Biden Taps Career Diplomat as Envoy to Yemen
By selecting Timothy Lenderking, Biden signals that he wants a quick end to the war there.
President Joe Biden is set to choose Timothy Lenderking, a career foreign service officer with deep knowledge of the Gulf region, to serve as the administration’s envoy to Yemen, potentially signalling a more concerted effort to end the conflict that has left millions on the brink of starvation.
Lenderking served as a deputy assistant secretary of state focused on the Gulf during the Trump administration. Biden has yet to make other key appointments for ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates.
Lenderking will take the lead on what is expected to be a sharp turn in policy on Yemen, where Houthi rebels are fighting a U.S.-backed coalition that includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Speaking at a White House briefing on Thursday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Biden would announce an end to American support for military operations in Yemen. The United States stopped its policy of refueling Saudi and Emirati warplanes in 2018, but continued providing intelligence support to the coalition despite congressional uproar over the American role in the conflict. The freeze will not extend to the fight against al-Qaeda in the war-torn country.
Lenderking’s appointment comes just a week after Biden tapped Robert Malley, who helped negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, to serve as special envoy for Iran. Malley had warned that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure approach against Iran accomplished little. The policy included military pressure and severe sanctions, devastating Tehran’s economy.
The Saudi-led coalition has been criticized for indiscriminately bombing Yemeni civilians and targeting Yemen’s crumbling infrastructure. In 2018, after the Trump administration certified that the coalition was making a good faith effort to reduce civilian casualties in the conflict, Lenderking said the United States believed military pressure against the Houthis was “appropriate,” but gave Riyadh “just above a passing grade” on preventing harm.
Biden has expressed support for diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Yemen and vowed to reassess the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which came under fire from lawmakers during former President Donald Trump’s term.
During the Trump administration, Lenderking frequently travelled to the region to try to advance negotiations between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis, who now control the majority of the country’s population and who appear to be growing closer to Tehran. While experts said that Lenderking has a strong understanding of the Yemen conflict, an end to fighting is likely to be a tough sell for both the Saudis and the Houthis.
“He will need to focus on creating incentives for peace and disincentives for warring—for both the government and the Houthis,” said Elana DeLozier, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace who focuses on the Gulf. “As the Saudis have found out in the last year and a half … the process is more likely to be a hard slog.”
Talks have recently ground to a near-halt, after a deadly attack in December on the civilian airport in Yemen claimed by the Houthis helped spur the Trump administration to designate the group a terror organization. U.S. officials had warned the Houthi movement against violent action in the run-up to the decision, and the United Nations and aid organizations said that the decision could drive Yemen closer toward famine. The Biden administration has pledged to review the eleventh-hour decision, which prompted fierce debate within the State Department and a backlash from Capitol Hill.
For his part, Lenderking has long insisted that the United States must help bring the conflict to an end imminently, though other voices in the past administration pushed for more financial and economic pressure against the Houthi movement.
“We have a much shorter timeline. We’re not interested in seeing this conflict prolonged,” Lenderking said in 2018. “We would like to see Iran pushed out of Yemen eventually.”
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch