More than two months after President Joe Biden announced that he would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” his administration has yet to detail what forms of support the U.S. has cut off.
Biden made the commitment in a February address, but he also promised to help defend Saudi Arabia from missile attacks and “threats from Iranian-supplied forces,” an apparent reference to assaults by Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-backed government of Yemen. That left many members of Congress questioning how the administration would distinguish between offensive and defensive military support.
Forty-one progressive members of Congress wrote to Biden asking him to clarify what forms of support he had discontinued and which Trump-era arms sales would be deemed “relevant” to offensive operations. The letter requested a response before March 25, six years to the day after a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched their intervention to defeat the Iranian-backed Houthis. The intervention was supported by the United States, and both the Obama and Trump administrations provided weapons, intelligence, and, until 2018, mid-air refueling support for Saudi aircraft.
But almost two weeks after the deadline, the administration still has not responded to the letter. A spokesperson for the State Department referred The Intercept to the White House. A spokesperson for the White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“Months after enjoying an initial public relations victory by announcing an end to U.S. involvement in offensive Saudi actions in Yemen, the Biden administration has yet to offer any specifics on the nature of previous or current American participation in the Saudi-led war,” said a Democratic aide with knowledge of the letter, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Although the letter expressed support for the administration’s decision, it also asked for a detailed account of what role the Trump administration was playing in the war when Biden took office, which activities would be discontinued, and how the United States would support a diplomatic resolution.
“Congress has repeatedly invoked its constitutional war powers authority by voting to end unconstitutional U.S. participation in this war,” the letter said. “We seek to ensure that the Biden-Harris Administration’s Yemen policy will adhere to the limitations sought by majorities of Congress in the numerous bipartisan votes on this subject.”
The missed deadline comes as many of the same members of Congress are looking for ways to press Saudi Arabia to end its blockade of Yemen. After years of war, Yemen is suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, and aid groups have criticized both sides for impeding the flow of needed goods.
In an interview with CNN earlier this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud denied that there was any blockade, saying, “There is a mechanism with the United Nations to allow ships to enter, and the mechanism is continuing to be applied.” But an investigation by CNN in March found that Saudi warships had held up more than a dozen boats that had been cleared by U.N. inspectors to dock in the vital port city of Hodeidah.
A letter sent Tuesday by Democratic Reps. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Ro Khanna of California, and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin urged the Biden administration to do more to pressure the Saudis to lift the blockade.
Biden is struggling to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship in a way that satisfies the kingdom’s critics in Congress while preserving the longtime alliance.
“We strongly support a comprehensive political settlement that addresses all aspects of the conflict, including a nationwide ceasefire, currency stabilization, and payment of government salaries,” Tuesday’s letter says. “At the same time, a U.S demand to end the blockade must occur independently of negotiations.”
Both letters are a sign that Biden is struggling to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship in a way that satisfies the kingdom’s critics in Congress while preserving the longtime alliance. On the campaign trail, Biden promised that if he were elected, he would “make [Saudi Arabia] in fact the pariah that they are.” As president, he has been far more cautious in his dealings with the kingdom.
This is not the first time that Congress has expressed frustration. In February, after a long-awaited intelligence report found that the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, members of Congress criticized Biden’s decision not to sanction the Saudi leader.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the decision, saying the administration believed that it could hold MBS accountable while preserving “room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement.” But the Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee voted last month to approve a bill that would prohibit MBS and other Saudi officials involved in the killing from entering the U.S.