January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph
January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph
In Yemen, the Trump administration’s policy had two broad objectives. One was providing strong support to the Saudi-led war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who toppled Yemen’s internationally recognized government in 2014. The other was conducting counterterrorism operations, often in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, against the Yemen-based terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as well as the Yemeni affiliate of the Islamic State. As the war against the Houthis descended into a stalemate, resulting in a high number of civilian casualties and one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, the administration came under mounting congressional pressure to end all support for the Saudi campaign – which the administration largely resisted.
Since their intervention began in 2015, with support from the Obama administration, the Saudis have mostly conducted military operations from the air. The Saudi air campaign has been deeply flawed. It has seen errant and deliberate strikes against what appeared to be largely civilian targets, including hospitals, schools, markets, funerals, and wedding parties. UN investigators accused the Saudis (as well as the Houthi rebels) of committing war crimes, while human rights groups suggested that the United States could be held complicit for providing arms to the kingdom.1
After the October 2018 murder in Istanbul of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by an official Saudi hit team, congressional opposition to the Yemen war escalated significantly. Despite administration efforts to stem the anger by ending U.S. refueling operations for Saudi aircraft, Congress in April 2019 passed a bipartisan resolution to cease all U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis, including advising, intelligence, logistics, and weapons sales. Trump not only vetoed the measure, but a month later, in May 2019, issued a controversial emergency authorization to sell Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates another $8.1 billion in offensive weapons.2
The administration argued that despite the war’s tragedies, the United States should not abandon a longtime partner seeking to prevent the establishment of an Iran-backed terrorist state on its southern border. Over the course of the war, the Houthis have launched hundreds of Iran-supplied ballistic missiles and armed drones against the kingdom, even targeting its capital, Riyadh, as well as an oil pipeline.3
Diplomatically, the administration backed a UN-led peace effort that in December 2018 produced the Stockholm Agreement, an interim deal that involved local ceasefires in key cities, increased humanitarian access, and prisoner exchanges but was never fully implemented. In 2019, the administration reportedly established direct contact with the Houthis in an effort to promote a political settlement.4 The Saudis also stepped up their efforts to find a way out of the conflict, entering into direct discussions with the Houthis in the fall of 2019. After the COVID-19 outbreak, the Saudis declared a unilateral ceasefire in April 2020 in the hope of reviving peace talks but were rebuffed by the Houthis, leading within six weeks to another escalation in fighting. In late December, Riyadh brokered an end to months of infighting between its allies, the Yemeni government and southern separatists, culminating in a new cabinet with more equal representation of northern and southern Yemenis. As members of the new cabinet returned from Saudi Arabia, blasts shook Aden Airport moments after their plane touched down, killing 22 in an attack Riyadh attributed to the Houthis.5
In its final days, the Trump administration was considering designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, based on the group’s attacks against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia. Opponents worried that the move could damage humanitarian efforts and negotiations to end the war.
The Yemen war presented the Trump administration with few good options. Withdrawing U.S. support would have meant abandoning one of America’s most important Middle Eastern partners and risking the consolidation on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep of a Houthi proto-state beholden to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), with a large arsenal of ballistic missiles and drones – in essence, another Lebanese Hezbollah. Supporting the Saudis, however, meant U.S. complicity in the kingdom’s inept prosecution of a costly and messy war that has resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties, widespread humanitarian suffering, and the increasing erosion of congressional support for Saudi Arabia and the U.S.-Saudi partnership.
For all its downsides, Trump’s willingness to stand by the Saudis built trust with the kingdom and contributed to Riyadh’s willingness to advance his policies in other important areas, including support for the historic peace treaties that its two Gulf neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, signed with Israel in September 2020. The administration could also credibly claim that its support helped the kingdom prevent the worst possible outcome from the standpoint of U.S. strategic interests: the establishment of an IRGC outpost on the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, straddling critical maritime passages through the Red Sea.
Unfortunately, Trump’s public handling of the issue made matters worse. Rather than focus on the threat posed to U.S. interests and values by Iranian and Houthi aggression, massive human rights abuses, war crimes, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism, Trump tended to explain his approach in purely transactional terms, repeatedly citing the fact that the Saudis spent billions of dollars on U.S. weapons.6 Comparatively, he rarely acknowledged the war’s humanitarian toll, the need for improved Saudi targeting, or the imperative for a political settlement. Rather than addressing legitimate congressional concerns, Trump’s style was largely to disregard them, thereby further enflaming opposition and anti-Saudi sentiment.
In light of the war’s significant costs and risks, both in human lives and geopolitically, a compelling case could be made that the United States should have been more engaged in helping advance a diplomatic settlement. Especially given the kingdom’s own growing recognition that its interests require extracting itself from Yemen’s military quagmire, the administration may have been better served by devoting greater priority to finding a political solution.
Despite all of this, U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen saw important successes. Even as U.S. airstrikes declined from a peak of 131 in 2017, U.S. and UAE operations continued to attrite AQAP’s leadership and deny the group further territory. Among the top commanders eliminated were Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s chief bombmaker, in 2018; Jamal al-Badawi, who was involved in the USS Cole bombing, in 2019; and Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of AQAP, in 2020.7 The State Department warned that “AQAP retained areas of influence inside Yemen,”8 though the group was pushed back by Yemeni and UAE-supported security forces. Nevertheless, the threat of its resurgence remains. The AQAP-linked terrorist attack that killed three U.S. sailors in Pensacola was a potent reminder of the group’s continued threat to the homeland.9
- Intensify U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach a ceasefire and political settlement. Given Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in an exit strategy, new opportunities may exist for U.S. leadership, working closely with the United Nations, Saudis, Emiratis, other influential states in the region, Europe, and the warring Yemeni actors, to help reconvene serious negotiations. The Biden administration should consider designating a U.S. special envoy for Yemen. A sustained U.S. effort to advance a diplomatic solution, with full Saudi cooperation and backing, could also help mitigate growing congressional frustration.
- Take seriously congressional concerns with the war and Saudi behavior, without abandoning Yemen to Iran or sabotaging the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The Biden administration needs to work closely with Congress to recalibrate U.S. strategy. It should highlight the threats posed to critical U.S. interests by Iran and the Houthis, and the importance of the United States serving as a reliable ally that stands by longtime partners like the Saudis in containing Iranian imperialism. The administration should also emphasize Saudi Arabia’s genuine interest in ending the war and promoting U.S. diplomacy to support a political settlement.
- Increase efforts to improve Saudi targeting and reduce civilian casualties. Though progress on this front has been woeful, the effort should continue. The shortcomings of the current U.S. program should be evaluated and necessary changes made to improve its effectiveness. The White House and U.S. military leaders should send a strong and consistent message to Saudi leadership that their efforts to prevent civilian casualties need dramatic improvement.
- Maintain counterterrorism operations with Gulf allies. The contingent of U.S. forces in Yemen plays a critical role in keeping AQAP, one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups with ongoing ambitions to strike the United States, at bay and on the defensive. The small U.S. footprint is a relatively low-cost but highly effective means of defending vital U.S. interests and lives.
- Nick Cumming-Bruce, “War Crimes Committed by Both Sides in Yemen, U.N. Panel Says,” The New York Times, September 3, 2019. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/world/middleeast/war-crimes-yemen.html)
- “Yemen war: Trump vetoes bill to end US support for Saudi-led coalition,” BBC News (UK), April 17, 2019. (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47958014); Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch, “Pompeo’s Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia Were Legal—but Heightened Risks of Civilian Casualties in Yemen,” Foreign Policy, August 11, 2020. (https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/08/11/trump-gulf-pompeo-arms-sales-saudi-arabia-civilian-casualties-yemen-state-department)
- Vivian Yee, “Yemen’s Houthi Rebels Attack Saudi Oil Facilities, Escalating Tensions in Gulf,” The New York Times, May 14, 2019. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/world/middleeast/saudi-oil-attack.html)
- Dion Nissenbaum and Warren P. Strobel, “U.S. Plans to Open Direct Talks With Iran-Backed Houthis in Yemen,” The Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2019. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-plans-to-open-direct-talks-with-iran-backed-houthis-in-yemen-11566898204)
- Mohammed Mukhasaf, “Saudi-led coalition strikes at Yemen capital after attacks on Aden blamed on Houthis,” Reuters, December 31, 2020. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-attacks/saudi-led-coalition-strikes-at-yemen-capital-after-attacks-on-aden-blamed-on-houthis-idUSKBN2950YU)
- Dion Nissenbaum, “Trump Greets Visiting Saudi Prince With a Crowded Agenda,” The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2018. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-to-greet-visiting-saudi-prince-with-a-crowded-agenda-1521561403); The White House, Press Statement, “Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia,” November 20, 2018. (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-donald-j-trump-standing-saudi-arabia)
- Eric Schmitt, “Killing of Terrorist Leader in Yemen Is Latest Blow to Qaeda Affiliate,” The New York Times, February 10, 2020. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/us/politics/al-qaeda-yemen-qassim-al-rimi.html); Felicia Sonmez, “Key USS Cole bombing suspect Jamal al-Badawi killed in U.S. airstrike, Trump says,” The Washington Post, January 6, 2019. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/jamal-al-badawi-who-led-attack-on-uss-cole-killed-in-us-airstrike-trump-says/2019/01/06/d6ceef78-11c8-11e9-b6ad-9cfd62dbb0a8_story.html)
- U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Yemen,” June 24, 2020. (https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/yemen)
- Thomas Joscelyn, “The Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooter Shows That Al-Qaeda Is Still a Significant Threat,” The Dispatch, May 20, 2020. (https://vitalinterests.thedispatch.com/p/the-naval-air-station-pensacola-shooter)