The White House on Friday defended its decision to block a war powers resolution in the Senate that would have ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, saying it would have impeded delicate diplomatic talks.
“We want to see that peace enduring and we want to see it sustainable. And so that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the importance of making sure our diplomacy can succeed,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in an interview with VOA.
U.S. support for a U.N.-brokered truce and peace talks has “achieved a measure of success,” Kirby said. “We want to make sure we can lock that in and keep that going forward.”
Earlier this week, the administration clashed with Bernie Sanders over the resolution put forward by the Vermont independent senator that would have banned U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations in its war in Yemen. Facing intense opposition, including a veto threat from President Joe Biden and a lack of support from his Senate colleagues, Sanders withdrew the resolution and agreed to negotiate further with the White House.
“I look forward to working with the administration who is opposed to this resolution and see if we can come up with something that is strong and effective,” Sanders said. “If we do not, I will be back.”
Administration officials have declined to elaborate on what they seek in negotiations with Sanders.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when Houthi insurgents – Shiite rebels backed by Iran – took over the capital, Sanaa. Beginning in March 2015, with logistical and intelligence support from the Obama administration, a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of economic isolation and airstrikes against the Houthis, in effect turning the conflict into a Sunni-Shia proxy war between regional powers.
According to U.N. data, more than 370,000 people have died in the conflict, with 60 percent of the deaths resulting from indirect causes such as lack of food, water and health services.
Cease-fire expired, peace largely held
Violence paused in April 2022 under the U.N.-negotiated cease-fire, which has largely held even though it expired in October – a factor in the administration’s opposition to the resolution, said Gerald Feierstein, who was U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the Obama administration.
“There has not been a Saudi military campaign in Yemen for eight months now. Why are we talking about a war powers resolution?” said Feierstein, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Sanders and others have argued that there is no diplomatic progress on the ground and violence could erupt at any moment. Biden’s own special envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, has warned that a failure to reach a new peace agreement would precipitate a “return to war.”
Still, James F. Jeffrey, a former U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS and now chair of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, opposes the resolution, saying it would “play into the hands of the Houthis, who after all are aiding Iran, trying to overthrow the internationally recognized government.”
Some are unconvinced.
“The Houthis know quite well that an unprovoked attack on Saudi Arabia would undermine their argument internally in Yemen that they are fighting a foreign invader,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Moreover, it would very likely change the calculations in Washington and restart U.S. support for the Saudis in what would be seen as a defensive war.”
Parsi added that even if taken at face value, the administration’s argument about Houthi calculations “does not justify allowing Saudi Arabia to have a bigger say than Congress on whether the U.S. should or should not support Riyadh’s war.”
In 2019, then-President Donald Trump vetoed a Yemen war powers resolution, a decision decried by officials who are now key players in the Biden administration.
Biden’s shift away from his February 2021 pledge to end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen” is emblematic of his evolving view on relations with the Saudi kingdom.
In November, the administration determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted immunity in a lawsuit over his role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even though during his presidential campaign Biden vowed to make the kingdom a “pariah” for the slaying.
In October, when the Saudis pushed OPEC members to slash oil production, ignoring Washington’s request to increase output to offset price increases triggered by the war in Ukraine, the administration said it would review whether the relationship with Saudi Arabia still served U.S. interests – a review that has not materialized.
“We will judge the way forward based on their actions, as well as our ongoing consultations with partners and allies, and also the new Congress that is going to be before us very soon, and the Saudis as well,” Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, told VOA during a recent press briefing.
Jean-Pierre declined to say whether growing ties between Saudi Arabia and China have played a factor in the administration’s stance on Riyadh. But with oil availability a more pressing issue since Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Saudis are in a strong position “to be able to play everybody off against everybody else,” Feierstein said.
Biden has prioritized strengthening the bond between the United States and its allies at a time when talks to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program have collapsed and Israel, historically a core U.S. ally, has elected a right-wing government whose interests may not align with those of Washington.
Under such circumstances, the U.S. in many cases is “likely going to be more deferential to certain partners – and more forgiving of their misdeeds,” Parsi said.
“China’s success in courting Saudi Arabia may have increased the sense of crisis in Washington when it comes to Saudi Arabia,” said William Figueroa, a research associate focusing on China in the Middle East at the University of Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics. “But the odds were low that the U.S. was ever going to seriously alter its relationship with the kingdom.”
Figueroa added, “This anxiety is more a reflection of the U.S. environment and fears that the United States is no longer the world-spanning superpower it once was. In fact, it very much is, but any retreat of American power abroad, however minor, is often portrayed in catastrophic terms.”
Mykhailo Komadovsky contributed to this report.