How ‘Diplomacy First’ Has Failed In Yemen

The Biden administration has given the Iranian-backed Houthis the leverage they need to win the country’s civil war.

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. 

Today, a battle over an oil- and gas-rich governorate, Ma’rib, marks the beginning of a Houthi victory lap should they capture this last major holdout in Yemen’s northeast. Four years ago, Ma’rib held promise in Yemen’s tragedy: The frontlines barely touched it, and the economy was booming. No longer. A quarter of Yemen’s displaced persons have sought refuge in Ma’rib, and the addition of nearly 2 million people has severely strained local capacity. 

When the Biden team was calling for negotiations in February 2021, the Houthis intensified their campaign for Ma’rib and advanced to within 10 miles of the governorate capital. The Saudi air campaign, devastating over the past seven years, has kept the Houthis from sweeping to victory in Ma’rib over the past nine months. But the rate of use rapidly diminished Saudi stockpiles, which the U.S. will not help replace. 

Now, it seems only a matter of time before the Houthis take Ma’rib as opposition melts away. The local forces opposing the Houthis are fractious, underequipped, and rarely paid. The support they had from the Saudi-led coalition has dried up under U.S. diplomatic pressure, and reinforcements don’t exist. Powerful tribes that had stood against the Houthis are switching sides. Meanwhile, the Houthi fighters flow into Ma’rib, despite high casualties. The Houthis calculated, correctly, better returns from the battlefield than the negotiating table.

All of this should have been clear to Team Biden, as should the historical context: The last time the Houthis negotiated with any credibility was when they were under military pressure, facing the imminent loss of the lucrative Red Sea port-city al Hudaydah (through which the majority of Yemen’s commercial goods flows). The Houthis agreed to negotiations to stop that assault, and then used the time they bought to refortify their own positions, making an assault on al Hudaydah a much costlier military endeavor. 

The reality is that the Houthis and their friends in Tehran have outmaneuvered Washington and its erstwhile partners in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and watched, doubtless with amusement, as the United States has focused on Saudi Arabia’s manifest disregard for human rights while swatting ineffectively at Iran’s increasingly sophisticated military transfers to its proxies.

For the Saudis and Emiratis, whose support has been crucial for anti-Houthi forces, a continued intervention may now be too costly, particularly as Congress seeks to further constrain U.S. military cooperation. Thus, the Saudis have downgraded their presence in Ma’rib, and may be withdrawing from positions farther south, and the UAE vacated a base in a neighboring governorate. 

Whether the Houthis choose to negotiate after Ma’rib is yet to be seen. They could very well press onward. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has been reduced to whining that it is “beyond fed up” with the Houthis’ refusal to engage in diplomatic processes even as American pressure on Gulf partners cleared the way militarily for the Houthis. Seeking Tehran’s help to get the Houthis to the table on the sidelines of nuclear talks is just as futile. The result of “diplomacy first” will now be the consolidation of Houthi—that is Iranian—power in Yemen, threatening Saudi Arabia, the UAE, key international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Oman, and even Israel. 

Was this outcome inevitable? Far from it. Americans weren’t doing any fighting, and Washington enjoyed a reasonable amount of leverage that could be ratcheted up if needed. Instead, in its fealty to diplomacy first, or more appropriately, diplomacy only, and a desperate desire to signal a warm up to Tehran, the Biden administration has allowed the Iranian empire to grow, with future losses for the United States and its allies a certainty.  

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser to AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.