Critics Raise Alarm on 11th-Hour Foreign Policy Move

Designation of Houthi rebels as terrorists could make it harder to deliver food amid crisis
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 12, 2021 11:10 AM CST
Critics Raise Alarm on 11th-Hour Foreign Policy Move
In this 2018 file photo, a woman holds a malnourished boy at the Aslam Health Center in Hajjah, Yemen.   (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)

The Trump administration just made two big foreign policy moves. The one that drew most of the headlines was the designation of Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism. The other, though, is causing plenty of consternation on Capitol Hill and among humanitarian groups. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he would also designate Houthi rebels in Yemen (they call themselves Ansar Allah) as a terrorist group, a move that relief groups say will hamstring their ability to deliver food amid what the UN deems the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, reports the Washington Post. Otherwise, they would face US prosecution. Coverage:

  • The State Department briefed House and Senate committee staffers on Monday, and Axios reports that it devolved into a shouting match. "People on both sides of the aisle felt very frustrated that this was done in such a haphazard way," says one congressional aide. "I don't mean to be dramatic, but this could kill people." Basic questions about how to protect civilians weren't answered, says the aide.

  • "It's clear that the decision is likely to have serious humanitarian and political repercussions," says UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, per Reuters. The UN says millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine as a result of the six-year-long war. The agency also worries that the designation will complicate peace talks and prolong the conflict.
  • The main purpose of the designation is to prevent Iran from delivering arms to the rebels, explains the New York Times. The rebels are trying to overthrow the Saudi-backed government, and the conflict is largely seen as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • Pompeo pledged that the US would carve out the necessary exemptions to ensure that aid can be delivered, but critics are skeptical. "It is hard to imagine that in the last days of the Trump administration, a bolt of lightning is going to hit them and they are suddenly going to figure how not to keep these designations from taking an agonizing toll on Yemen’s civilians," Scott Paul of Oxfam America tells the Times.
  • At Vox, Alex Ward notes that the White House rushed to inform Congress because it must provide a seven-day window, and the administration has barely that time left in office. "Many see the move as an attempt by Pompeo to hamper Iran by punishing one of its proxies and box in the Biden administration as he heads out the door, but Pompeo seems to truly believe the decision was the right one," he writes. Ward, for his part, thinks the move puts "millions of Yemenis" at risk of starvation.
  • Read the State Department statement on the move here. "If Ansarallah did not behave like a terrorist organization, we would not designate it as (such)," reads the statement. "It has led a brutal campaign that has killed many people, continues to destabilize the region, and denies Yemenis a peaceful solution to the conflict in their country."
  • What now? It's possible Congress could block the designation. Or Joe Biden could move to unwind it once he's in office. But both Reuters and Vox note that the latter is easier said than done. As one former diplomat tells the Times, he would risk looking sympathetic to a brutal organization.
(More Yemen stories.)

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