Biden’s Yemen Policy Won’t Work Any Better Than Trump’s

The Biden administration has announced an end for U.S. support to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen, just as it’s also reversing a Trump administration designation of one of the main warring parties—the Houthis—as a terrorist organization. “This war has to end,” the new president intoned. It is a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” Indeed it is; but that has little to do with either U.S. support or with the designation of the Houthis as terrorists. Sadly for the people of Yemen, the Biden move is little more than foreign policy kabuki, with no intention of addressing the underlying problem of Yemenis dying. Rather, it represents yet another manipulation of the small Red Sea nation as a pawn in the American tactical game in the Middle East.

First, Yemen: A messy conflict has grown out of a messy country, built on a messy post-Cold War unification of North and South Yemen. While it’s tempting to blame one sect or another, one party or another, one meddler or another, there is no reason to choose. There is sufficient blame to go around. The country’s bankrupt leadership—reviled for many of the same reasons most governments in the Arab world are unpopular—ensured that the spoils of leadership, such as they are, remained in the hands of tribal cronies. And in the breezes of the Arab Spring, an ousted leader (Ali Abdullah Saleh) decided to team up with an aggrieved minority (the Houthis) to upend their president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi, in turn, looked to the government of Saudi Arabia for relief in 2015. Thus began the latest chapter of conflict.

A desperately poor nation to start, shortchanged by the petroleum gods, Yemen’s troubles are a potent mix of religious, political, economic and regional battles that have never been addressed, either by outside parties or leaders at home. Instead, the many fissures that cleave the country have become opportunities for outsiders to further their own great game. In the 1960s, the Egyptians were there, to their regret. The Soviets got little joy out of their proxies in southern Yemen. And Americans will remember the bombing of the USS Cole from Yemen by al-Qaeda in 2000, a harbinger of the 9/11 attacks. Then there was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born charismatic Salafi preacher and a key leader within al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch who still inspires attacks. He’s been dead since 2011, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader was recently captured, but the group still makes its home in the nation’s rugged southwest. ISIS is there too.

Then there are the Houthis, Zaydi Shiites (a different sect than that which rules Iran) who now control the capital of Sanaa plus nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s largely Sunni population. They are armed and managed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. For Iran, Yemen’s Shiites are no humanitarian cause; they represent an opportunity to attack Saudi Arabia, early and often. There are also the Saudis, who became involved at President Hadi’s request, with support from the United States. Former President Barack Obama was hoping to propitiate Riyadh in return for support for the Iran deal he was eager to ink.

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