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Joe Biden’s Good Start on Yemen

The president acts swiftly to avert famine and end U.S. involvement in the destruction of a country.

Some of the Biden administration’s most significant changes to U.S. foreign policy have already happened in just the first three weeks of the new president’s term, and they involve correcting the Yemen policy errors of previous administrations. Almost six years after U.S. support for the Saudi coalition war on Yemen began, Biden finally ended our involvement in the attack on Saudi Arabia’s poorer neighbor. The day after the president made that announcement, the State Department confirmed that Secretary Blinken would be reversing the designation of the Houthis that Mike Pompeo imposed in the closing days of Trump’s term. These decisions reflect the administration’s recognition of the need to make Yemen a high priority, and they are the result of years of determined activism by a left-right alliance of opponents of the war that put the U.S. role in the war on Yemen at the top of the agenda. There is still a great deal of work to be done to end all of the fighting in Yemen, but Biden has already acted swiftly to avert famine and end U.S. involvement in the destruction of the country. Biden will need to build on that good start if his administration is going to be able to repair the damage that his predecessors caused.

The Biden administration’s early actions on Yemen also mark a break with both Obama and Trump on U.S. dealings with the Saudis and the UAE. Previous administrations “reassured” and indulged these governments, but this one has started off by reducing support for them and rejecting their preferences. The swift changes to Yemen policy suggest that the Biden administration may be responsive to grassroots pressure to end U.S. involvement in other foreign wars as well. These actions also show that Biden intends his presidency to be something more than a third term of the Obama administration. To Biden’s credit, he seems willing to end destructive policies that Obama initiated, and he and his top officials seem to have learned from at least some of the mistakes of that presidency.

Overturning the Houthi designation was an important early test for Biden and Blinken, and fortunately for the people of Yemen they made the right decision. Pompeo’s decision to list the Houthis as both a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and special global designated terrorists was done at the last minute as a favor to the Saudis and the UAE, and it had nothing to do with U.S. security. The Houthis are responsible for war crimes, and they have launched attacks on Saudi Arabia in response to the bombing campaign, but that doesn’t warrant these designations. Technically speaking, the Houthis shouldn’t be included on the FTO list because they don’t threaten the U.S. and they don’t sponsor international acts of terrorism. The most important reason for delisting them is that putting them on the list ran the risk of causing the worst famine in decades.

Pompeo added the Houthis to the list despite a chorus of warnings from the U.N. and humanitarian aid agencies that the sanctions that go with these designations would be a death sentence for millions of Yemenis. The mere possibility of the designation had already caused food imports to decline last fall. The Biden administration’s issuance of a license in January to suspend most of the effects of the sanctions helped to buy time while they reviewed the designation, but only a full reversal was sufficient to restore confidence among importers and banks that it was safe to do business in Houthi-controlled territory. Biden needs to follow this up by restoring full humanitarian assistance in northern Yemen, because there are already some parts of the country that fell into famine-like conditions before the designation was put in place.

Biden’s actions on Yemen have elicited predictable criticism from discredited Iran hawks, but in objecting to these moves the hawks are proving how ghoulish and indefensible the earlier policies were. Inveterate hard-liner Michael Doran blasted Biden in a Wall Street Journal op-ed just for reviewing the Houthi designation: “One of his first moves was to announce a review of the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization. Iran is building up the Houthis as a Yemeni counterpart to Hezbollah.” Had it not been for the war, Iranian influence in Yemen would be far less than it is, and even now it is preposterous to describe the Houthis as a “counterpart” to Hezbollah. What Doran fails to mention at any point is that Yemen suffers from the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and that the terrorism designation could have doomed millions of innocents to death from famine. No doubt he and other Iran hawks deliberately ignore the humanitarian disaster that their preferred policy has created because there is no way that they can justify the staggering cost. Reversing Pompeo’s malevolent decision was clearly the right and decent thing to do, and the fact that Iran hawks are offended by it drives home how morally and strategically bankrupt their position is.

The debate over the Houthi designation reflects the larger problem with the Yemen debate that we have in the U.S. Hawks keep trying to make a debate over Yemen policy into an extension of their obsession with Iran. This inevitably distorts their view of the country and the war and blinds them to the severe human cost of backing the Saudi coalition. Almost six years after the intervention began, we are still treated to the same nonsense about the importance of supporting “allies” as they lay waste to one of the poorest countries in the world. Even if the Saudis and Emiratis were really our allies, the U.S. would have been wrong to support their campaign in Yemen. As it is, their brutality and atrocities have shown us that they are terrible clients and can’t be trusted with U.S.-made weapons. Cutting off arms sales to war criminals shouldn’t be controversial, but as long as the war criminals are anti-Iranian there will always be some people in Washington willing to defend and support them no matter what they do.

Ever since the Saudi-led intervention began in 2015, supporters of the war have dutifully parroted the coalition’s line that they attacked Yemen to oppose Iranian influence. This was propaganda from the start, and it has only become more absurd over time. Iranian influence was negligible, but it has increased because of the Saudi-led intervention. Had there been no intervention, it is likely that Iranian influence would not have increased as much as it has. Regardless, waging an atrocious war on Yemeni civilians really has nothing to do with hurting the Iranian government, and even if it did it would come at such an appallingly high cost in innocent lives that it would be indefensible. The Saudis and the UAE intervened because they wanted to impose their will on Yemen and reinstall a pliable ruler in Sanaa, and they are no closer to achieving their goals today than they were when they started.

U.S. policy towards Yemen has been dominated by two distorting obsessions for the last twenty years. The first was the “war on terror” that reduced the country to little more than one of the many places that the U.S. bombed periodically in the name of fighting Al Qaeda. The second has been the obsession with Iran that ignores the local roots of the conflict and tries to shoehorn Yemeni political disagreements into a convenient, cartoonish “proxy” war framing. In all of this, the U.S. has treated Yemenis as expendable, and most policymakers have been oblivious or indifferent to the catastrophic effects that this treatment has had on the people of Yemen. If we are to have a constructive, effective Yemen policy that helps to stabilize the country and bring it back from the abyss, it will have to place the country and its people at the center. There have been some encouraging signs in the last week that the Biden administration is starting to do that, and they will need to be pushed to continue doing more of this in the coming years.

Ending U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen is not a panacea, but it is a necessary first step to bringing the war to a close. It is unfortunate that it has taken nearly six years to reach this point. The previous administration deserves a lot of the blame for refusing to do in four years what it took Biden two weeks to do. The devastation of six years of war will not be easily or quickly repaired, and it will take sustained engagement from the U.S. to help fix what our government did so much to break. Having contributed to much to the wrecking and starvation of Yemen, the U.S. has an obligation to do what we can to help Yemenis to rebuild and recover.