Biden Is Dropping the Ball on Yemen

John Hudson reported from the Congressional hearings where the Biden administration’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, was testifying. During his testimony, Lenderking couldn’t answer basic questions about U.S. policy:

US special envoy Lenderking is unable to answer multiple questions from lawmakers about US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen: Is US still supporting Saudi operations in Yemen? Is US still providing maintenance to the Saudi air force? He defers to DoD & says he's not in the "loop"

As many other observers have already said, it is unacceptable that the administration’s Yemen envoy doesn’t know what is still included as part of the U.S. government’s support for the Saudi coalition. If Lenderking hasn’t been “in the loop,” that suggests a lack of coordination and communication between different departments, and that points to a dysfunctional policymaking process in the National Security Council. It is ridiculous that the administration’s Yemen envoy went into today’s hearings without knowing the answers to these questions. Members of Congress have to press the Biden administration harder to follow through on the president’s commitment to end U.S. support for the war, and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should be prepared to hold up the president’s nominees until they get satisfactory answers and appropriate actions.

Lenderking’s answers at the hearing were deeply unsatisfying, and they reflect the larger problem with the administration’s Yemen policy. Despite announcing an end to U.S. support for Saudi coalition “offensive operations” two months ago, there has been remarkably little follow through in terms of pressuring Saudi Arabia to halt its attacks or to lift the blockade. The Biden administration has been extremely stingy with the details of what constitutes support for “offensive operations,” and administration officials have been echoing Saudi talking points when they are asked about the ongoing coalition blockade.

As Bruce Riedel pointed out weeks ago, the blockade is itself part of the coalition’s offensive operations. Strangling the civilian population has been a central part of their war effort from the beginning, and while the blockade has waxed and waned in intensity it has never been lifted. Ending the blockade is essential to alleviating the country’s humanitarian crisis, and that ought to be the Biden administration’s priority. Instead we have administration spokesmen claiming that there is no blockade. One would have hoped that the days of repeating Saudi propaganda had ended when Mike Pompeo left the State Department, but that is not the case. Annelle Sheline commented on this blockade denialism in her preview of Lenderking’s testimony:

Members of Congress should press Lenderking on these points, specifically why the State Department appears to be ignoring statements by the World Food Program, which cites the blockade as the single most important humanitarian concern for Yemen, as well as by the UN Human Rights Council’s Group of Eminent Experts, which concluded that the Saudi blockade amounts to a war crime

Lifting the blockade unconditionally should be a top demand from the U.S., and it should be kept separate from any ceasefire negotiations. This is why Congressional Democrats have been calling on the administration to push for the end of the blockade first. Making the lifting of the blockade contingent on a ceasefire jeopardizes millions of starving and malnourished people, and the blockade remains a key sticking point for the Houthis. Until the blockade is gone, there will likely be no progress on the diplomatic front, and the war will drag on. The president has said some of the right things on Yemen, but he and his administration have so far failed to take the necessary actions to relieve the suffering of the people of Yemen and to bring the war to an end.