At the November 2019 Democratic presidential primary debate, a visibly angry Joe Biden stared into the crowd and boldly promised that, as President, he would make the Saudis “the pariah that they are” and refuse to “sell more weapons to them.” Echoing those sentiments in his first major speech on foreign policy as President, Biden declared in early February 2021 that the U.S. would end “support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen.”
Yet, seven months after Biden’s inauguration, many aspects of the promised “recalibration” in the U.S.-Saudi relationship have been, at best, purely cosmetic. Even more worrisome is that many of the most harmful policies of the Trump era — offering critical maintenance for Saudi aircraft that have repeatedly been used to bomb civilian targets in Yemen, supporting Saudi Arabia’s efforts to use the blockade of Yemen as a cruel bargaining chip to extract unrealistic concessions from the Houthis, and letting Mohammed bin Salman go unpunished for his approval of the Khashoggi assassination plot and other malign actions — have continued under the Biden administration. In failing to substantively change U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration has done little to dispel the notion that Saudi leaders can behave brazenly and with impunity as they did under Trump.
When accurately noting that President Biden has largely failed to live up to his promises regarding the U.S.’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, many commentators have asserted that the Biden administration is prioritizing American interests over concerns regarding human rights and the rule of law and attempting to preserve a working relationship with Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the heir apparent to the Saudi throne. The assumption that essentially maintaining the status quo in the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a necessary evil fails to recognize that continuing to greenlight the crown prince’s reckless and destabilizing policies will do serious harm to core U.S. interests in the decades to come.
The consequences of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen — which has received support from the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations — are a perfect example of the ways in which ignoring Saudi Arabia’s grave human rights abuses and providing unwavering support for MBS’s destructive foreign policy decisions has directly harmed key U.S. national interests. After President Obama made the ill-advised decision to begin U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in the spring of 2015, President Trump, who primarily viewed Yemen as merely another arena for his campaign against Iran, increased U.S. support for the coalition and vetoed historical bipartisan legislation aimed at limiting U.S. involvement in Yemen on multiple occasions. By providing unwavering support for Saudi Arabia and its brutal intervention in Yemen, the Trump administration’s subservience to the Saudis made a mockery of American rhetoric regarding human rights and the rule of law. It also encouraged MBS to make reckless decisions that seriously undermined core U.S. interests by destabilizing the region and allowing Iran to cheaply expand its influence.
When the Saudis initiated their campaign in Yemen, portrayed by MBS as a sectarian proxy war against Iran, Iran’s presence in Yemen and relationship with the Houthis was relatively insignificant. As the Houthis were isolated and looking for support after the intervention began, however, the Houthis and Iranians formed an alliance of convenience and trapped the Saudis in a costly quagmire. Ultimately, the Saudi intervention, which broke with the kingdom’s traditionally risk-averse approach to foreign policy, made the idea of the Houthis as an Iranian proxy something of a self-fulfilling prophecy and allowed Iran to greatly expand its presence in Yemen and its ties with the Houthis.
The horrific humanitarian impact of the Saudi-led intervention — which includes over 230,000 deaths, the displacement of 4 million Yemenis, and numerous alleged war crimes carried out with munitions provided by the U.S. — has destabilized Yemen and helped create conditions that foster anti-American extremism and benefit Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). When innocents are killed by American bombs dropped from American-made planes that are kept in the air by American contractors, Yemeni civilians understandably associate the U.S with the carnage being imposed on them from above. In addition, AQAP, a group that is aligned with anti-Houthi militias and was fought by the Houthis prior to the intervention, continues to benefit from the security and governance vacuums caused by the war as well as the Saudi focus on defeating the Houthis rather than AQAP.
With all this in mind, it is a strategic and moral necessity for the U.S. to use its unique leverage to pressure the Saudis to end their blockade and negotiate a peace settlement from a position that reflects reality on the ground in Yemen. The Houthis have the upper hand and control 80% of the Yemeni population. Rather than attempting to help the Saudis win a war that they have lost, the Biden administration must push for a negotiated end to the war that improves conditions for civilians in Yemen and reduces instability. The Biden administration should immediately end U.S. contractor support for Saudi aircraft, suspend all arms sales to the Kingdom, and use the threat of withdrawing more U.S. troops from the Gulf to put additional pressure on the Saudis.
As horrific and destabilizing as issues like the Saudi intervention in Yemen are, they are only individual parts of a broader trend in Saudi behavior that has consistently undermined American interests and values. Moving forward, the U.S. must make it clear that Saudi Arabia will no longer receive special treatment from the U.S. and that the U.S. military has no obligation to underwrite the crown prince’s reckless foreign policy. With the U.S. less dependent on Gulf oil than at any point since the “oil for security” arrangement began, the U.S. does not need a special relationship with the Saudis; it needs to reduce its outsized footprint in the Middle East while preventing further destabilization in the region. The current nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship undermines that key objective. If President Biden does not learn from the mistakes of his predecessors and pressure MBS to radically alter his foreign policy and behave in ways that advance the primary U.S. interest in the Middle East — stability — an emboldened and reckless Saudi Arabia will only continue to harm U.S. interests.