Biden Announces U.S. Will Engage Diplomatically To End War In Yemen

Feb 5, 2021
Originally published on February 5, 2021 10:16 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some news in President Biden's first foreign policy speech involved a civil war in Yemen. U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, are involved in that war. Speaking yesterday, Biden said the U.S. will engage diplomatically to try to end that war, and the U.S. will also end support for Saudi Arabian offensive operations there. Also, as the world faces record numbers of people fleeing conflict, Biden plans to increase the number of refugees who can resettle in the United States.

We're joined now by two NPR correspondents who cover these issues, Jackie Northam and Deborah Amos. Good morning to you both.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And let's listen to a little bit of what the president had to say about Yemen.

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JOE BIDEN: This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we're ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

INSKEEP: Jackie, would you remind us what the U.S. involvement is?

NORTHAM: Sure. Well, actually, just to go backwards a little bit, the conflict started about six years ago, when Houthi militias ousted the government of Yemen and took control of the capital. And they have backing from Iran. The Saudis have led a military coalition against the Houthis, and the U.S. is part of that coalition. It's been providing logistical support, intelligence, some targeting. But, Steve, the war has dragged on. Thousands of civilians have been killed in indiscriminate bombing. And even so, the Trump administration continued to sell weapons to the Saudis.

Now Biden is making good on his campaign pledge to get the U.S. out of that war so no more weapons sales or support. But he's also named a special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, and, you know, he's a career diplomat, long experience in Yemen and the Gulf region. And his task is to revive dormant peace talks and ultimately get a cease-fire, which will help get some desperately needed humanitarian aid to Yemen.

INSKEEP: But I want to think this through. The U.S. has been allied with the Saudis since World War II. The support for this specific war started in the Obama administration. It didn't start under the Trump administration. Does this change the U.S. relationship with the Saudis?

NORTHAM: You know, this is more about Biden saying there's a new sheriff in town and one that's going to take a much tougher stand on Saudi Arabia than President Trump did. You know, Trump was really seen as sort of turning a blind eye to, you know, human rights abuses and regional bullying by Saudi Arabia, particularly under its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The Biden administration has already said it's freezing the sale of millions of dollars of weapons to the kingdom, and this was a deal that was hammered out in the final days of the Trump administration.

And now, of course, the administration says it's pulling its support for Yemen. But, you know, as you say, Steve, Saudi Arabia is a longtime ally, and there isn't the sense that Biden wants to completely sever the relationship. And in fact, the administration told Saudi leadership in advance that it was going to cut off support for the war because it says it's trying to pursue a policy of no surprises. And also, you know, the Biden administration says the U.S. will continue to sell defensive weapons to support the Saudis against missile attacks from Yemen and Iran.

INSKEEP: No surprises is interesting since the previous administration often did surprise U.S. allies abroad. Now let's bring Deborah Amos into this conversation because, right after talking about Yemen, the president talked about the refugee problem. Let's listen.

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BIDEN: We also face a crisis of more than 80 million displaced people suffering all around the world. The United States' moral leadership on refugee issues was a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades when I first got here. We shine the light, a lamp of liberty on oppressed people.

INSKEEP: So Deb, how many oppressed people are going to get in now?

AMOS: Well, Biden pledged to raise the cap on refugees at 125,000 in fiscal year 2022, so that's October. It's up from 15,000, where Trump capped it this year.

INSKEEP: Wow.

AMOS: You know, President Trump said refugees were a security threat, and one of his first acts was to suspend the program. Biden was a senator in 1980. That's when Congress passed the Refugee Act on a bipartisan vote. So Biden sees this as a moral obligation for the U.S., and we heard him say that. His figure, 125,000, may sound like a lot, but Obama's cap was 110,000. So these are people from around the world in camps and crowded apartment blocks displaced by war. For the first time, Biden ordered a report on the impact of climate change on forced migration, including opportunities for protection and resettlement.

INSKEEP: Is it hard, though, to go from 15,000 up to 125,000 so abruptly?

AMOS: Oh, yeah. It's complicated. Biden seemed to say it would start later this year. He was acknowledging that the program has been gutted over the past four years. Steve, there are nine official resettlement agencies. Most are faith-based. These are the people that find them homes, furniture, school, bus schedules, health care, but their budgets have been slashed. Staff has been cut. Plus, the government has to fund the agencies that do the bulk of the security screenings. Those are face-to-face interviews. COVID could also complicate this. So for now, Biden has said all the right things to start the refugee program. It's enough for now. It may not be enough for long because this is about money and budgets.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the politics here because the new administration has said it wants U.S. foreign policy to relate to what Americans need and want, especially the middle class. They want there to be a political constituency for what Americans do abroad. But here we are talking about refugees and talking about Yemen, where someone might ask, what's in this for me? Jackie, how does the announcement in Yemen relate to what the administration wants to do?

NORTHAM: Well, I think it'll go a long way to help dampen, you know, some of the outrage, particularly in Congress, about the Yemen war and the U.S. role in that bloodshed, but also Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses - you know, activists being detained, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. That sparked outrage, you know, not only here in the U.S., but worldwide. Trump administration's seen as not taking any action on it, and Biden is taking a different path. So I think it'll go a long way, these announcements.

INSKEEP: And when you hear Biden say that he wants foreign policy to have political support, that seems like a reaction to former President Trump, who attacked refugees and called them a danger as part of his politics. Is there a constituency, Deb, for resettling more refugees?

AMOS: Yeah. There's a recent Pew study that showed 73% of Americans say taking in refugees is an important goal. And there's some people who will tell you that the Trump administration brought so much attention to this policy that that's why people changed their minds. You know, refugees pay their taxes. Over time, they do as well as native-born Americans. Many are health care workers. Many are on the frontlines of the pandemic. So it is a popular program despite these past four years.

INSKEEP: So you're telling me that former President Trump increased American support for refugees. Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deborah Amos along with NPR's Jackie Northam. Jackie, thanks to you.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "GAUNT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.