a cutoff in aid and a terrorist designation of the Houthis that threatens to plunge the country into the worst famine in almost half a century. Biden and his team have early opportunities to repair some of the damage that the U.S. has done over the last four years, and they must not let those opportunities go to waste.

Yemen is the most urgent and dire case, but it is also the one where changes in U.S. policy can have the most immediate positive effect for the civilian population. Biden should reverse the Houthi designation, resume the funding for aid that had been suspended last year, and end all U.S. backing for the coalition. There are already some promising signs that the administration intends to do all of these. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken has indicated that he supports making these changes, and it would be consistent with comments that the president has made in the past. The review of the Houthi designation is already underway at the State Department, and when the humanitarian crisis is taken into account the designation should be reversed.

Twenty-two humanitarian relief organizations have banded together to call for exactly this in a recent statement:

This is why today we make an unprecedented and united call for the Biden administration to immediately revoke the designation. This echoes the urgent calls made by UN leaders during the 14 January United Nations Security Council briefing on Yemen. Revocation is the only effective way to protect Yemeni civilians from the potentially catastrophic humanitarian impact the designation will cause.

The main reason why Yemen has to take precedence over the other crises is that it is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and it threatens to become even more appalling in the coming weeks and months. It is in danger of becoming a full-blown famine that could claim millions of lives, and the people of Yemen have been put in this terrible position in large part by the actions of our government and the governments in the Saudi coalition. We are responsible for much of the harm that has been done to Yemen since 2015, and the Biden administration has a special obligation to end the disastrous policy that began under Obama. At the very least, the U.S. must stop driving Yemen deeper into famine, and ideally our government should be working to pull the country back out of the abyss into which our policies have pushed it. Reversing the Houthi designation is the most pressing action that Biden needs to take, but he also has to put a stop to U.S. involvement in the war as soon as possible.

The destructive effects of “maximum pressure” on the people of Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea are also quite severe. The Biden administration should be trying to dismantle as many of the sanctions on these countries as they can. In all three cases, “maximum pressure” has achieved nothing except to deprive food and medicine from impoverished people that need them. Instead of compelling these states to yield to the previous administration’s maximalist demands, these pressure campaigns have elicited defiance and the problems that they were ostensibly meant to address have all grown more serious.

Iran continues to reduce its compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in response to Trump-era sanctions and Israeli provocations, and it is very likely to continue taking these steps until the U.S. rejoins the agreement and lifts the relevant sanctions. North Korea has no intention of disarming, but even the narrow window for a successful arms control agreement may be closing if the U.S. doesn’t begin showing some flexibility on the question of sanctions relief. The failure in Venezuela is the most obvious, since Maduro not only remains in power, but has actually tightened his grip in the last two years since the U.S. threw its support behind Juan Guaidó. The bankruptcy of “maximum pressure” has been obvious for quite a while, and the U.S. needs to abandon it in every country.

On these other issues, the prospects for constructive change are much more uneven. The Biden administration is publicly committed to rejoining the nuclear deal, but top officials are not treating it with the urgency that they should be. During her confirmation hearing to be Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines said that the administration is a “long ways” from reentering the agreement. Blinken likewise said that “we’re a long way from there.” If Biden takes such a slow approach to salvaging the JCPOA, he may find that Iran won’t wait around much longer to obtain the sanctions relief it was promised almost six years ago.

The report that Biden will name Rob Malley as his special envoy for Iran is a good sign that the president is serious about renewing diplomatic engagement with the country. Malley is an excellent choice for the post, and the fact that Iran hawks are already mobilizing to smear him is proof that they fear that he will be successful in this role. The administration has also taken an encouraging early step to review the impact of sanctions on the ability of targeted countries to bring the pandemic under control, but sanctions relief for these countries needs to be much broader and swifter if the U.S. is to correct its overuse and abuse of economic warfare.

U.S. Venezuela policy seems much less likely to change in the near term. According to Blinken’s remarks during his confirmation hearing, the Biden administration will support Juan Guaidó’s claim to leadership in Venezuela despite the fact that Guaidó is no longer the head of the national assembly there. There are few Trump policies that have failed so thoroughly as the attempted regime change in Venezuela, so it is strange that the Biden administration would remain wedded to it. There is now less international support for Guaidó than there was two years ago, and Guaidó’s approval inside Venezuela has cratered as the effects of sanctions have made life harder for ordinary people in exchange for nothing. There needs to be a break from the “maximum pressure” campaign and a turn towards support for a negotiated solution, but so far there are no signs that this will happen.

North Korea policy is the least promising of the four. Throughout the presidential campaign, Biden emphasized that he disagreed with Trump’s policy because he thought it was too accommodating. There has been no indication from Biden or any of his top officials that they are prepared to settle for a more achievable arms control agreement. Blinken has said that there would be a review of North Korea policy to “look at what options we have, and what can be effective in terms of increasing pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table, as well as what other diplomatic initiatives may be possible.” Framing the problem in terms of increasing pressure to bring North Korea to the table suggests that the Biden administration doesn’t understand that additional pressure isn’t what made Kim Jong-un willing to talk. Far from recognizing the bankruptcy of “maximum pressure,” Biden and his officials seem to think that applying even more pressure will somehow yield better results. If they wish to have more success than their predecessors, they will need to give up on the unrealistic goal of disarmament and the ineffective tool of sanctions. Instead, they should pursue an arms control agreement in the context of supporting South Korea’s policy of engagement with Pyongyang.

Fixing these broken policies will not be easy, and it will take a long time to repair the damage that has been done, but there is no time to waste in beginning the repair work. The most urgent foreign policy priority for the Biden administration in the next few weeks is to stave off famine in Yemen. Biden needs to listen to the aid agencies that have called for the Houthi designation to be undone, and he needs to reverse the designation right away. U.S. policies have pushed Yemen towards famine, and we have a responsibility to stop starving a country whose people have done nothing to us. It is imperative that the Biden administration focus its attention on Yemen early on, because Yemen can’t wait any longer for an end to our indefensible support for the Saudi coalition war and the reversal of Pompeo’s malevolent decision.