When Joe Biden ran for the White House, he campaigned on making Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the international stage. But a year into his presidency, Biden has stopped well short of getting tougher on Saudi Arabia—and prominent elected Democrats are following suit.
At first, Biden seemed like he’d make good on his campaign rhetoric. Democrats—long opposed to the Trump administration’s approach to arms deals for Saudi Arabia—controlled both chambers of Congress. And Biden had been critical of Saudi Arabia given its role in Yemen’s war and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which the CIA pegged to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In February, Biden announced that the United States would be backing off the Trump administration’s approach of funding Saudi Arabia’s offensive military operations.
Saudi Arabia has been launching airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen for years, ever since Houthi rebels took Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014, and followed up with attacks against Saudi Arabia in turn. A Saudi-led coalition tried to intervene on behalf of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, but the conflict has so far brought 5 million to the brink of famine, killed hundreds of thousands, and has no clear end in sight as peace processes have stalled.
But, as the idiom goes, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’
Rather than backing off funding the conflict, the Biden administration has actually renewed efforts to arm Saudi Arabia. Biden found a carve-out to still fund the conflict, by only allowing “defensive” arms sales to Saudi Arabia—a decision that has put him at loggerheads with some members of his own party who say it allows him to take rhetorical credit for bucking Trump’s approach, but which in reality perpetuates and contributes to the conflict.
Just last month, the State Department approved a $650 million missile sale to Saudi Arabia—the first major arms sale to the Kingdom during the Biden administration—and it’s left Democrats on Capitol Hill fuming about the administration’s willingness to support a country with a derelict human rights track record.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) told The Daily Beast the “defensive” carve-out is bogus when Saudi Arabia is known to fudge its human rights record.
Omar said it was clear that, “whatever the stated use of these weapons,” they would likely be used to perpetuate the war in Yemen, “which includes routine targeting of civilians and children.”
“Even if they were only used in a defensive manner, there is no justification for handing 300 air-to-air missiles arming… a regime known for lying to cover up routine human rights violations,” Omar told The Daily Beast. “We should be using diplomacy to bring an end to Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign in Yemen, not perpetuating it.”
Arming the Saudis in any way, many Democrats have long argued, just prolongs the suffering and fuels the conflict with Yemen. As aid groups have noted, “the people of Yemen are not starving. They are being starved.”
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) also lambasted Biden’s approach, noting that this decision leaves Saudi Arabia in the driver’s seat, not the United States.
“The distinction between offensive and defensive support of the Saudi Royal Air Force is a smoke screen: there is no telling to what degree U.S. indirect support of fighter aircraft is being used in operations that have the end effect of prolonging war and exacerbating the worst humanitarian emergency on the planet,” Markey told The Daily Beast. Just Monday Saudi-led forces launched airstrikes in Sanaa, according to state media, Reuters reported.
Democrats have long argued against arms deals with Saudi Arabia. But an uncanny flip-flopping has started to settle in on Capitol Hill. While every Democratic senator voted in 2019 to block President Trump from approving an arms sale with Saudi Arabia, early this month the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected a proposal that would have blocked the Biden administration from selling $650 million worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Although the majority of Democrats voted against the sale, some Democrats that used to be the staunchest advocates for pulling back on arms deals to Saudi Arabia are now all-in.
Murphy said in a statement he believes this sale doesn’t fall into the category of “offensive” operations in Yemen.
“After reviewing the details of this sale, I believe it is consistent with President Biden’s pledge to end assistance for offensive operations in Yemen. This sale is solely intended to defend Saudi territory against cross-border Houthi drone attacks, which indiscriminately threaten Saudi civilians and other residents, including over 50,000 Americans,” Murphy said. “I have been the leading critic of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and have led the fight to end U.S. support for the Saudis’ bombing campaign, but I don’t advocate for ending our security relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
The Democrats are swerving on the issue likely because they simply don’t want to rock the boat with Biden, the chair of the Yemeni Alliance Committee, Jehan Hakim, told The Daily Beast. “During the Trump administration there was a clear support amongst the Democrats” to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Hakim said.
“There’s a kind of hesitancy or reluctance to go against the Biden administration,” Hakim told The Daily Beast. “It was easier to go against Trump than it is to go against Biden because they’re obviously in the same party, there’s this motivation or ambition to not go against the leadership.”
Many other lawmakers who have previously voted to block arms deals to the Kingdom or stop support for Saudi’s war with Yemen also voted in favor of the sale, including Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (who both, as candidates in 2020, said they supported ending military and intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia); Bob Menendez (D-NJ) (who led the way in 2019, introducing measures to block sales to Saudi Arabia during the Trump administration); Tom Carper (D-DE); Maggie Hassan (D-NH); Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH); and others.
One congressional aide suggested the support for the recent sale was about defending civilians in Saudi Arabia.
“I wouldn’t characterize this as a gift to the Saudis. I would say this is about defending civilians including American citizens in Saudi Arabia against attack,” the congressional aide told The Daily Beast.
Democrats also recently discarded an amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) that would have blocked U.S. defense contractors from maintaining Saudi warplanes conducting aerial strikes—a proposal that, if passed, could help stop the bombing and bring the conflict to a close.
A congressional aide familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast that a shift towards blocking any arms deals with Saudi Arabia could take place if civilian infrastructure is increasingly targeted.
”If you see a return of mass bombing of civilian infrastructure that could trigger some real rethink: should we cut off all arms sales period too sort of try to bring this to an end,” the congressional aide told The Daily Beast.
The recent sea change of support for Saudi Arabia from the Democratic Party is alarming, according to Markey.
“I’m deeply disappointed that Congress didn’t take this chance to end the U.S. support of the Saudi-led military coalition after seven terrible years of civil war in Yemen,” Markey told The Daily Beast. “We need to broker peace, not continue to flood the Saudi-led military coalition with endless arms and unconditional support.”
Khanna said he thinks the party seems to be making some progress on galvanizing support to block arms deals and maintenance packages with Saudi Arabia, noting that when he first started trying to attract interest in his proposals to wind down support to the conflict, they failed. “This year, my amendment passed the House,” Khanna said. “We have a long way to go, but change is coming… Congress should do its job and end military support and arm sales to the Saudi government.”
The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been a balancing act, one that even the nimblest of politicians has stumbled over in the past, giving the kingdom a pass on human rights issues to achieve other goals, such as counterterrorism work or confronting Iran.
There’s arguments about “the importance of a secure and stable supply of oil on the global market, [how they are] a source of stability and a regional ally. But these are all arguments that don’t hold up water anymore, if they ever did,” Stephen Miles, the executive director of Win Without War, told The Daily Beast. “The energy landscape today doesn’t look like what it’s looked like in decades prior… Similarly, we are seeing the Saudis be a source of instability… before you even get to the gross human rights violations like the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Some of Biden’s top advisers have opted to voice their opinion in favor of pulling back on Saudi arms deals, too. A 2019 version of the Sanders-Khanna amendment, which was essentially an identical proposal to the more recent iteration about maintenance, was supported by a whole host of now-Biden administration officials, including Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, and Kelly Magsamen, who now serves as the chief of staff to the Secretary of Defense, who each signed a letter in support of blocking logistics and maintenance deals with Saudi Arabia to help unravel Saudi Arabia’s contributions to the Yemen conflict.
Other supporters include Wendy Sherman, who now serves as deputy secretary of state, and Susan Rice, who now heads up the Domestic Policy Council.
But the buck stops with Biden.
“Basically this all comes down to Biden,” a senior Democratic Senate aide told The Daily Beast.
The aide continued that it was important to understand that the people around Biden who signed that letter, “who are now in positions of real authority,” had to understand that they were ultimately making a criticism of the president.
“As on so many things on foreign policy, it really comes down to Biden’s decision,” the aide said.
For now, though, the United States is focused on improving the kingdom’s “ability to defend its territory against threats,” a State Department spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “President Biden and Secretary Blinken have both been clear that human rights are a priority in our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, and we have been raising these issues through consistent and constant engagement at senior levels in both Washington and Riyadh.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has been pushing lawmakers and the Biden administration alike to back away from greenlighting Saudi arms deals, told The Daily Beast he thinks his colleagues and the Biden Administration ought to buck up and get more consistent on their takes on Saudi Arabia.
“President Biden and proponents of Saudi arms sales say the latest $650 million sale is merely to help defend Saudi territorial integrity, but these words do not match Saudi’s actions,” Paul told The Daily Beast. “By participating in current and future sales, we would not only be rewarding reprehensible behavior, but also exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and you would think lawmakers could be more consistent in their efforts to protect defenseless civilians from the cruelty of a criminal regime.”
Fahad Nazer, the official spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, told The Daily Beast that “the conflict—and the dire humanitarian situation—will end if the Houthis lay down their weapons, go back to the negotiating table and stop obstructing the efforts of the UN Yemen envoy and the friends of Yemen—including Saudi Arabia—to advance a political solution in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions and political references.”
With these realities, Biden, almost one year into his presidency, who still hasn’t made good on his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” ought to rethink his policy, especially as it trickles down to his party and perpetuates the war, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and former senior adviser on South Asia and the Middle East to four presidents, told The Daily Beast.
”What we’ve seen is an administration that campaigned on a promise to dramatically change American foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia and its Yemen war and which, as we get close to one year in office, has failed to live up to those commitments,” said Riedel, now director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. “In practice, nothing has changed. The war continues, the Saudis continue to bomb Yemeni civilians.”