WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday ordered an end to arms sales and other support to Saudi Arabia for a war in Yemen that he called a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” and declared that the United States would no longer be “rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions.”
The announcement was the clearest signal Mr. Biden has given of his intention to reverse the way President Donald J. Trump dealt with two of the hardest issues in American foreign policy.
Mr. Trump regularly rejected calls to rein in the Saudis for the indiscriminate bombing they carried out in their intervention in the civil war in Yemen as well as for the killing of a dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, on the grounds that American sales of arms to Riyadh “creates hundreds of thousands of jobs” in the United States. And he repeatedly dismissed evidence of interference by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in American elections and Russia’s role in a highly sophisticated hacking of the United States government.
Saudi leaders knew that the move was coming. Mr. Biden had promised to stop selling arms to them during the presidential campaign, and it follows the new administration’s announcement last month that it was pausing the sale of $478 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, a transfer the State Department approved in December over strong objections in Congress. The administration has also announced a review of major American arms sales to the United Arab Emirates.
But Mr. Biden’s order on Thursday went further, appearing to also end providing the Saudis targeting data and logistical support.
It was not only a rejection of Trump administration policy but a reversal of American support for the Saudi effort that dated to the Obama administration — and that Mr. Biden and his newly appointed secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, helped formulate. Soon after Iran-allied Houthi forces took over Yemen’s capital, Sana, in the fall of 2014, the Saudis and their gulf allies began airstrikes and then bought billions of dollars in American weaponry, with the goal of ousting the Houthi rebels from northern Yemen.
President Barack Obama gave the war his qualified approval, in part to assuage Saudi anger over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Two years later, Mr. Trump doubled down, embracing the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, despite mounting evidence that American fingerprints — and American-made munitions — were all over civilian deaths in the brutal civil war, which helped create the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis and a famine that is engulfing the country.
Now Mr. Biden is no longer making the case that American support was helping bring the war to a conclusion that would stop the civilian deaths. His goal is to force the Saudis into a diplomatic solution, and he appointed a longtime career diplomat, Timothy Lenderking, to act as special envoy to negotiate a settlement.
“This war has to end,” Mr. Biden said Thursday at the State Department, in his first major foreign policy speech since taking office. He said the speech was intended to “send a clear message to the world: America is back.”
But Mr. Biden also made clear that while he was seeking to force the Saudis to face up to the huge human toll of their intervention in Yemen, he was not leaving them alone to deal with a hostile Iran. He said he would continue sales of defensive weapons to Saudi Arabia that were designed to protect against missiles, drones and cyberattacks from Tehran.
“We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people,” the president said. He said nothing about the possibilities of imposing sanctions on the crown prince for his involvement in the Khashoggi killing, though Mr. Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, has said she plans to declassify intelligence about the killing.
In another reversal of Trump-era policy, Mr. Biden also announced he was “stopping any planned troop withdrawals from Germany,” halting Mr. Trump’s order to redeploy 12,000 troops stationed in Germany.
National security experts from both parties had called that order shortsighted, saying it was rooted in Mr. Trump’s dislike of Chancellor Angela Merkel and his determination to force NATO nations to pay more for their own defenses, no matter what the strategic costs to the United States.
But strategically, it is Mr. Biden’s warning to Moscow that may, over the long run, say more about the redirection of American foreign policy than the decision to limit Saudi Arabia’s ability to prosecute a regional war. He is the first president since the fall of the Soviet Union who has decided against trying a “reset” with Russia, instead announcing what amounts to a new strategy of deterrence, if not containment.
Mr. Biden hardened his vow to respond to Russian efforts to disrupt American democracy and to the SolarWinds hacking, a vast intrusion into American government and private networks whose dimensions are still a mystery. He said that in a call with Mr. Putin last week, he told the Russian leader “in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens — are over.”
Mr. Biden called on Moscow to release the imprisoned dissident Aleksei A. Navalny, adding, “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia.” But he did not specify how he would accomplish that, and his options may be limited. While the president hinted at a response “in kind” to the cyberattack, that could set off a round of escalation that has many American officials concerned.
Mr. Biden’s announcement came a day after the United States and Russia formally approved the five-year extension of New START, the one remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countries. Mr. Trump had insisted on amendments, but Mr. Biden concluded that it was wiser to get a prospective nuclear arms race off the table at a time of heightened competition in other arenas.
He said that strong alliances were key to deterring Moscow, along with the “growing ambitions of China to rival the United States.” And Mr. Biden’s aides concede that it is a powerful, rising, technologically sophisticated China, not a declining and disruptive Russia, that poses a deeper long-term threat. But the president spent little time on China in his speech, a recognition that his administration will be spending months trying to reformulate its approach to Beijing.
‘America Is Back’: Biden Outlines Vision of Global Leadership
President Biden said the United States would repair alliances after years of “abuse.” He also announced a freeze on troop withdrawals from Germany and a diplomatic focus on ending the war in Yemen.
America is back, America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy. As I said in my inaugural address, we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s. American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States, and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy. We must meet the new moment of accelerating global, accelerating global challenges from the pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation, challenging the will only to be solved by nations working together. Rebuilding the muscle of Democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect, and I would argue, abuse. American alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners, once again. Today, I’m announcing additional steps to course correct our foreign policy and better uniting our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership. To begin, Defense Secretary Austin will be leading a global posture review of our forces so that our military footprint is appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities. And while this review is taking place, we’ll be stopping any planned troop withdrawals from Germany. We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, a war which has created humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.
President Biden said the United States would repair alliances after years of “abuse.” He also announced a freeze on troop withdrawals from Germany and a diplomatic focus on ending the war in Yemen.CreditCredit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times
Mr. Biden started his visit to the State Department with a talk to an incoming class of 165 young diplomats — an annual inflow of talent that was suspended in Mr. Trump’s first year — promising to rebuild “the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.”
His choice of venue was deliberate: His predecessor preferred visiting the Pentagon and the C.I.A., symbols of American hard power, in Mr. Trump’s view. Mr. Biden, who spent decades in the Senate on the Foreign Relations Committee, made the headquarters of American diplomacy his first stop, telling its 70,000 employees that “I’m going to have your back.”
Those diplomats have found the American support for the Saudis increasingly hard to defend.
When Saudi F-15 warplanes took off from an air base in southern Saudi Arabia for a bombing run over Yemen, it was not just a plane and bombs that were American. American mechanics serviced the jet and carried out repairs on the ground. American technicians upgraded the targeting software and other classified technology, which Saudis were not allowed to touch. The pilot was likely to have been trained by the United States Air Force.
At a flight operations room in the capital, Riyadh, Saudi commanders sat near American military officials who provided intelligence and tactical advice, mainly aimed at stopping the Saudis from killing Yemeni civilians.
While the Pentagon and State Department have denied knowing whether American bombs were used in the war’s most notorious airstrikes — which have struck weddings, mosques and funerals — a former senior State Department official told The New York Times in 2018 that the United States had access to records of every airstrike over Yemen since the early days of the war.
At the same time, the Saudis whitewashed an American-sponsored initiative to investigate errant airstrikes and often ignored a voluminous no-strike list.
A Saudi airstrike in July in Sana. Mr. Biden ordered an end to the sale of weapons and other support to Saudi Arabia for a war in Yemen that he called a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”Credit…Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Mr. Biden’s actions drew praise from human rights groups and their advocates in Congress.
“The shift from a failed war strategy toward a comprehensive diplomatic approach cannot come a moment too soon,” David Miliband, a former senior British diplomat who is now the president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who is one of the staunchest congressional critics of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, echoed that sentiment: “For the last six years, the war in Yemen has led to a horrific humanitarian crisis that has hurt U.S. security and moral credibility. Today’s actions by President Biden are a decisive first step to bring this nightmare to an end.”
Mr. Biden’s decision to make the State Department his first stop in an executive branch department was calculated, part of his broader effort to argue that Mr. Trump’s four years in office were an aberration — and an affront to American values.
“Though many of these values have come under intense pressure in recent years, even pushed to the brink in the last few weeks, the American people are going to emerge from this moment stronger, more determined and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy,” he said, “because we have fought for it ourselves.”
Still, the speech had the feel of a president speaking a bit into the diplomatic void. The State Department is largely empty because of the pandemic, and Mr. Blinken, who was Mr. Biden’s top foreign policy adviser for the past two decades, works on a depopulated seventh floor. The nominees for the department’s other top posts have not yet had Senate confirmation hearings.
Michael Crowley contributed reporting.