Former vice president Joe Biden is taking his first major foreign policy stance since officially announcing his candidacy for president by calling for the United States to end its assistance to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen. This aligns him with Senate Democrats and against President Trump.
Biden’s decision to weigh in on the Yemen issue is a clear sign he plans to rely on his long experience and record on foreign policy as he lays his claim to the role of commander in chief. That means foreign policy will indeed be featured in the Democratic primary, something Biden’s opponents within the party are already preparing for.
But on the issue of U.S. involvement in Yemen, Biden is aligned with the entire Senate Democratic caucus — and even some Republicans — who want the president to halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led war there, which has fueled a massive humanitarian crisis.
“Vice President Biden believes it is past time to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen and cancel the blank check the Trump administration has given Saudi Arabia for its conduct of that war,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates told me. “He urges Congress to override President Trump’s veto.”
The Senate is expected to vote Thursday on whether to override the president’s veto of a resolution that invoked the War Powers Act for the first time, and which passed both houses of Congress in April. The resolution would direct Trump to remove U.S. armed forces from participation in the war in Yemen, except to fight terrorism, within 30 days.
Trump used his veto for only the second time to strike down the resolution. Although seven Republicans joined 47 Democrats to vote for the resolution in April, there’s little chance the Senate could marshal the 67 votes needed to override Trump’s veto. In the House, the resolution passed 247 to 175, with 16 Republicans breaking ranks with the president.
The Senate’s version of the resolution was originally sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a longtime critic of the Saudi intervention in Yemen and of U.S. military support for that operation. Efforts to restrict U.S. assistance to the Saudis fell short in previous Congresses, but gained support after Saudi government agents murdered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi at their consulate in Istanbul last October.
The Trump administration’s response to Khashoggi’s death, widely viewed as feckless in Congress, helped bolster support for efforts to reduce U.S. military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Biden was early to criticize the president’s response as well, telling CBS last October that Trump “seems to have a love affair with autocrats.”
Biden said there should be consequences for the Saudi Arabian government if it was proved to be complicit in the murder.
“My doubts are that there’s very little sense of rule of law, respect for human rights, dignity,” Biden said of the Saudi regime during the CBS interview. “The allegations that are made so far . . . are not inconsistent with the way the kingdom would act.”
Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have been trying to draw distinctions between themselves and Biden on foreign policy early on in their own primary campaigns. Sanders said during a CNN town hall last month that he was going to “pay more attention” to foreign policy this campaign and praised his own Yemen resolution.
Sanders told CNN on Monday night that his foreign policy record stands in contrast to Biden’s on issues such as trade and military interventions abroad. “I helped lead the fight against [the North American Free Trade Agreement], he voted for NAFTA,” Sanders said, referring to Biden. “I helped lead the fight against [permanent normal trade relations] with China, he voted for it. I strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he supported it. I voted against the war in Iraq, he voted for it.”
For now, Biden is declining to engage his Democratic opponents directly, part of his larger campaign strategy to focus on Trump and position himself as a general election candidate-in-waiting. He declined to respond directly to Sanders while campaigning in Iowa on Tuesday.
But the Biden campaign is not shying away from foreign policy at all. On Tuesday night, Biden tweeted his support for the Venezuelan opposition, currently fighting to take power from the Nicolás Maduro regime with international and U.S. government support.
By framing his campaign as a movement to restore U.S. credibility and respect around the world, Biden can avoid (for now) getting caught up in the internal Democratic Party battle over foreign policy, which is being waged in Congress over tricky issues such as Israel, Syria and China.
Democratic leaders in Congress also have an interest in framing the 2020 fight over foreign policy as larger than whatever differences exist inside their own party. “The fact of the matter is Joe Biden getting into this race I think allows us to bring into this discussion the foreign policy that is a problem for us these days,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
Eventually, the Biden campaign will have to figure out how to navigate the thornier issues and the Democratic Party will have to decide whether to follow a more centrist, traditional foreign policy or a more progressive agenda. But Biden’s intervention ahead of Thursday’s Yemen vote shows he’s planning to run on his foreign policy credentials, not away from them.