Let’s Abandon False Dichotomy of “Offensive vs. Defensive” Support for Yemen War

On the evening of December 7, 2021, the Senate shot down a resolution to block the sale of a package of air-to-air missiles and missile rail launchers to Saudi Arabia. In the weeks leading up to the vote, bombs rained down on the city of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. This November, civilian casualties in Yemen were at a 16-month high. Bombing rates from the Saudi coalition were 41 percent higher than the monthly average during this year. Ten months have passed since President Biden ended “offensive” support to the Saudi coalition that has been waging war on Yemen since 2015. Biden pledged to find a political solution to the conflict, but the situation on the ground has only gotten worse.

The sale of the package of weapons was announced by the White House in November for $650 million in air-to-air missiles — primarily produced by Raytheon Technologies. The administration insisted that these weapons were not to be used inside Yemen but to protect the Saudi people from retaliatory attacks in Saudi territory by its adversaries in Yemen, i.e., the Houthis. Congress then had 30 days to contest the sale. The biggest debate in the Senate centered on whether the weapons were “offensive” or “defensive” in nature.

The Biden administration, in a statement released hours before the Senate vote on the resolution to stop the sale, argued that the sale was for “defensive” support to Saudi Arabia and the weapons being sold could not be used offensively. Senators who voted in support of the sale echoed the same rhetoric. However, that characterization is ridiculous when discussing the Saudi-led war on Yemen because Saudi Arabia is aggressively violating another nation’s sovereignty by waging war on Yemen in the first place.

The nature of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen is entirely offensive. Support of any kind for the war by the United States sends a signal of impunity to the Saudi government. It says that even if Saudi Arabia is bombing, blockading and starving another independent country, the U.S. will be there to lend a hand.

The Senate largely failed to examine this particular sale in the broader context of Saudi Arabia imposing a land, air and sea blockade on the entire country of Yemen. Since 2015, Yemenis have not had full and proper access to their land crossings, their sea ports or their airports. The blockade has been a consistent strategy of the Saudi coalition since the beginning. This act of collective punishment has starved thousands of Yemenis and will have impacts on the population for generations to come. The blockade has also exacerbated the pandemic. Hospitals treating COVID19 patients risk losing power due to fuel shortages caused by the blockade and patients who need to leave the country for treatment are not able to. It is an act of war. Why would the United States be lending any support to a country starving millions of people, no matter how the support is labeled?

Saudi Arabia has tried to beat the Houthis for six years and has failed, despite being backed and armed by the United States, the most militarized nation on Earth. Now the Saudi government is using its blockade of Yemen as a bargaining chip in peace talks. The weapons that are a part of this new sale give Saudi Arabia the ability to prolong and enforce their air blockade — a crucial part of Saudi Arabia’s war strategy. The White House can say Saudi Arabia will only be able to use the weapons in defense of its population, but the United States is handing over weapons capable of shooting down other aircraft when Saudi Arabia maintains that it will control the airspace in Yemen.

It has been almost a year since President Biden ended “offensive” support for the war in Yemen and promised to find a lasting political solution. After the announcement, Yemen advocates in the United States and around the world were wondering what ending “offensive support” really means. Ten months after the announcement, the situation on the ground has only gotten worse. Worst-case estimates say that a Yemeni child is starving to death every 75 seconds. The Saudi government and the Houthis are nowhere close to a peace agreement because the blockade continues to be used as a political tool by Saudi leaders and because the U.S. continues to support Saudi Arabia, simply now calling the support “defensive.” It is clear that President Biden’s strategy of ending “offensive” support for the war is disingenuous. Creating this false dichotomy between offensive and defensive has only left wiggle room for the Saudi military to continue its brutal assault on the people of Yemen. It’s time that members of Congress and activists who are serious about ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen abandon that rhetoric completely.

Across political parties, 64 percent of likely voters oppose the newest sale, even though it has been defined as “defensive.” Members of Congress across party lines opposed the deal. The dichotomy is breaking down, and peace activists should welcome it. If the “defensive vs. offensive” rhetoric continues to be embraced, the Biden administration and Congress will only continue to postpone the day when Saudi Arabia realizes the futility of its intervention and leaves the Yemeni people to determine their own future.