How ‘Diplomacy First’ Has Failed In Yemen

As evidenced by the news that the State Department is trying to secure the release of Yemeni employees taken hostage in an assault on the U.S. Embassy , the shortcomings of the Biden administration’s “diplomacy first” strategy are rapidly becoming evident in Yemen. The Houthis are consolidating gains to leverage the upper hand in the country’s civil war, and the hostage-taking is yet another ploy for more concessions. Doggedly rejecting the notion that diplomacy works only if backed by a credible threat of force, Team Biden has effectively ceded Yemen to the Islamic Republic, threatening not only Yemen’s neighbor, but U.S. allies in the Middle East, and ultimately, the United States itself. 

The Biden administration entered office determined to step away from Middle East entanglements. In the case of Yemen, that has meant distancing the U.S. from the disastrous Saudi-led military intervention that began in March 2015 after an Houthi-led coup in September 2014. The Obama administration initially provided intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi military, throwing Saudi Arabia a bone while negotiating the final details of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. As civilian casualties mounted, the Obama administration blocked the transfer of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in December 2016, a decision the Trump administration reversed in short order with a major arms sale to the Kingdom. So it was no surprise that after the Trump administration rolled back direct support for the coalition in November 2018, and several former Obama officials wrote a letter acknowledging responsibility for what they called a failure, President Joe Biden would close the chapter. In February 2021, he announced the end of all U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, including related arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Secretary of State Antony Blinken then appointed career diplomat Timothy Lenderking as the U.S. special envoy to advance the diplomatic track. 

But then Team Biden made a series of rookie mistakes, handing both initiative and leverage to the Houthis, and all but guaranteeing their eventual victory. First, Blinken revoked the Trump administration’s last-minute designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. No matter that Trump’s decision was suspect; reversing it surrendered something for nothing. In doing so, the U.S. lost its small amount of leverage to compel the Houthis to engage in meaningful negotiations as it simultaneously weakened the Houthis’ military opposition. 

More importantly, the Biden administration’s timing appeared more ideological diktat than shrewd realpolitik. In early September, as a new U.N. envoy to Yemen took office, American diplomatic outreach surged: U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Yemen envoy Lenderking met with senior Saudi and Emirati officials with the goal of getting to a ceasefire. But their diplomatic push was out of sync with the reality on the ground, coming just as the Houthis broke through key fronts. Perhaps more importantly, the Houthis evinced little interest in a peace process, with a top Houthi official expressing skepticism over the value of diplomacy. 

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