In early February, President Joe Biden announced that he would end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where six years of continuous conflict have created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. But progressive members of Congress are growing frustrated with his refusal to push Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade on Yemen, which has recently reached a critical stage and is starving millions. While his pledge represented a significant policy shift, Biden has not yet taken decisive action to alleviate suffering on the ground—or even give members of Congress answers.
Biden’s promise to end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” was celebrated by progressive organizers and lawmakers who had been fighting to stop US military involvement. But questions about what forms of support the United States has cut off and which Trump-era military activities it plans to discontinue in the future remain. Forty-one Democratic lawmakers wrote to the administration asking for clarification on the forms of military, intelligence, and logistical support the United States has previously provided or currently provides, requesting a response by March 25, The Intercept reported. They still haven’t heard back.
California Democratic Representative Ro Khanna told The Nation that members of Congress have been briefed by the National Security Council and State Department but are currently “assessing” whether a War Powers Resolution is needed. Members are also discussing the possibility of using the amendment process in upcoming bills. “What we’ve seen is that the blockade is really what’s starving Yemeni children and Yemeni civilians,” Khanna said. “Right now, there is a moral outrage in Congress about what’s going on.”
Nearly 80 Democrats, led by Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell, Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan, and Khanna, last week called on the Biden administration to increase pressure on Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade immediately. “Every day that we wait for these issues to be resolved in negotiations is another day that pushes more children to the brink of death,” the lawmakers wrote. In protest of the US-backed blockade, a group of Detroit-based activists with the Yemeni Liberation Movement have been holding a hunger strike in Washington, D.C., now beginning its third week.
On Monday, the Biden administration gave its most definitive statement to date, telling Vox reporter Alex Ward, “It is not a blockade.” Earlier that day, a State Department spokesperson admitted to being “concerned by the ongoing slowdown of commercial fuel imports,” but denied that restrictions are the “root cause” of Yemen’s food security crisis. The administration’s claims directly contradict news reports about the blockade, including a CNN investigation, as well as Saudi Arabia’s own characterizations. Just a few weeks ago, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, said at a news conference that his country would allow some food and fuel imports through the Hodeidah port, as long as the two parties agreed to a cease-fire—publicly acknowledging the blockade. The Biden administration’s official position appears to be little more than semantics.
This week, a group of House Foreign Affairs Committee members urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “urgently push” that the restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led coalition be lifted. Democratic Representative Ted Deutch and Republican Representative Joe Wilson, the chair and ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Counterterrorism, took the initiative on the letter. It was also signed by Representative Greg Meeks, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative David Cicilline, and more.
“The Saudi government’s recent pledge to send fuel products to the Yemeni government is another positive development,” they wrote. “However, none of this excuses the Saudi-led coalition’s continued obstruction of commercial and humanitarian imports to Yemen, which serves no legitimate humanitarian, political, or security purpose.”
In 2019, Khanna and Senator Bernie Sanders, with help from a broad left-right coalition of organizers, led a historic War Powers Resolution effort, marking the first time in history such a resolution passed both the Senate and House. The California Democrat also pointed to a previous National Defense Authorization Act amendment that explicitly prohibits the United States from providing logistical support in Yemen.
“So the question that the State Department hasn’t answered and the question the administration hasn’t answered is: Are we doing that? Are we still supplying the tires? Are we still supplying the spare parts?” Khanna says. “Because if we want to be in compliance with the NDAA that passed the House, we shouldn’t be. Now, granted, it was stripped out in conference in the Senate, so it doesn’t have the weight of law. But it does have the weight of the sentiments of Congress. I mean, 240 to 185—that passed saying we shouldn’t be giving spare parts and maintenance.”