The Biden administration is ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, national security adviser Jake Sullivan announced on Thursday. The move, which Biden promised on the campaign trail, marks a shift away from the Trump administration’s Saudi-centric approach to the Middle East, as well as one of the Obama administration’s most controversial foreign-policy legacies.
The U.S. has provided logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led campaign against the Iran-aligned Houthis, even as that campaign has been condemned by human rights groups for a shockingly high number of civilian casualties and for contributing to what is generally considered the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis. Both sides in the conflict have been accused of war crimes.
Trump, who often defended the Saudi government in part because of its U.S. weapons purchases, vetoed a congressional resolution last year that would have cut off U.S. support for the war. Stopping the war has become a major priority and organizing issue for foreign policy progressives over the years. A number of Obama officials, including Sullivan and now-Secretary of State Antony Blinken, later expressed regret about the administration’s role in supporting it. (According to some reports, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was also strongly opposed to the Saudi intervention when he was commander of U.S. Central Command.)
It’s not quite clear yet what the decision will mean in practice. U.S. practical support for the Saudi effort is already more limited than it used to be. Biden may provide some more details in a speech at the State Department on Thursday afternoon. Sullivan also said that Austin will lead a review of U.S. military force deployments around the world. Along with today’s announcement, senior U.S. diplomat Tim Lenderking is also being named as a special envoy for Yemen in an attempt to rescue foundering peace talks in the country.
Also meaningful: Sullivan emphasized in his announcement that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had been informed of the decision before it was announced. This doesn’t mean they’ll be happy about it, but it marks a change from the Trump era when the governments involved were often blindsided by the president’s foreign policy announcements.
Even if the Yemen move ends up being little more than a symbolic gesture, it’s meaningful symbolism. It’s a sign that the new administration has limited tolerance for Saudi Arabia’s foreign-policy adventurism and isn’t that worried about its critics accusing it of being soft on Iran.
Last week, the administration announced a temporary freeze on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia as well as a review of arms sales to the United Arab Emirates, including the $23 billion arms deal that went through in the final days of the Trump administration.
Blinken is also reviewing the last-minute Trump decision to designate the Houthis as a terrorist groups, which humanitarian groups say could hamper the delivery of aid to areas they control. According to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, the decision is likely to be reversed.
In another notable recent development, Biden named Rob Malley, one of the key negotiators of the 2015 nuclear deal, as special U.S. envoy to Iran, despite immediate objections from conservatives that he would be too soft on Tehran.
I wrote in November that Yemen would be an early test of whether Biden team was serious about its promise of a new approach to the Middle East—and to Saudi Arabia in particular. It’s early days, but so far, it appears to be real.