Biden Went Soft on Saudi Arabia. Now Democrats in Congress Are, Too.

When Joe Biden ran for the White House, he campaigned on making Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the international stage. But a year into his presidency, Biden has stopped well short of getting tougher on Saudi Arabia—and prominent elected Democrats are following suit.

At first, Biden seemed like he’d make good on his campaign rhetoric. Democrats—long opposed the Trump administration’s approach to arms deals for Saudi Arabia—controlled both chambers of Congress. And Biden had been critical of Saudi Arabia given its role in Yemen’s war and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which the CIA pegged to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In February, Biden announced that the United States would be backing off the Trump administration’s approach of funding Saudi Arabia’s offensive military operations.

Saudi Arabia has been launching airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen for years, ever since Houthi rebels took Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014, and followed up with attacks against Saudi Arabia in turn. A Saudi-led coalition tried to intervene on behalf of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, but the conflict has so far brought 5 million to the brink of famine, killed hundreds of thousands, and has no clear end in sight as peace processes have stalled.

But, as the idiom goes, ‘do as I say, not as I do.’

Rather than backing off funding the conflict, the Biden Administration has actually renewed efforts to arm Saudi Arabia. Biden found a carve-out to still fund the conflict, by only allowing “defensive” arms sales to Saudi Arabia—a decision that has put him at loggerheads with some members of his own party who say it allows him to take rhetorical credit for bucking Trump’s approach, but which in reality perpetuates and contributes to the conflict.

Just last month, the State Department approved a $650 million missile sale to Saudi Arabia—the first major arms sale to the Kingdom during the Biden administration—and it’s left Democrats on Capitol Hill fuming about the administration’s willingness to support a country with a derelict human rights track record.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) told The Daily Beast the “defensive” carve-out is bogus when Saudi Arabia is known to fudge its human rights record.

Omar said it was clear that, ”whatever the stated use of these weapons,” they would likely be used to perpetuate the war in Yemen, “which includes routine targeting of civilians and children.”

“Even if they were only used in a defensive manner, there is no justification for handing 300 air-to-air missiles arming… a regime known for lying to cover up routine human rights violations,” Omar told The Daily Beast. “We should be using diplomacy to bring an end to Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign in Yemen, not perpetuating it.”

Arming the Saudis in any way, many Democrats have long argued, just prolongs the suffering and fuels the conflict with Yemen. As aid groups have noted, “the people of Yemen are not starving. They are being starved.”

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) also lambasted Biden’s approach, noting that this decision leaves Saudi Arabia in the driver’s seat, not the United States.

“The distinction between offensive and defensive support of the Saudi Royal Air Force is a smoke screen: there is no telling to what degree U.S. indirect support of fighter aircraft is being used in operations that have the end effect of prolonging war and exacerbating the worst humanitarian emergency on the planet,” Markey told The Daily Beast. Just Monday Saudi-led forces launched airstrikes in Sanaa, according to state media, Reuters reported.

Democrats have long argued against arms deals with Saudi Arabia. But an uncanny flip-flopping has started to settle in on Capitol Hill. While every Democratic senator voted in 2019 to block President Trump from approving an arms sale with Saudi Arabia, early this month the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected a proposal that would have blocked the Biden administration from selling $650 million worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Although the majority of Democrats voted against the sale, some Democrats that used to be the staunchest advocates for pulling back on arms deals to Saudi Arabia are now all-in.


Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine U.S.-Russia policy on Dec. 7, 2021.

Alex Brandon

Take Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). He was one of the earliest critics of arming Saudi Arabia, and has opposed the war in Yemen since the beginning. And yet, he voted in favor of the $650 million package.

Murphy said in a statement he believes this sale doesn’t fall into the category of “offensive” operations in Yemen.

“After reviewing the details of this sale, I believe it is consistent with President Biden’s pledge to end assistance for offensive operations in Yemen. This sale is solely intended to defend Saudi territory against cross-border Houthi drone attacks, which indiscriminately threaten Saudi civilians and other residents, including over 50,000 Americans,” Murphy said. “I have been the leading critic of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and have led the fight to end U.S. support for the Saudis’ bombing campaign, but I don’t advocate for ending our security relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

The Democrats are swerving on the issue likely because they simply don’t want to rock the boat with Biden, the chair of the Yemeni Alliance Committee, Jehan Hakim, told The Daily Beast. “During the Trump administration there was a clear support amongst the Democrats” to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Hakim said.

“There’s a kind of hesitancy or reluctance to go against the Biden administration,” Hakim told The Daily Beast. “It was easier to go against Trump than it is to go against Biden because they’re obviously in the same party, there’s this motivation or ambition to not go against the leadership.”

Many other lawmakers who have previously voted to block arms deals to the Kingdom or stop support for Saudi’s war with Yemen also voted in favor of the sale, including Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (who both, as candidates in 2020, said they supported ending military and intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia); Bob Menendez (D-NJ) (who led the way in 2019, introducing measures to block sales to Saudi Arabia during the Trump administration); Tom Carper (D-DE); Maggie Hassan (D-NH); Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH); and others.

One congressional aide suggested the support for the recent sale was about defending civilians in Saudi Arabia.

“I wouldn’t characterize this as a gift to the Saudis. I would say this is about defending civilians including American citizens in Saudi Arabia against attack,” the congressional aide told The Daily Beast.

Democrats also recently discarded an amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) that would have blocked U.S. defense contractors from maintaining Saudi warplanes conducting aerial strikes—a proposal that, if passed, could help stop the bombing and bring the conflict to a close.

A congressional aide familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast that a shift towards blocking any arms deals with Saudi Arabia could take place if civilian infrastructure is increasingly targeted.

”If you see a return of mass bombing of civilian infrastructure that could trigger some real rethink: should we cut off all arms sales period too sort of try to bring this to an end,” the congressional aide told The Daily Beast.

The recent sea change of support for Saudi Arabia from the Democratic Party is alarming, according to Markey.

“I’m deeply disappointed that Congress didn’t take this chance to end the U.S. support of the Saudi-led military coalition after seven terrible years of civil war in Yemen,” Markey told The Daily Beast. “We need to broker peace, not continue to flood the Saudi-led military coalition with endless arms and unconditional support.”

Khanna said he thinks the party seems to be making some progress on galvanizing support to block arms deals and maintenance packages with Saudi Arabia, noting that when he first started trying to attract interest in his proposals to wind down support to the conflict, they failed. “This year, my amendment passed the House,” Khanna said. “We have a long way to go, but change is coming… Congress should do its job and end military support and arm sales to the Saudi government.”


Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks at an “End Fossil Fuel” rally near the U.S. Capitol on June 29, 2021.

Anna Moneymaker

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been a balancing act, one that even the nimblest of politicians has stumbled over in the past, giving the kingdom a pass on human rights issues to achieve other goals, such as counterterrorism work or confronting Iran.

There’s arguments about “the importance of a secure…

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