A bipartisan letter that members of Congress sent Tuesday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken increased growing pressure on the Biden administration to fully end U.S. support for Yemeni suffering and push the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to "lift its obstruction of commercial and humanitarian imports" to the war-torn country.
Although President Joe Biden was praised early in his term for a series of actions on Yemen—temporarily freezing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, ending U.S. support for the coalition's "offensive operations," and reversing the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization—lawmakers and activists want him to go further and criticize the administration's denial of the blockade.
In light of the president's recent actions, the letter (pdf) to Blinken—led by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.)—expresses appreciation for "the Biden administration's commitment to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and resolve the underlying conflict that drives it," while also pushing for additional action.
"Since 2015, the restrictions imposed by the coalition have critically exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Yemen," the letter says. "The interference, delay, and outright blocking of commercial goods and humanitarian assistance shipped to Yemen's ports is a principal cause of price inflation, food insecurity, economic collapse, and the failure of public services in Yemen. These measures do not interrupt the supply of Iranian and other weapons to the Houthis."
The restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led coalition on imports into Yemen are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the country, where nearly 50,000 people are already starving to death. Our bipartisan letter calling on @SecBlinken to urge Saudi Arabia to lift the restrictions: pic.twitter.com/b8JPnUUGOr
— Rep. Ted Lieu (@RepTedLieu) April 13, 2021
The letter acknowledges recent progress on getting fuel into Yemen as positive but adds that "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. Ending this practice will boost Yemen's economy, de-escalate the conflict, and prevent this humanitarian catastrophe from worsening—all important U.S. objectives."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) also signed on to the letter, as did Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), William Keating (D-Mass.), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), Colin Allred (D-Texas), Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), and Kathy Manning (D-N.C.). It came a week after over 70 lawmakers—led by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)—sent a similar message to the White House.
As Aída Chávez reported for The Nation Tuesday:
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."
Vox's Alex Ward, who reported last week on the "relentless pressure from the left" that Biden is currently facing, made clear the administration's position on the blockade in a series of tweets Monday.
"It is not a blockade," an unnamed State Department spokesperson told the reporter. "A blockade would imply there's nothing getting in."
1. A State Dept. spokesperson just gave the Biden admin's fiercest denial yet about charges of a Saudi-led blockade in Yemen:
"It is not a blockade," the spokesperson said, following up on this statement to me earlier. https://t.co/ysyRl2gIJK
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— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) April 12, 2021
"U.N. data clearly shows food, aid, and now fuel are getting in. But it's possible the Saudis have a veto over which ships get okay to dock as part of the process," Ward noted. "It's also likely, as many reported, that the Saudis are really controlling what does and doesn't go into Yemen," despite a 2016 agreement.
Linking to Ward's report, Keane Bhatt, policy director for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, argued in a series of tweets Sunday that "the U.S. still supports the war and blockade."
When a CNN investigation showed in early March "that the Saudi blockade led to deadly fuel and food shortages in Yemen, starving children, U.S. envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking effectively denied [the] blockade's existence and obfuscated its impact," he said.
Bhatt also highlighted that "CNN's explosive finding that the Saudi blockade was 'U.S. supported' never needed correction or retraction; there's no sign the White House or State Department objected to the description or provided contrary evidence."
Saudi warplanes enforcing the aerial blockade through bombings and the threat of bombings, are 75% U.S.-supplied and get an ongoing flow of U.S. spare parts, maintenance, and logistics to fly. This was never congressionally authorized. Congress voted to terminate it. (18/x)
— Keane Bhatt (@KeaneBhatt) April 12, 2021
After detailing relevant remarks from not only Lenderking but also Blinken, State Department spokesperson Ned Price, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield alongside recent developments, Bhatt said that "in my view, this all amounts to a concerted, deliberate diplomatic campaign by the U.S. to provide political cover for the prolonged use of this Saudi war tactic, even as the U.N. and [World Food Program] pleaded for the blockade to be lifted independently of a ceasefire."
"If the White House does not heed the calls of members of Congress urging it to reverse its current course, the Saudi blockade will help kill 400,000 Yemeni children and 16 million civilians on the brink of starvation this year," he warned, citing a recent report from U.N. agencies.
"If the administration is not responsive," he noted, "Congress has tools to compel an end to U.S. support for the blockade by invoking and effectuating its authorities under Article I of the Constitution, the 1973 War Powers Act, and its power of the purse via appropriations."
As a possible administration response is readied to the Dingell-Pocan-Khanna 75-member letter this week, lawmakers will be looking out for a commitment to remove the blockade as a Saudi bargaining chip in negotiations, a tactic that will kill tens of thousands more people. (23/x) pic.twitter.com/v1Y5o4n2C1
— Keane Bhatt (@KeaneBhatt) April 12, 2021
The Yemeni Liberation Movement, which has been leading a hunger strike to protest the blockade since March 29, is circulating a petition that urges Biden to "publicly speak out against the blockade on Yemen" and "end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led blockade."
"Yemenis have been deprived of their basic human rights of water, food, electricity, and life at the hands of the U.S.-funded onslaught," says the petition webpage. "This is a preventable, man-made humanitarian crisis. We will not stand by the deaths of our families and people."