Two years before Joe Biden
was elected president, 30 national security experts who worked with him under President Barack Obama
published a high-profile mea culpa in which they called their policy of supporting the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen
a "failure," citing how it harmed civilians, and urged then-President Donald Trump
to reverse it.
The decision had far-reaching implications for US foreign policy
, recognizing that Washington's pattern of arming and assisting other countries made Americans complicit in their actions, a fact that the Obama administration had spent years denying in Yemen.
Today, 23 of those who signed the letter are back in government, holding high-ranking positions under Biden, and their administration is supporting Israel as it bombards Gaza
in an offensive that has killed dozens of children
and destroyed medical facilities.
Stardia contacted the 23 officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State
Tony Blinken, ambassador to the United Nations
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, domestic policy chief Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and top Pentagon appointees, to ask how they perceived the situations in Yemen and Gaza.
None agreed to comment on the record, and the National Security Action organization, which put together the Yemen letter, no longer hosts the statement on its website.
The United States' weaponry and international diplomatic support are critical for Israel; Hamas
, whose indiscriminate firing has killed at least 12 Israelis in the current round of fighting, has no such relationship with Washington; America's influence on its leaders is extremely limited.
If the Yemen mea culpa signers truly learned their lesson, now is the time to act as if they did.
Kate Kizer's book
, Win Without War, discusses how to achieve victory without resorting to
Many experts believe that the most humane course of action is self-evident.
“As a global superpower and Israel’s closest ally, the United States has a responsibility to do much more to end this escalation,” the influential liberal Jewish group J Street argued in a statement on Monday, urging Biden to publicly tell Israel to stop hitting densely populated areas, call for a ceasefire, and abandon his hands-off approach to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
Former Obama administration officials acknowledged in the Yemen letter that allowing impunity for U.S. partners in order to avoid public spats can lead to greater and greater violence. “We did not intend for U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check, but today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is exactly what happened,” they wrote.
Setting a precedent of unquestioning support for partners such as Israel and Saudi Arabia makes it easier for American and foreign leaders who dismiss human rights
concerns, such as Trump, to exacerbate international conflicts such as the Yemen war, they argue.
If those insights guide Biden's team, it will be determined whether the president's foreign policy can truly reflect the values that Biden stated shortly after taking office: "defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity."
“If the signers of the Yemen mea culpa truly learned their lesson, now is the time to act like it,” said Kate Kizer of Win Without War, who was heavily involved in anti-war advocacy in Yemen. “Just as in Yemen, the US approach to Israel and Palestine
is both ineffective and fundamentally in contradiction with our stated policy goals and commitment to human rights.”
Rather than allowing developments that could lead to another apology, she told Stardia that “we need immediate action” from Biden’s team. “Reckoning with mistakes is difficult, but it is nothing compared to the pain that policymakers have asked Palestinians
and many others in the region to endure as they make the same mistakes over and over again.”
On the condition of anonymity, one signatory to the Yemen letter who is now in the Biden administration
discussed the parallels with the Gaza offensive.
“The loss of civilian life in both contexts is heartbreaking, but they are not analogous — at least not yet,” the person wrote in an email. “The Biden administration has been in office for slightly more than 3 months, and the violence in Israel and Gaza has been ongoing for just over a week. We had no illusions that we’d be in a position to change the underlying dynamics of a long-run conflict.
Given the extent of the fighting in Yemen, which has lasted six years since Saudi Arabia and its allies began bombing
the country with US assistance, the person presented the situation there as fundamentally different.
“On the other hand, we expressed regret in the letter that, for too many months, we actively supported an aerial bombardment campaign that began under our watch and with our support,” the signatory said.
As with previous Gaza assaults, Israel is likely to call a halt to its campaign within weeks, owing in part to public pressure from powerful Americans outside the Biden administration.
However, hard-right Israelis like Netanyahu and other international figures have already received an early signal about Biden that could undermine his administration's efforts to promote human rights and peace for years to come. The president's recently revealed plan to funnel $735 million in new bombs to Israel will strengthen the impression that he quietly condones behavior that the United States claims to condemn.
Following Biden's strongest call for a cease-fire yet, Netanyahu declared on Wednesday that he was "determined to continue" the offensive in Gaza.
In a statement about the new arms deal
, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a prominent member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned of the dangers of Biden's approach.
“While I have supported Israel’s security assistance, including funding for the Iron Dome defense system, I have serious concerns about the timing of this weapons sale, the message it will send to Israel and the world about the urgency of a cease-fire, and the open questions about the legality of Israel’s military strikes that have killed civilians in Gaza,” Castro said on Monday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not address the parallels to Yemen in an email to Stardia, but stated that the Biden administration wants “the restoration of calm and the protection of civilians, as the current conflict has tragically claimed the lives of both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.”
“President Biden has expressed both his support for a ceasefire and, more broadly, his strong commitment to a negotiated two-state solution as the best path to a just and lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
,” according to a White House
Soon after taking office, Biden slashed US aid to the Saudis in Yemen, saying that cutting ties with long-time American allies was critical to pressuring them to end the conflict. In a Monday statement, J Street stated that drawing a clear line with Israel is the only way to achieve the Israeli-Palestinian peace that Biden's team claims it seeks.
“The White House must... recognize that the United States’ provision of a financial and diplomatic ‘blank check’ to the state of Israel means that its current government has little incentive to end occupation, pursue serious diplomacy, and find a solution to the conflict that provides Israel with real security and Palestinians with their rights,” the organization said in a statement released Monday.