WASHINGTON (AFP) – United States (US) President Joe Biden on Thursday ended US support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen and dramatically increased the welcome to refugees, ushering in a major reset in American foreign policy.
In his first major speech on foreign affairs as president, Biden also froze former president Donald Trump’s plans to redeploy troops from Germany and vowed a tough approach against what he described as a rising authoritarian threat from China and Russia.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris travelled together to the State Department in a symbol of a renewed focus on diplomacy after Trump’s tumultuous four years.
“America is back. Diplomacy is back,” Biden told a socially distanced auditorium of diplomats.
In a speech shortly afterward, Biden said the US would end all support including connected arms sales for ally Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which he said “has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”
He appointed a US special envoy for Yemen, veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking, who Biden said would support United Nations (UN) efforts to reach a ceasefire and revive peace talks between the government and Huthi rebels who control much of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
“This war has to end,” Biden said.
Saudi Arabia reacted to Biden’s speech by reasserting its commitment to a political solution in Yemen, according to state media.
Riyadh also welcomed Biden’s “commitment to cooperate with the kingdom to defend its sovereignty and counter threats against it”, the official Saudi Press Agency added.
Trump – who argued arms sales were creating US defence jobs – viewed the war as a way to hit back at the Huthis’ ally Iran.
Biden backs a return of diplomacy and a nuclear accord with Iran but, strikingly, he only indirectly mentioned Tehran in what was billed as a broad-brush speech on his international priorities.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said he will revisit Trump’s last-minute designation of the Huthis as a terrorist group.
In Yemen, senior political official Hamid Assem voiced hope that Biden’s plan will mark the end of a six-year war that has left tens of thousands dead.
“The Biden administration saw that the war in Yemen carries a heavy cost and that America’s reputation has been tarnished by the killing of the people of Yemen,” he told AFP.
In another sharp reversal, Biden said the US will welcome up to 125,000 refugees in the first fiscal year of his administration – far above the record-low 15,000 last approved by Trump, who was a vociferous critic of non-Western immigration.
“The US moral leadership on refugee issues was a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades when I first got here,” said Biden, who was elected to the Senate in 1972.