Blank Cheques

Tom Stevenson

On 4 February, the US government announced it was ending its support for ‘offensive military operations’ in Yemen. As an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance document released last week explains, the US decision was meant to signal a change of direction: under Biden, America would no longer ‘give our partners in the Middle East a blank cheque to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values’. But America has not withdrawn from the conflict entirely. On 8 February, the head of US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, said the US would continue to provide intelligence for Saudi and UAE forces. The cheques may not be blank, but they won’t be empty either.

The Biden administration has tried to give the appearance of a decisive break with the Trump era, but in the Middle East its policies have been more of the same. The secretary of state, Anthony Blinken (the epitome of the ‘politics as smart law firm’ faction of the Democratic Party), criticises the UN Human Rights council for ‘unacceptable bias against Israel’. The administration has conducted airstrikes in Syria, approved $200 million of arms sales to Egypt, and made plans to increase Nato troop deployments to Iraq. In the Arabian peninsula, the US military is expanding its strategic infrastructure with plans to make use of the Red Sea port of Yanbu and air bases in Tabuk and Taif.

Unlike the US, the British government is continuing its military support for the war in Yemen. The latest government figures show that the UK approved $1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia between July and September 2020. (There had been a year’s suspension of arms exports since June 2019, after the Campaign Against the Arms Trade took the government to court.) The UK has also cut its provision of humanitarian aid to Yemen by more than half, despite UN warnings that the country is facing ‘the worst famine in decades’.

The US and UK have not only provided the weapons; they have given direction at every operational level. British soldiers manned radar systems in support of the air war. US planes conducted mid-air refuelling for bombing sorties. Saudi pilots are trained in Anglesey.

Despite this support, the result has been a deadly stalemate. Aside from the more than ten thousand civilian casualties caused directly by the air war, there is the incalculable body count of the resulting famines, cholera epidemic, and the ground fighting. The intervention has also not prevented Houthi attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, meaning it has been a clear failure even on its own ignoble terms.

The new US policy looks sane by comparison with Britain’s. But it would be naive to view the UK’s actions in isolation from American decisions. It is more likely that the ongoing British involvement was agreed in advance of Biden’s announcement. With UK and US support, the war will continue indefinitely. The British government refuses even to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by its side in the conflict.