Morning Brief

Biden Ends U.S. Support For Yemen War

Saudi officials gave a muted response to the news, welcoming the appointment of a new U.S. envoy.

U.S. President Joe Biden, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken  and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the State Department  in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the State Department in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021. Saul Loeb/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden announces a major shift in U.S. Yemen policy, Alexei Navalny faces a Moscow court—again, and Ecuador prepares for a presidential election.

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Biden Ends U.S. Hand in Yemen War

The United States will no longer support “offensive operations” in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, dealing a blow to the credibility of a U.S. partner and delivering a moral victory for U.S. and international activists.

U.S. President Joe Biden made the announcement during a wide-ranging foreign policy speech that declared diplomacy would be “back at the center” of U.S. foreign policy while condemning the war in Yemen as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”

Although Biden’s announcement is a victory for activists and politicians who have worked to keep the Yemen war from fading from the president’s priority list, it’s not yet clear what it will mean in practice. As Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer report, U.S. involvement has shrunk in recent years after the United States stopped its policy of refueling Saudi and Emirati warplanes in 2018. Up until Biden’s announcement, it has “continued providing intelligence support to the coalition despite congressional uproar over the American role in the conflict.“

By focusing on only “offensive” moves, Biden gives himself some strategic wiggle room. The president assured Saudi Arabia of continued U.S. help and support, which will likely come in the form of defensive weapons systems designed to block increasingly sophisticated Houthi missile and drone attacks.

Riyadh responds. In their public responses, Saudi Arabian officials sidestepped the substance of Biden’s remarks. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes the United States’ commitment, expressed in President Biden’s speech today, to cooperate with the Kingdom in defending its security and territory,” Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said. Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman touted the kingdom as “the number one supporter of Yemen through humanitarian and other assistance.”

The United Arab Emirates, whose own military footprint in Yemen has been reduced to counterterrorism operations (while still supporting the breakaway Southern Transitional Council), sought to distance itself from Saudi Arabia. “The UAE ended its military involvement in Yemen in October of last year. Eager to see the war over,” Anwar Gargash, the Emirati foreign affairs minister tweeted, adding that the country had supported multiple peace initiatives.

The peacemaker? As part of his remarks, Biden announced that Timothy Lenderking would lead U.S. efforts in Yemen as its new envoy. Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer look at the challenge facing the career foreign service officer.

Beyond Yemen. As for the rest of Biden’s comments, an analysis by Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh detected a populist streak as the president rolled out “a new organizing principle for national security: the welfare of America’s middle class.”

What We’re Following Today

Security Council calls for release of Myanmar leaders. The U.N. Security Council has called for the immediate release of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow detainees in a joint statement that stopped short of describing Monday’s military takeover as a coup and “emphasized the need for the continued support of the democratic transition in Myanmar.” The news comes as U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration was considering placing “specific targeted sanctions” on Myanmar’s military leaders.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt has some advice for the Biden administration on what they should—and shouldn’t—do about Myanmar’s coup.

Navalny in court again. Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny is on trial for the second time in a week, as he faces a slander charge today in a Moscow court. Navalny is accused of slandering a World War II veteran who appeared in a video promoting Russia’s constitutional reforms after the dissident described those who took part as traitors. Navalny’s lawyer maintains that he cannot face more jail time if found guilty as the alleged offense occurred before a law was passed making the charge punishable by up to two years in prison.

CCP vs. BBC The Chinese foreign ministry has accused the BBC of spreading “fake news” and politicizing the coronavirus pandemic by pushing “rehashed theories about covering up by China.” The comments were made as part of a backlash against the United Kingdom after its communications regulator revoked the broadcasting license of China’s English-language news channel CGTN, after concluding its editorial stances were ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Tensions have risen between the two countries after the BBC recently released a documentary which focused on the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan last year.

China may not like it, but levels of trust in the BBC have increased among American viewers. Elisabeth Braw argued last week in FP that the U.S. needs its own version.

Keep an Eye On

Putin’s approval. Suggestions of an impending collapse in support for Russian President Vladimir Putin following nationwide protests may be overblown, according to a new poll from an independent Russian firm. The Levada Center poll, conducted the weekend before the sentencing of dissident Alexei Navalny, showed a 1 percent drop in Putin’s approval rating, down to 64 percent from 65 percent in November. Support for Putin was at its lowest among 18-24 year olds; 48 percent of those respondents said the country was moving in the wrong direction.

Ecuador’s election. Voters in Ecuador go to the ballot box on Sunday to elect a new president alongside a new National Assembly. Polls anticipate a close race for president, with support divided between the conservative Guillermo Lasso, left-wing Andrés Arauz, and indigenous leader Yaku Pérez. If no presidential candidate can win over 50 percent of Sunday’s vote the top two candidates will contest a second round election in April.

Food inflation. Global food prices are at their highest levels since 2014, as an increase in Chinese demand for corn and a downturn in U.S. production drove up the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index. Overall, the FAO’s index—which tracks a basket of food commodity prices—increased by 4.3 percent from December 2020, driven partly by corn prices which were 42.3 percent higher than in January 2020. 

Odds and Ends

No kidding. A predicted baby boom driven by lockdown idleness has failed to materialize, according to figures released by Italy’s statistics agency. Birth rates for December 2020—9 months after the first lockdowns were announced—were down 21.6 percent across a sample of 15 Italian cities.

Germany’s statistics office has also warned that in 2020 Germany’s population likely failed to grow for the first time since 2011.

In the United States, researchers at the Brookings Institution have projected 300,000 fewer U.S. births this year as a result of the pandemic.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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