Before Lloyd Austin was President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of defense, he spent three years under President Barack Obama running America’s military operations in the Middle East. As the head of U.S. Central Command, the busiest of the Pentagon’s 11 sprawling combatant commands, Austin oversaw U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and its partners as they waged a brutal military campaign in Yemen, fueling the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Since then, Biden has called for an end to American involvement in Yemen, multiple officials who crafted it have said they regret their choices, and in 2019, every single Democrat then in Congress ― along with several key Republicans ― voted for legislation to withdraw the U.S. from the war. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led intervention has continued to kill civilians in likely war crimes and driven millions of Yemenis closer to famine.
Austin, however, has never publicly distanced himself from the effort. He has not publicly commented on the Yemen war since entering private life in 2016, a source close to the Biden transition team told HuffPost, and he declined to comment for this story.
The former general’s personal assessment of the Saudi-led intervention is unclear. Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, other Cabinet secretaries and ultimately Obama made the big decisions about the policy, while Austin’s job was operational, noted the source close to the transition, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Austin wasn’t in a position to question the president.
But now that he’s up for the top Pentagon job, learning what Austin thought and did behind the scenes about U.S. conduct in Yemen is critical to understanding whether he has reflected on the failures of the Obama era, and whether he will deliver on Biden’s promises to respond to evolving views on foreign policy among Democrats. Influential human rights and anti-war advocates and international relations analysts are paying close attention.
“We’d like to see, now that there’s a different hand in power, what will be done to end U.S. support for the war,” said Jehan Hakim, who chairs a Yemeni-American advocacy group called the Yemeni Alliance Committee, and who noted that many members of her community mobilized for Biden. “If we’re going to be looking at a progressive foreign policy, when will that happen?”
Austin’s role in the conflict has received little attention as lawmakers and national security experts debate the wisdom of tapping a former general for a job almost always held by a civilian and focus on other policies where Austin had a major impact, like the fight against the self-styled Islamic State.
Yet a public discussion of situations like Yemen is vital to the message being promoted by Biden and Austin’s other proponents: that he believes in military restraint, as Biden says he personally does, and that reducing messy foreign interventions will be one of Austin’s chief priorities.
For Austin to reflect on Yemen would show that Biden’s incoming team knows that acting less aggressively abroad is about more than bringing troops home ― it’s also a matter of being less reckless about other American shows of force. As with Yemen, the U.S. often creates devastating crises without sending in its personnel, by supplying weapons systems to destructive forces, shielding its partners from scrutiny, and supporting policies like blockades and sanctions that make it harder for people to get food and medicine.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a leader in the congressional effort against the Yemen war, told HuffPost he’s hopeful that Austin agrees with others who once supported the U.S. intervention and now say the policy must end.
“The people I have spoken to in the Obama administration who now have roles in the Biden administration … see the need for a course correction and grasp the moral urgency of the situation. I have no doubt Gen. Austin will align himself with the approach of ending the war,” Khanna said.
Senators will likely raise Yemen during confirmation hearings for Austin and other Biden appointees, said Hassan El-Tayyab of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Activists will also push lawmakers to ask Austin about his position on the board of directors of Raytheon, a military contractor whose bombs the Saudis often use in Yemen.
Two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will consider Austin’s nomination, have worked on Yemen for years and have said they are concerned about Austin taking the Pentagon job because of how recently he served in the military: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Warren plans to vote against giving Austin a waiver he would require to be defense secretary. Representatives for Gillibrand and Warren did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
Gillibrand pressed Austin on Yemen during a Senate hearing in 2015, when he was the Central Command chief. At the time, Austin said he wasn’t certain about Saudi Arabia’s plans for the beleaguered country but called the Saudis “great partners.” One year later, Austin told lawmakers the war was “trending towards … the Saudi-led coalition because of some incremental gains that have been made there recently” and argued the coalition would organize peace talks that would permit the U.S. to help Yemenis fight the local branch of al Qaeda.
What is most jarring about the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict is not just that the Obama administration [got] into a car with a reckless driver. … It is that Washington never got out of the car.
International Crisis Group report
The then-general’s comments echo the way the Obama administration defended the Saudi-led intervention for years despite growing evidence that it was violating international humanitarian standards while making Yemen poorer, hungrier and more dangerous. Over the course of the war, al Qaeda and other armed extremist groups gained significant ground in the country, including by obtaining American weapons purchased by the Saudis and their ally in the war, the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed coalition led by the Saudis and the UAE bombed targets like schools and hospitals ― as the Obama team argued that U.S. involvement kept the civilian toll of the fighting from getting even worse.
Many people working in government at the time came to acknowledge the problems with the policy and its horrifying consequences in 2015 and 2016 ― with some even suggesting that continued American support for the Saudis and their partners implicated U.S. officials in war crimes.
The Defense Department, where Austin was in a key position, was especially committed to the controversial Yemen policy, according to a comprehensive review of the Obama administration’s approach to Yemen produced by the International Crisis Group in 2019.
In spite of growing concerns about U.S. involvement from members of Congress, Pentagon staff insisted Washington could not pull back support from the Saudis and its other Arab partners, Obama aides told the think tank. Defense officials also helped convince Congress to permit arms sales to the Saudis, notably a $1.29 billion package of bombs that Obama sent the kingdom in late 2015 despite growing objections to his policy from his own party. And Defense Department personnel who were sent to Riyadh to help the Saudis run less damaging missions rarely had that effect because they were not experts in minimizing civilian casualties ― while experts who did come from Central Command, which Austin managed, only visited periodically and gave overly general guidance, the report suggests.
Eventually, Pentagon staff withdrew from that program in Riyadh “very quietly” in a move that some other officials saw as an attempt to protect the agency’s reputation, per the report.
“What is most jarring about the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict is not just that the Obama administration agreed to a measure of support for the coalition in spite of concerns that it might be getting into a car with a reckless driver ― to paraphrase one former official. It is that Washington never got out of the car,” the Crisis Group analysis concludes.
Scores of former Obama officials ― including Biden ― have spent years decrying Trump’s continuation of U.S. support for the Saudis and worked with progressive groups to kill it while acknowledging their own culpability to varying degrees.
For Austin to express similar views would boost unity among Biden supporters and quell hopes among the Saudis, Emiratis and others that they can maintain U.S. support even as they drive fighting in places like the crucial Hodeidah port, where clashes are now harming growing numbers of women and children, according to a Monday press release from Doctors Without Borders.
It’s likely just a matter of time before the Pentagon hopeful has to join the public conversation about what will pose one of the earliest foreign policy tests for the Biden administration. Doing that on his own terms might be the best move.
“We want to give people the benefit of the doubt and give them the opportunity, just like we’re trying to give the Biden administration the opportunity, to correct this mistake,” Hakim said.
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