Written by: Christopher Ploumidis
The Yemeni civil war is a bloody conflict that has left an estimated two-hundred and thirty thousand dead and resulted in what the United Nations call “the worst humanitarian crisis” since 2019. In recent years, this crisis has garnered massive international attention due to the sheer amount of human suffering that has been caused. Subsequently, United States policy has come under criticism due to their role in the conflict. While NGOs, politicians, and human rights groups around the world have expressed deep concerns for the Yemeni people, there is little that has changed in terms of the actual conflict. Yemen’s civil war is in a perpetual stalemate between Iranian funded Houthi rebels and a multinational coalition led by Saudi Arabia. This ongoing conflict is rife with exogenous factors and influences that have largely amplified violence and likely worsened Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Many analysts consider this conflict a form of proxy warfare, meaning external states arm and fund militant groups within another country. Indeed, it is a complicated situation with diverse actors, motives, and relationships. But how did it get to this point, and how have United States actions and policies contributed to Yemen’s war? Due to the war on terror and its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has been a key player in this conflict. Through airstrikes and massive arm sales to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has largely exacerbated Yemen’s civil war in an attempt to combat extremism, support the Saudi-led coalition, maintain U.S. oil interest, and curb Iranian influence in the region. The U.S. involvement in Yemen is also a prime case study in the process of American foreign policy decision making and the importance of presidential administrations.
U.S. Involvement in Yemen, A Background
Although the current conflict in Yemen is generally understood to have started in late 2014, it is nearly impossible to discuss it, or U.S. involvement, without looking at the decades prior. Before the 1990’s, the United States maintained a long history of establishing and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Yemen. This was due to the constantly changing political landscape of the country and the contentious politics of neighboring regions.
The ongoing Yemeni civil war finds its roots in the early 1990’s, when Yemen’s current government was formed. Until this point, Yemen was split into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, bankrolled by the USSR in the South, and the Arab Republic of Yemen, supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia, in the North. In May of 1990, North and South Yemen united under a singular Republic of Yemen, electing Ali Abdallah Saleh as president, as the Soviet bloc began to implode. It was then that the U.S. re-established diplomatic relations with Yemen for the last time. This peace was short-lived as the Republic of Yemen underwent its first civil war in 1994, a conflict that was quickly won by the Yemeni National Army. Ali Abdallah Saleh was then re-elected as president in a move that would have important implications for years to come.
Many United States policies and military actions have directly and indirectly influenced the current war in Yemen and the events that led to it. A prime example of this is the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Prior to the Iraq war, Yemen maintained a religious and ethnic revivalist movement known as the Houthis that began in the late 1980’s. This movement was named after the religious leader who originated from the Houthi clan and emerged “as a vehicle for religious and cultural revivalism among Zaydi Shiites in northern Yemen”. Then in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq under George W. Bush’s administration. As Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute puts it, “the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 deeply radicalized the Houthi movement, like it did many other Arabs.” After Iraq’s invasion, the Houthis became far more politically active and even acquired the slogan “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.” The Houthi’s began to criticize and later act in opposition against President Saleh for his support of the U.S.-led invasion. Saleh retaliated with a succession of military campaigns in conjunction with Saudi Arabia to quash Houthi insurgency. These campaigns successfully killed the Houthi leader, Hussein al Houthi, but could not successfully end their rebellion. The Houthis won against Saleh and Saudi Arabia, much to the chagrin of the Saudi’s, who had spent tens of billions of dollars on their military.
From 2004 to 2010, the Houthis led a series of attacks on the Yemeni central government. Tensions reached a tipping point in 2011 when the Arab Springs protests, a series of demonstrations addressing economic turmoil, unemployment, and political corruption made their way to Yemen. These protests caused President Saleh to step down in 2012 and former Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to take his place. By 2014, Saleh began colluding with the Houthis against Hadi in order to regain control in the region. This marks the beginning of Yemen’s war.
The Current Conflict and Some Key Players
Indeed, Yemen’s war did not originate overnight. It is a culmination of decades-long conflict and political unrest. Although there were several priming events that led to Yemen’s conflict, analysts generally agree that the current civil war began in September of 2014 when Houthi rebels seized Sanaa, the state’s capital. Soon after, President Hadi asked neighboring Arab states for help. So, who have the key actors been since 2014? And where does the U.S. fall into this?
On one side is Yemen’s UN-recognized government that is being assisted by Saudi Arabia, a strategic United States partner. Saudi Arabia has long been an ally of Yemen and led a coalition of nine West Asian and North African states against the Houthis since 2015. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been the most ardent contributors to the coalition, with the UAE deploying roughly ten thousand ground troops to Yemen since the conflict began. Since the Obama administration, the United States has supported the Saudi-led coalition as “U.S. interests include security of Saudi borders; free passage in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, the choke point between the Arabian and Red Seas and a vital artery for the global transport of oil; and a government in Sanaa that will cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism programs”. In addition, the U.K, France, Germany have all supported the Saudi Arabian-led intervention. This conflict is seen as a pressing security threat because Yemen borders Saudi Arabia on its southern front, and the Saudis fear that Iranian influence on the Houthis will allow for Iran to gain a foothold in the region. Strategically, this poses a great threat as Iran and Saudi Arabia are adversaries amid what many analysts describe as a regional cold war. Saudi Arabia predominantly considers the Houthi rebellion as more of an Iranian proxy as opposed to an indigenous movement.
On the other side are the Iranian-backed Houthis. Tehran, the Iranian capital, denies supporting Houthi rebels with weapons and missiles despite UN reports and U.S. intelligence claiming that is exactly what is happening. It is likely that Iran is angling for influence in that region by supporting Houthi rebels. Ultimately, U.S. intelligence reported that Iran was originally vying for a less aggressive approach to the conflict, but Houthi leadership became obsessed with winning over the coalition and taking territory.
Even though the U.S. is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition, U.S. policies toward the Yemeni civil war are still important. Since the Obama administration, the U.S. has been a supporter of the Saudis pursuing their goals in the region. This stance is predictable as the United States has maintained a strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia for the last seventy years. What’s more, the U.S. is less than thrilled with the idea of Iranian influence surrounding its largest trading partner in the middle east. Additionally, the United States sees Yemen as a strategically key state because of its geography. Yemen borders the Arabian Peninsula and controls major ports and the Bab al-Mandeb strait which is crucial for the international export of oil. Furthermore, the U.S. wants the government in Sanaa to comply with its counter-terrorism efforts in the region to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL. These interests have led the U.S. to conduct roughly four hundred airstrikes against AQAP and ISIL in Yemen since 2014 and have become Saudi Arabia’s largest arms dealer. But who made these calls and what effects have they had?
In recent years, Yemen’s deteriorating humanitarian crisis has alarmed onlookers and stoked criticism against Saudi Arabia and the United States. Subsequently, American decision-making regarding Yemen has come under fire. As is often the case when things go wrong, whether it be the economy, healthcare, or armed conflicts, the President bears a large brunt of the criticism. This is especially true in matters of foreign policy. But is that a fair assessment? It is true, one could make the argument that the United States President has nearly free reign over matters of foreign policy, and this argument has plenty of creedence. The President has the role of Commander-in-Chief and Chief Diplomat. In matters of diplomacy and foreign affairs, the President often has the final say. But within this framework, an assumption is often made that the President is the sole decision-maker. This assumption is wildly simplistic and discounts the complicated web of advisors that make up the executive branch. A host of factors contribute to the Presidential office’s decision-making process, such as the National Security Council, Congress, humanitarian organizations, and public opinion. Using Yemen as a case study, one can examine these decision-making apparatuses at work regarding security concerns.
Beginning with the Obama administration in 2015, one can examine the players and institutions that influenced the decision-making process. It was during this time that the United States began providing military expertise, intelligence, and support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The Obama administration also voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 at the recommendation of the National Security Council. This resolution called for the “Houthis to withdraw, disarm, and return to the Gulf Initiative and its implementation mechanism and national dialogue outputs”. Additionally, the U.S. began selling massive amounts of arms to Saudis, many of which were directly used in the coalition’s fight in Yemen.
Late in 2015, many months after the initial Saudi-led intervention, human rights groups, the United Nations, and Congress began expressing concerns. The conflict in Yemen had not ended as soon as promised and civilian death rose due to famine, disease, and poverty. There were also mounting instances of civilian casualties from airstrikes. The United Nations added the Saudi-Coalition to the “Children and Armed Conflict Blacklist” and reported that the Coalition had been responsible for roughly half of the attacks on schools and hospitals. According to the Congressional Research Service, “In late September 2015, Representative Ted W. Lieu wrote a letter to the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocating for a halt to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition until it instituted safeguards to prevent civilian casualties” Soon thereafter in October of 2015, ten Members of Congress wrote to President Obama imploring him to “work with our Saudi partners to limit civilian casualties to the fullest extent possible.” Senator Ed Markey of Maine was quoted saying “I fear that our failure to strongly advocate diplomacy in Yemen over the past two years, coupled with our failure to urge restraint in the face of the crisis last spring, may put the viability of this critical [U.S.-Saudi] partnership at risk” These testimonies show that even early in the conflict congressional leaders saw U.S. arm sales as reckless when the Saudi-Coalition had not taken preventive measures to ensure civilian safety. These groups put some pressure on the Obama administration to limit arms sales.
Then, on October 8th, 2016, there was a massive public outcry in response to two airstrikes on funerals led by the Saudi-Coalition that left over one-hundred and fifty civilians dead and over five-hundred injured. The National Security Council condemned the strikes in a statement made by Ned Price, the then-NSC spokesperson. Pressure from the United Nations, human rights organizations, and public opinion forced the Obama administration and the National Security Council to re-evaluate its role in Yemen’s civil war. Two months later, the administration announced “that it would stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, restrict intelligence sharing, and increase training of the Saudi air force to improve their future targeting practices”. This may have seemed like a huge reversal of policy, and in some ways it was. But the administration still allowed certain types of arms sales to the Saudis and stated that it would continue refueling coalition aircrafts and sharing intelligence on the Yemen-Saudi border. In the final months of the Obama administration, “then-Secretary of State John Kerry made several attempts to broker a peace initiative in Oman, but the parties rejected his efforts.” Although these peace efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, it does demonstrate the role that the Secretary of State plays as the chief foreign affairs advisor to the President in matters like Yemen. The Secretary of State is appointed by the President and must be approved by Congress, further illustrating the layers of decision-making that go into appointing the people that represent U.S. foreign policy interests.
Through examination of the Obama administration from 2015 to 2016 one can shine a light on how American foreign policy operates. While the President does have much of the power in decision-making on matters like Yemen, they are not alone in this decision making. The President is advised by the National Security Council, made up of the Vice President, Defense Secretary, Secretary of State, Director of National Intelligence, and other appointed individuals with expertise on national security. The NSC is important as it gives the President expert advice on conflicts that are filled with complicated actors and ever-changing circumstances, much like the case of Yemen. There is also a certain amount of power in public opinion and NGOs. Public opinion, the media, and NGOs like Human Rights Watch heavily criticized Obama during 2015 and 2016 for its role in Yemen. The Obama administration received massive backlash in public opinion due to their support of the Saudi Coalition through arms sales and tactical support. The public was upset that the United States was supporting a coalition that was targeting schools and hospitals and maintained few safeguards against civilian casualties. Human rights groups also began pressing Congress to draw more attention to the situation in Yemen. Many in Congress criticized the United States’ position for its failure to urge restraint and foster diplomacy during the conflict. This situation illustrated that Congress is actually a constraint on Presidential power. Letters from congressional leaders called for a change in policy due to the deteriorating nature of the conflict. It was clear that this conflict was hurting Yemeni civilians who had been experiencing poverty even prior to the 2014 civil war. A culmination of these factors in conjunction with the abhorrent nature of the coalition’s violence towards civilians led the Obama administration to roll back arm-sales to the Saudis and limit intelligence.
During the Trump administration, some of these criticisms from Congress and the American public held less sway. This demonstrates that U.S. foreign policy is often dictated by who the President is at that moment and how their administration behaves. In 2018, the Trump administration bypassed Congress and pushed through an $8.1 billion arms deal to the UAE, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Observers may ask how the President could do this without congressional approval. Trump was able to circumvent Congress and push this deal through an “obscure provision under the Arms Export Control Act” that “allows a president to expedite weapons when there is an emergency that threatens U.S. national security interests.” Trump simply declared a state of emergency with Iran and used this to evade any congressional hold-ups. On one side, proponents of the deal saw it as a necessary move to combat Iranian aggression against the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Conversely, this move evoked outrage from a swath of bipartisan lawmakers “who have criticized civilian deaths caused by Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen.” Ted W. Lieu, a previous critic of the Obama administration’s handling of Yemen, introduced a measure to stop the deal saying that “there is no emergency to the United States or to UAE or to Saudi Arabia regarding the war in Yemen.” Representative Lieu has been a key player throughout this conflict in his many attempts to influence executive decision-making regarding Yemen. Ultimately during his administration, Donald Trump vetoed three bills that would have halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia These facts demonstrate the power that the executive branch holds in the realm of American foreign policy.
In the last year, U.S. policy towards Yemen and the Saudi-led offensive have drastically changed. Joe Biden has called for an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia in their offensive measures in Yemen, claiming that the war needs to end, and it is a “strategic and humanitarian catastrophe.” Some may fear that this will lead to a power vacuum that will give rise to extremists groups like AQAP and ISIL in the region, but national security advisor Jake Sullivan assured that this decision would not impact U.S. counter-terrorist operations in Yemen. The Brookings Institute has also criticized Biden on his approach to Yemen, calling it “fatally flawed.” Brookings claims that Biden should have immediately called for an end to the Saudi blockade on Yemen. The Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition are using blockades to stop fuel, water, and food from getting in. Analysts contend that both groups are using “starvation as a tactic.” Biden has indicated that the blockade is a necessary “condition for negotiation”, but critics see the President as complicit in the humanitarian crisis by not calling for a removal of these measures. It will be interesting to see where things go with the Biden administration, as they are now the predominant decision-makers when it comes to U.S. policy in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Analysis and Next Moves
Most people will agree that the situation in Yemen needs to change for the sake of the people. But how can U.S. policies surrounding Yemen change, and will they influence the war? By most accounts, the United States’ involvement in Yemen since 2015 has been less than ideal. The United States was prompted by a national interest in Yemen and the surrounding area due to a host of factors. Fueled by interest in oil, Saudi-partnership, counterterrorism, and Iranian aggression, the U.S. provided support for the Saudi-led Coalition under the Obama administration. This support soon became controversial as the Coalition began assaults on Yemeni civilians, in many cases using weapons likely sold by the United States. These violent assaults in conjunction with blockades have exacerbated the human suffering in Yemen as U.S. weapons manufacturers accounted for a large portion of arms going into Saudi Arabia and eventually Yemen. Under the Obama administration, public, and congressional response called for the limit and even halt of arms sales. This happened to some degree in 2016 when airstrikes on civilians caused the Obama administration to roll-back arms-sales and reassess its position.
During the Trump administration, support for the Saudi-led coalition increased, further demonstrating the role that the President has in dictating American foreign policy. Many foreign policy experts suggest that arms sales have exacerbated the conflict. The U.S. is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, contributing roughly 37% of the global share of weapons since 2016 . Between 2016 and 2020, Saudi Arabia accounted for 24% of U.S. arms-sales. Some see these sales as warranted in order to combat Iran’s growing influence and support long-standing U.S. allies, but many others suggest that U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia have likely prolonged the conflict. The Saudi-led coalition has engaged in conflict with little regard for the safety and well-being of Yemeni civilians. Trump did make some effort to call for peace between warring parties, but he also may have inflamed matters by designating the Houthi rebels as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO, making it difficult to provide aid to the region. If this piece was written two years earlier, the answer to changing U.S. foreign policy surrounding Yemen and the Saudi-led Coalition arms sales would have been a new administration. Trump bolstered arms sales to the Saudi coalition and maintained a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince. Very few things could have changed the Trump administration’s policies regarding arms sales. Trump took up unorthodox methods of circumventing congressional oversight in this matter by declaring a state of emergency on Iran. Congress attempted three times to pass bills that would have halted these weapons programs. All three bills were vetoed by President Trump. When Trump lost in 2020 many looked to Biden as someone who could effectuate real change in this conflict.
As of now, Yemen’s civil war is still ongoing, and policies are beginning to change. Under Joe Biden, many critics of the Saudi arms-sales during the Trump and Obama administration are finally receiving what they previously called for. Biden announced earlier this year that the U.S. would halt weapon sales to Saudi Arabia in their offensive operations against the Houthis in Yemen. Some critics have drawn parallels to Biden’s removal of troops from Afghanistan, and fear that extremists will gain leverage in the power vacuum, but the Secretary of State claims that this news will not alter counter-terrorism objects in the region. It is a completely different situation as the United States objectives in Afghanistan were more hands-on in terms of U.S. military operations. Other critics say that Biden has not taken a hard enough stance on the Saudi coalition against their blockades. Many say that his new policies are not enough to combat the humanitarian crisis going on in Yemen; however, the United States does have diplomatic power when it comes to this situation. The U.S. is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and what the U.S. President says holds a lot of weight. Some analysts believe that the U.S. can effect change in the everyday lives of the Yemeni people by calling on Saudi Arabia to end their blockades. The only way this will likely happen is if Congress becomes involved or an advisor on the NSC is able to convince President Biden that changes in policy surrounding the Yemeni civil war are in the national interest. The coming years will dictate if the U.S. will do more to condemn the blockades in Yemen. Consequently, this analysis emphasizes the importance of the President and their administration. Even if an institution like the United States Congress wants to put a check on presidential power, the President can veto their bills or declare a state of emergency and move ahead with their agenda, as was seen in the Trump administration. All of this emphasizes the message that the President and their administration have a great deal of power when it comes to foreign policy.
In conclusion, the Yemeni civil war and subsequent humanitarian crisis has been an extremely poignant moment in human history. The immense civilian suffering due to hunger, poverty, disease, and violence have named Yemen as “the worst humanitarian crisis” in the world according to the United Nations. There have been hundreds of thousands of deaths from this conflict, many of which are indirect, caused by hunger. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that twenty-four million people need aid and four million people have been displaced since 2015 alone. In this conflict, the United States has directly and indirectly influenced Yemen and its war. Some point to the Iraq war as a starting point that inadvertently radicalized groups in Arab nations, like the Houthis in Yemen. During the current conflict, tactical support and U.S. arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition have exacerbated the toll on human life during the Obama and Trump administrations. The Yemeni civil war is a key issue in foreign policy that highlights the importance of the Presidential administration as well as the influence of the national security council, the American public, and NGOs. In both administrations the U.S., as the largest arms-manufacturing country in the world, contributed heavily to the Saudi-led coalition. During the Obama administration, pressure from Congress and human rights groups in addition to civilian tragedy prompted a reduction in arms-sales. In the following administration, Donald Trump used a declaration of emergency against Iran to bypass Congress and support a massive arms deal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In both administrations, analysts have suggested that U.S. arms sales have only worsened the anguish of the Yemeni people and prolonged the war. With a recent change in administration, policies are beginning to change as well. The Biden administration has taken steps to reform U.S. foreign policy in Yemen and only time will tell if a hard enough stance is being taken. Currently, Biden has not called on Saudi officials to end their military blockades that are starving Yemen’s people. Changes in the Biden administration’s policies will likely stem from the ongoing nature of the war. If things worsen and Saudi Arabia becomes involved in a more direct conflict with Iran, this would likely cause the U.S. to take more active measures. But one thing is clear: the Yemeni civil war is a key issue in foreign policy that underscores the significance of U.S. foreign policy and illustrates the importance of U.S. Presidential administrations and the people who influence their decision-making.