One might think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be preoccupied with shoring up the United States’ battered international image after his boss encouraged a mob that stormed the Capitol in a bid to reverse the outcome of the last election, leaving five dead.
But America’s top foreign policy official has more pressing matters to attend to. Besides burnishing his reputation with a barrage of over 200 self-congratulatory tweets, he’s spending his final days in office throwing diplomatic banana peels in the path of his successors by formally, but oh so very spuriously, designating foreign actors he doesn’t like as terrorists.
Unfortunately, Pompeo’s efforts to stick it to the Biden administration will impose harsh and entirely unnecessary costs on millions of civilians. Though ultimately reversible, the policies will inflict collateral damage on innocent people while the monthslong review process to terminate them is completed
Pompeo began on Sunday by designating the Houthis, a rebel group that controls large parts of Yemen, as a “foreign terrorist organization.” On Monday, he followed suit by designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.
The more obviously outrageous of Pompeo’s moves is that against Cuba. Yes, the country systematically represses political dissent and has a poor human rights record, and it’s allied with countries on bad terms with Washington, notably Venezuela. But that’s simply not the same as sponsoring terrorism.
The technicality Pompeo is leaning on for the accusation of terrorism is particularly risible. In 2018 Cuba agreed to a request from the Colombian government to provide safe harbor and passage to leaders of the ELN, a Marxist guerilla group in Colombia designated by the U.S. and others as a terrorist organization, so they could hold peace talks with Bogotá. But after the ELN claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing of a police academy in January 2019, a new Colombian government asked Cuba to drop its promise of safe passage and hand over the ELN leaders for trial, which Havana refused to do.
Not only is Cuba’s refusal to violate a safe harbor assurance made for peace negotiations a far cry from actually sponsoring terror attacks, but the U.S. has for years allowed other countries similar leeway — permitting Qatar to offer safe harbor to Taliban leaders, for instance, to carry out peace talks with the U.S despite ongoing attacks on U.S. forces.
Pompeo’s announcement also cites Cuba’s refusal to extradite violent 1970s-era radicals and renounce its relationship with Venezuela as justifications. But do these grievances actually fulfill the criteria of having “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” in any present day sense?
The misuse of the terrorism designation is generally understood to be a political handout to Cuban-American hard-liners who boosted President Donald Trump’s victory in Florida in November. But the terrorism designation will primarily harm Cuba’s tourism-oriented economy by impeding economic relations with other countries who could now run afoul of U.S. law for dealing with Cuba.That will succeed in hurting ordinary Cubans but not the regime’s hold on power.
Pompeo’s decision a day earlier to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization is superficially more defensible — but actually more fundamentally flawed, as it threatens graver consequences than the Cuba policy.
The Houthi rebels, who govern the majority of Yemen’s population centers, including the capital of Sanaa, are undeniably a violent group. They seized control of much of the country in 2015 and are now at war with Saudi forces and Yemeni factions seeking to restore the former government, and receive a moderate degree of material support from Iran in their military undertakings.
In this wartime context, the Houthis have launched attacks against targets in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (which mostly bowed out of the conflict in 2019). However, they have not launched any significant attacks against the U.S. or its close ally Israel.
The definition for a foreign terrorist organization specifies that the country or group must have carried out or intends to carry out politically motivated attacks on noncombatants that specifically threaten U.S. interests. While Houthi missile attacks have indiscriminately killed civilians, the same is true on a far larger scale of Saudi airstrikes — which have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians — while enjoying support from President Barack Obama and then Trump.
The terrorist group designation is undoubtedly intended as a parting gift to a country Trump still sees as a loyal partner, as well as a means to ratchet up pressure on Iran by designating its increasingly open support for the Houthis as aid to terrorists — which may help undermine Biden’s already difficult project of reviving the nuclear deal with Iran that Trump quit.
To be sure, the Houthis are guilty of indiscriminate and brutal acts. But by designating a rebel army with purely regional goals as an international terror group, Pompeo is fomenting a humanitarian crisis that will most heavily affect the over 16 million Yemeni civilians who live in areas controlled by the Houthis.
That’s because the terror designation makes humanitarian aid groups potentially criminally culpable for delivering food and medical assistance to those areas, with possibly devastating consequences for the 80 percent of Yemen’s population that depends on humanitarian aid. Though Pompeo has signaled that the designation's legal powers will not be used against humanitarian groups, legal protections for aid groups were not carved out in Pompeo’s rush to roll out the terrorism designation.
Pompeo knows this decision will create a mess his successor will have to clean up, as two years earlier the Trump administration decided not to apply such a designation precisely for fear it would impede aid deliveries.
And never mind that decades of U.S. sanctions on Cuba and years of war in Yemen should have long ago shattered any illusions that heaping additional disapproval on Havana or the Houthis will force them to go away.
The damage of this irresponsible move sadly extends beyond Cuba and Yemen. Pompeo’s flagrant misuse of the “terrorism” designation also weakens the application of the term to states and groups that indisputably carry out terrorist activities. After all, the presumed moral authority driving the list, and adherence to it by foreign companies, could evaporate if its powers are used frivolously against states and armed groups that don’t fit the billing.
Fortunately, the Biden administration can — and in both cases almost certainly will — reverse Pompeo’s last-minute designations. However, it will require a contentious and time-consuming review process that will needlessly consume tax dollars and political capital.
That suits Pompeo and Trump just fine, of course, as it will create new opportunities to gin up outrage against Biden and gum up the works of his foreign policy agenda. But that doesn’t make these acts of “diplomatic vandalism” against America’s foreign policy any less deliberate or puerile.