This month marks the one-year anniversary of Joe Biden’s promise to end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” The announcement, among other things, represented a major public relations victory for the administration just weeks into its first term. Hailed, perhaps for good reason, as a “dramatic” shift in America’s foreign policy and a clear break with the course pursued by Donald Trump, it’s today unclear how much, if anything, has qualitatively changed.
Though Biden’s statement generally scanned as unequivocal — and was widely reported as such — it also included a passing mention of continued US support for Saudi Arabia in a defensive capacity. As the Intercept’s Alex Emmons noted last April, the administration consequently offered few details about how it actually planned to distinguish defense from offense, the upshot of which was that forty members of Congress were compelled to send an open letter asking for clarity.
In its much-delayed reply, the State Department effectively stonewalled: offering few new details about its attitude toward future arms sales or how exactly it proposed to delineate between offensive and defensive support — leaving one Democratic signatory to lament what he called a “disappointing non-answer from the Biden administration.” As Representative Peter DeFazio told the Intercept in May:
It’s been months since I pressed them for answers on how they plan to end ‘offensive operations’ aiding the Saudi-led coalition, and what legal authority they have to continue U.S. involvement in a conflict that has not been authorized by Congress — as required under the Constitution . . . Yet the Saudi blockade of Yemen and the resulting humanitarian crisis continue to linger on with no end in sight. It’s disheartening to receive such a contrived response from the State Department, and I will continue to press for actual answers.
Three months ago, as Biden backed an arms sale to Saudi Arabia worth $650 million, the administration was continuing to obfuscate with similar appeals to “defense” — a posture which, as In These Times’ Sarah Lazare recently put it, enables the White House “to distance itself rhetorically from the well-known abuses of the war while continuing its material support for Saudi Arabia.” At present, that support includes continued arms sales but also the provision of logistics and maintenance for the Saudi air force and various forms of cooperation with its navy, rendering the already flimsy distinction between offensive and defensive operations transparently bunk.
As House member Tom Malinowski fairly put it last week while introducing a new bill that aims to reign in American military cooperation with the Saudis: “When you’ve got Saudi aircraft . . . killing dozens and dozens of civilians in strikes that appear to be completely unjustifiable, using planes that are kept in the air under a contract approved by the U.S. government, I think we have an obligation to look at what we’re doing.”
Amidst it all, of course, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has continued. According to recent estimates from the United Nations (UN), the conflict has now killed at least 370,000 people — an astonishing 70 percent of them children, many of whom have died as a result of famine or preventable disease. The UN World Food Programme, meanwhile, says that nearly half of Yemen’s population, or some 16.2 million people, are currently food insecure. According to the UN Refugee Agency, millions have also been displaced or forced to flee.
It’s a deep and unthinkable humanitarian crisis, and it’s one that has America’s fingerprints all over it. Roughly one year ago, the administration’s apparent pivot won it an astonishing media coup — and no doubt gave many reason to believe that a more humane foreign policy was on the way. The anniversary is thus a good occasion for media outlets to rethink how they report on sweeping declarations from the White House about any significant policy shift. It’s also, more importantly, yet another reminder of the noxious bipartisan overlap between many Democratic and Republican leaders when it comes to global affairs, however they may rhetorically choose to frame US involvement in wars abroad.
Luke Savage is a staff writer at Jacobin.
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