WASHINGTON ― There’s little evidence that the Obama administration is keeping its promise to review the U.S. role in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people in Yemen, The Huffington Post has found after conversations with more than a dozen U.S. officials, congressional staffers, analysts and human rights advocates.
The White House announced the review in a statement on Oct. 8, 12 hours after a Saudi-led coalition strike killed 140 people and injured hundreds more. The administration bashed Saudi Arabia and skirted around U.S. complicity in the war ― though a U.S.-built jet using U.S.-provided fuel had dropped the U.S.-made bombs.
Referencing the coalition’s “troubling series of attacks striking Yemeni civilians,” White House spokesman Ned Price suggested that a major reassessment of the U.S. role in the war would begin that very moment. “An immediate review,” he called it.
Three weeks later, the U.S. military continues to refuel jets and provide targeting assistance for the Saudi-led coalition trying to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government. And confusion reigns over what the review looks like or involves, with the administration failing to even identify which agencies are involved in the process.
The Obama administration’s various arms have yet to get the story straight. On Thursday, Defense Department spokesman Christopher Sherwood told HuffPost that the Pentagon isn’t even involved in the review, but a day later, a State Department official emailed to say that it is.
“The review continues to receive substantial senior-level attention and is integrating new developments in the region as they emerge,” he wrote. He said he could not provide a sense of when the review might conclude.
White House spokeswoman Dew Tiantawach declined to provide any evidence the administration is actually reassessing its policy.
Asked about the structure of the review, the agencies involved, who would be leading it, when it would conclude, and whether the U.S. would halt support for the Saudi-led coalition during the review, Tiantawach pointed HuffPost to previous statements from White House and State Department spokespeople at press briefings.
But the briefings do not contain answers to those questions.
We haven’t been able to figure out who’s convening or leading this thing. Cole Bockenfeld, Project on Middle East Democracy
Since the Obama administration first announced the review, White House and State Department officials have mentioned it in seven briefings.
White House spokesmen declined to offer any update on the review when they were asked about it on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13.
State Department spokesmen confirmed that the review was ongoing on Oct. 11, 12, 13, 14 and 21. John Kirby, the department’s chief spokesman, mostly offered generalizations, saying the review would involve multiple agencies of the U.S. government and follow the structure of previous reviews of security assistance to foreign governments, without naming agencies or describing that structure.
The only detail Kirby provided was that the review would explore whether U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition really does help reduce civilian casualties. (Top administration officials have long argued that the death toll from Saudi-led bombing might be even higher if Americans were not suggesting appropriate targets and discouraging strikes on civilians.)
But otherwise, details are scant.
“We haven’t been able to figure out who’s convening or leading this thing,” said Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
Asked if he had any clarity on the review, one Hill aide involved in legislative action relating to the war said, “We don’t have that.”
And asked about a timeline for the review, Carnegie Middle East Center expert Farea Al-Muslimi said, “I have asked that question the last few days to a lot of offices in D.C. — government ones ... No one really has an answer.”
While the White House dithers, U.S. tanker planes are helping Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and other countries spend more time in the air bombing Yemeni infrastructure and killing civilians with U.S.-made jets.
The U.S.-backed coalition is responsible for the majority of deaths in the Yemen conflict. It has also imposed a blockade of the country’s coast that has caused major shortages of food and medicine.
U.S. personnel are still stationed in Riyadh to provide the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence and logistical support. And the coalition has not had to worry about its stocks of weaponry: The Obama administration has approved transfers of almost $3 billion in military equipment to Saudi Arabia to replenish supplies used in the war, according to research from William Hartung at the Center for International Policy.
The administration believes that simply announcing the review sent a powerful signal to Saudi Arabia and its most important partner in the war, the UAE, that the U.S. is serious about reducing civilian casualties. The review will likely focus on the specific tactics of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, rather than on the more important question of how the U.S. can encourage the Saudis to de-escalate the conflict, said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress.
[The review] may actually be intended to undercut critics [of the U.S.’s role in the war] by giving the illusion that they’re dealing with it in some fashion. William Hartung, Center for International Policy
But the Saudis likely recognize that U.S. support for their efforts in Yemen is not really in doubt — especially since the U.S. has stood by as they’ve slaughtered civilians for 18 months, argued Scott Paul, a senior humanitarian policy adviser at human rights nonprofit Oxfam America.
“At this point, it looks weak,” Paul said. “It basically says, ‘We’re now on notice. We’ve been pretending to not be on notice for a year and a half.’”
For months, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has argued that the only way for U.S. calls for peace to have any credibility or alter Saudi behavior is to fully suspend support for the coalition. “It’s clear the Saudi-led coalition hasn’t been listening,” he told HuffPost through a spokesman.
“My sense is that [the Saudis] don’t think this is a break point,” said Greg Gause, a Texas A&M University professor who is an authority on Gulf politics. He noted that the Saudis’ primary focus in Yemen is weakening the Houthi movement, an Iran-backed militia. With the U.S. and the Houthis recently becoming involved in direct conflict for the first time, the Saudis may calculate that the U.S. will be even more interested in helping them.
The review “seems more like a stalling exercise,” Hartung said. “It may actually be intended to undercut critics [of the U.S.’s role in the war] by giving the illusion that they’re dealing with it in some fashion.”
On Thursday, two well-known former State Department officials published a piece on War on the Rocks, a prominent foreign affairs blog, imagining what a real review of U.S.-Saudi ties might look like. But they concluded that the current effort is a sham.
Even before the review was announced, legal experts have been urging the government to end its support for the coalition, pending investigations of alleged war crimes.
Three U.S. legal provisions on security assistance require support for the coalition to be halted immediately, the American Bar Association told lawmakers in September. Following the promise of the review, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said all aid to the coalition should end until it is completed. He added that he believes U.S. officials could already face international prosecution for their role in aiding the coalition, echoing a Reuters investigation that revealed that some Obama administration lawyers believed the same thing.
The administration thinks it’s unreasonable to expect it to rapidly change its stance on the war, given the ongoing disputes between agencies about the humanitarian value of U.S. involvement. It also believes that all military aid to the coalition has been consistent with American laws and international commitments, the State Department official said.
But the White House does seem committed to the idea that its “immediate review” signals an important policy shift.
“U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check,” Price, the White House spokesman, told the press on Oct. 8.