The World

How Biden Could Prove His Administration Isn’t Just Obama 2.0

A new approach to Saudi Arabia and Yemen would show he’s interested in more than just a return to the pre-Trump status quo.

Biden speaks with two Saudi officials on the tarmac while walking away form Air Force II.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal welcomes U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Riyadh airbase on Oct. 27, 2011. Getty Images

So far, the members of Joe Biden’s foreign policy team are all veterans of Barack Obama’s administration. They’ve pledged to revive Obama-era initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement that Donald Trump tried to undo, as well as recommit to long-term U.S. alliances. Some U.S. foreign policy critics from the left and the libertarian right are less than fully enthusiastic about this team. They don’t particularly relish a return to the approach that led to the intervention in Libya, a ramped-up drone war, and a troop surge in Afghanistan, and are concerned that all the talk of “America is back” broadly suggests an embrace of the interventionist worldview that predated Trump.

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Progressive concerns about the more hawkish views of Michèle Flournoy (Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna is one representative example), who was thought to be a shoo-in for secretary of defense, are reportedly one reason why that position has not yet been announced. During the Obama years, Flournoy supported (in opposition to Biden) the troop surge in Afghanistan and the Libya interventions.

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Journalist Robert Wright, who in his newsletter has been grading Biden’s foreign policy team using a “progressive realism report card,” gave secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken a C-, noting his past support for military force and hawkish rhetoric on Russia. (Blinken was good-natured about Wright’s criticism, which, if nothing else, suggests a change of pace from the thin-skinned Mike Pompeo.) Not everyone is disappointed; Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders and a leading left-wing voice on foreign policy in Washington, praised the Blinken pick, and there’s more enthusiasm for Biden’s choice for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who played a key early role in negotiating the Iran deal.

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But it’s fair to say that Biden will face pressure from increasingly prominent non-interventionist voices in Washington to do more than return to the Obama-era status quo.

We won’t have to wait long for the first test of whether the administration might actually represent something new in foreign policy. Biden’s team will soon need to address the question of the war in Yemen and U.S. support for Saudi Arabia more broadly. It’s an area where the U.S. has a significant amount of leverage, meaning Biden could signal a change of course with a single order, and where a new approach would have a significant amount of support.

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Under Obama, the U.S. sold $112 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, and despite some misgivings—usually expressed in quotes to the media by anonymous administration officials—provided logistical support to the Saudi-led war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. This was widely seen at the time as a concession to the Saudis, who were instrumental to the Iran nuclear deal, but the Obama team did more than just turn a blind eye to the Saudi campaign. On a visit to Riyadh in 2015 to help set up a coordination center for the air campaign, Blinken, then deputy secretary of state, told reporters that “Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force.”

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In the final months of 2016, when media reports about civilian casualties, war crimes, and widespread famine in Yemen became impossible to ignore, the Obama administration finally began to back away from the war, blocking a sale of Raytheon guided munitions kits over concerns about civilian casualties. At that point, it was little more than a symbolic gesture since the Trump team quickly doubled down on U.S. support for the Saudis just a few months later. A number of former Obama officials have since expressed regret for the U.S. role in creating Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe. These include Blinken, Sullivan, and Biden’s UN ambassador nominee, Linda Thomas Greenfield, who both signed on to a 2018 letter from former Obama officials denouncing the war.

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During the Trump years, when the president was unwavering in his support for the Saudis, Yemen emerged as a galvanizing issue for anti-war activists and politicians. The campaign to cut off U.S. support gained momentum in 2018 after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey and a string of incidents in Yemen including the bombing of a schoolbus that killed 26 children. In 2019, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution to invoke the War Powers Act to cut off U.S. support for the war, and then another set of bills that would block U.S. munitions sales to Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates. Trump vetoed both.

Biden has pledged to “end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen” and will almost certainly take some actions toward that end, but that could mean a few different things. Biden could wait for Congress to pass another bill cutting off U.S. support of the war, or he could act more quickly and decisively by ending U.S. logistical support and intelligence sharing via executive action.

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Then there’s the question of arms sales. Flournoy has argued that rather than fully ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. should put conditions on their use. She also draws a distinction between offensive weapons and defensive systems like the Patriot missiles the Saudis use to intercept Houthi missile and drone attacks. As the American Prospect has reported, this stance raised eyebrows among foreign policy progressives given her reported work with defense contractors during the Trump years.

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There’s also the question of whether the administration will restrict future weapons sales, or also review sales that are already in the pipeline. On election day, the Trump administration formally notified Congress of a plan to sell 50 F-35 fighter jets to the UAE as part of a $23 billion arms deal. Blinken has said the Biden administration will “take a hard look” at that deal, citing the need to preserve Israel’s military edge in the region.

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Given the Saudi-led coalition’s reliance on American weaponry, cutting arms sales would go a long way toward ending the conflict in Yemen, but advocates say the administration could also go further by committing to stalled diplomatic efforts to end the war and humanitarian efforts to address the suffering of a country which the U.N. has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. (In addition to widespread malnutrition,  the country is facing a devastating COVID outbreak.) Because of its role in the war, the U.S. has both more responsibility and more leverage when it comes to ending it.

Beyond Yemen, it’s less clear if the Biden administration is planning a larger re-think of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Blinken said the Biden team would “undertake a strategic review of our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia to make sure that it is truly advancing our interests and is consistent with our values.” Biden was more blunt in a primary debate last year, saying in response to a question about the Khashoggi killing, “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

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Statements like that should be taken with a grain of salt. American candidates tend to talk tough about the kingdom on the campaign trail and then change their tune when they get into office. This includes Trump, who denounced the Saudis for supporting terrorism and throwing “gays off buildings” during his 2016 campaign, then fully embraced them as president.

Biden is unlikely to give the Saudis the same pass as Trump on human rights issues, and the two countries are going to be in conflict if Biden follows through on plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. (The Saudi U.N. envoy told Fox News last week that he didn’t believe Biden would be “naïve enough” to rejoin the deal.) But is an institutionalist like Biden really going to jettison a country that’s been a close, though problematic, U.S. ally for 75 years?

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The Trump administration and the Saudis may also take some steps in the next few weeks to box Biden in. The Trump administration has signaled it wants to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, which could make negotiations to end the war trickier. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman also recently played host to both Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (The Saudis have denied, not very convincingly, that Netanyahu was there.) If Saudi Arabia follows in the UAE and Bahrain’s footsteps by normalizing relations with Israel, it might make the incoming administration less inclined to get tough. The killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist on Friday could also complicate Biden’s plans to rejoin the nuclear deal.

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Still, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is not going to be what it was, and not only because it’s harder to picture Biden doing a sword dance in Riyadh. Because of changes in international energy markets, Saudi Arabia’s oil production gives it less leverage over the U.S. economy than it used to enjoy. And after Mohamed bin Salman’s adventurism over the last few years, it’s harder for the Saudis to make the case for themselves as guarantors of regional stability. Last year’s legislation showed that the bipartisan support for a close U.S.-Saudi relationship isn’t what it used to be. The Trump administration saw Saudi Arabia as a key ally in a larger regional conflict against Iran, but pressuring Tehran is not going to be as much of a priority for the Biden team.

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Biden’s approach so far may look like Obama 2.0, but it’s notoriously hard to predict a president’s foreign policy before he takes office. George W. Bush ran as a skeptic of nation-building before launching an ill-fated crusade to remake the Middle East through force. Obama ran as a critic of U.S. military interventions before ramping up U.S. overt and covert counterterrorism operations around the world. Biden’s foreign policy, too, may end up looking very different than what both critics and supporters expect now. His approach to Yemen and Saudi Arabia could be our first chance to see what it will look like.

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