Pompeo’s Departing Sabotage in Yemen

With less than two weeks in office before he checks out of Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Yemen’s Houthi movement a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and imposed sanctions on three of its leaders. The designation took effect on January 19, a day before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Coming after the Trump Administration failed for four years to advance any peace proposals in Yemen, Pompeo’s step is both foreign policy malfeasance and an act of sabotage—the former because it promises dire consequences for the poor country, and the latter because it intends to poison the Biden Administration’s possible policy prescriptions for ending the Yemeni conflict.

The United Nations special envoy in Yemen, Martin Griffiths, immediately criticized the move, saying it has a “chilling effect” on prospects for peace in the country. David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program, called for reversing the decision because of the ongoing famine in Yemen and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Oxfam’s Scott Paul called Pompeo’s action “a counter-productive and dangerous policy” while Peter Salisbury, the International Crisis Group’s Yemen analyst, predicted that if Pompeo’s designation remains in place, it will impact millions of Yemenis who already “are struggling to eat.” Indeed, it is not hard to surmise that Pompeo’s designation was ill-timed and may have given the Houthis added determination in their seven-year insurrection against the legitimate government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Foreign Policy Malfeasance

Secretary Pompeo’s FTO designation of the Houthis could not have come at a worse time for Yemen, which is now in its seventh year of internal armed conflict and outside intervention. The action also comes as the Trump Administration continues, until its final days, to supply the weapons for the prosecution of the Saudi war effort that began in March 2015 with the ill-advised support from the Obama Administration. The United States has indeed become complicit in the death of Yemeni civilians and the destruction of the already deteriorated social infrastructure of the country. The secretary of state’s latest action is very likely to sharpen this criticism of American foreign policy, not only in Yemen but also in the region.

The United States has indeed become complicit in the death of Yemeni civilians and the destruction of the already deteriorated social infrastructure of the country.

Pompeo’s declaration is not likely to affect the insurgent group’s sway over much of the country’s population or its fortunes going forward. To be sure, the designation is a mere continuation of branding as terrorists all entities that are undesirable to the United States, without much record to prove that sanctioning them helps to modify their behavior. To wit: American designations as foreign terrorist organizations of Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, have not led to much change in the two groups’ practices or to sway in their respective countries’ body politic. In fact, such designations have resulted in difficult and deleterious conditions for ordinary citizens living in the designees’ territories and experiencing the effects of the sanctions. In the case of Yemen, designating the Houthis a terrorist organization does much more harm than good, despite the fact that the group bears a healthy dose of responsibility for what happens in that country.

The Houthi movement controls much of Yemen’s population because of its presence in the densely populated areas of the country. This gives the group a powerful say over the means to secure food, medicine, and basic services to a large swath of Yemen. Therefore, the FTO designation prevents international organizations from dealing with the Houthis, which is precisely what makes the new status especially harmful. Today, tens of millions of Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance or are food insecure. Close to four million are displaced. Fuel supplies to Houthi-controlled areas are intermittent at best. Twelve million children need humanitarian aid and many under five years of age suffer from malnutrition.

According to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 233,000 have died in Yemen since 2015, 131,000 of whom from “indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure.” Half of the country’s health facilities are inoperable while those in operation lack equipment and supplies to provide services or fight the coronavirus pandemic. As of January 18, Yemen had reported 2,112 cases of infection and 612 deaths, numbers that cannot be fully verified because of conditions on the ground.

In the meantime, Yemen continues to be divided into an insurgent north and a south that is shared by the legitimate President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and his challengers for supremacy in the area, the leaders of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC). Under Saudi pressure, Hadi and his detractors in the STC agreed to form a power-sharing government that recently returned to Aden––its temporary seat until the liberation of the capital, Sanaa, from Houthi control. As if to highlight the issues of security and ending the war, assailants attacked the aircraft transporting the returning ministers on the tarmac of Aden airport, killing 22 people and wounding more than 50 others, none of whom members of the new cabinet.

Pompeo harmed US foreign policy, which tries to promote American interests by at least projecting an image of concern––many times unfounded––about the well-being of the countries with which it deals.

In this general atmosphere of destitution and political uncertainty, Pompeo’s FTO declaration for the Houthis affirms that the United States remains a party to the Yemen conflict instead of helping to find an acceptable compromise between them and the Yemeni government. In fact, Pompeo gave Houthi leader and spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam an opportunity to appear magnanimous and conciliatory when the latter announced that the American decision will not affect the movement’s position on seeking a peaceful resolution to the Yemeni crisis. In that, Pompeo harmed US foreign policy, which tries to promote American interests by at least projecting an image of concern––many times unfounded––about the well-being of the countries with which it deals. This and the negative international reaction to the designation exposes the outgoing secretary’s action as detrimental to the interests of the people of Yemen in peace and security and undermines any appearance that the United States may be concerned about their future.

Pompeo’s Acts of Sabotage

Rare were the occasions when an outgoing administration bequeathed a questionable foreign policy direction deliberately meant to restrict its successor’s ability to formulate plans to address an active conflict, such as that in Yemen. By and large, an incoming administration was historically allowed to chart its foreign policy according to a set agenda proposed by an incoming president who won an electoral mandate the previous November. Moreover, there has been a general, albeit unspoken, understanding of continuing past policies until the new office holder decides, normally in ample time, whether to abide by said policies, amend them, or jettison them altogether.

Not so with the Trump Administration and its chief diplomat, Mike Pompeo. As Matthew Lee of the Associated Press details, Pompeo was busy during the last week of his tenure with numerous foreign policy decisions and actions that could not be seen except as intended to hamstring the incoming Biden Administration and its nominee for the State Department, Antony Blinken. In the Middle East, Pompeo issued his FTO designation against Yemen’s Houthis and sanctioned some of their leaders and accused Iran of being a base for Al-Qaeda. He also imposed sanctions on Falih al-Fayyad, leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, after accusing him of suppressing popular demonstrations in 2019. (It is interesting that the secretary did not find the time earlier to punish Fayyad, despite the latter’s role in suppressing protesters.)

Designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization is only one of the latest ignominious decisions by Pompeo. 

Designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization is only one of the latest ignominious decisions by Pompeo. Over the last four years, he advocated for and fully supported the Trump Administration’s illegal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite the fact that this was one of the final status issues to resolve between Israel and Palestine. Pompeo and the administration recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in violation of American policy regarding occupied territories. In 2019, Pompeo also did away with US policy since the Carter Administration that prohibited recognizing Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as legal. In 2018, he cheered President Trump on as he withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran. In these and other policy decisions, Pompeo may have done irreparable harm to US foreign policy and interests, specifically by attaching the United States to the list of countries that commit violations of international law.

The incoming Biden Administration will most assuredly have its hands full trying to reinvest US foreign policy with some normalcy and adherence to international law. On the Houthi FTO designation, Biden and his lieutenants will be in a bind, despite the announcement on January 17 by the national security advisor nominee, Jake Sullivan, that while the group should be held accountable, the designation harms the Yemeni people and will “impede diplomacy to end the war.” One thing is sure, however: the Biden Administration will find obstacles along the path of rectifying the decision since the Houthis in many circles in Washington––where Israel’s security, as its leaders and the their supporters understand it, figures prominently––are considered to be appendages of Iran. Still, Biden may find political support among Democrats in Congress who have long cautioned against three interrelated issues regarding Yemen: no further entanglement in the country, no taking sides in the conflict, and a halt to the supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia that allow it to pursue the war.

Be that as it may, Pompeo willingly waded into the Yemeni quagmire without much consideration for the adverse effects on the country’s humanitarian crisis and the chances for peace. Rather, it is clear that his decision was meant to hamstring the incoming Biden Administration. Like President Trump’s neglectful attitude toward the tradition of an orderly transition to a new administration, one that helps it run the affairs of the country, Pompeo sought with his latest decisions to impede the latter’s foreign policy agenda. His designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization makes it harder for the incoming administration to help devise a strategy for a comprehensive and peaceful compromise between Yemen’s factions. Indeed, his action can only be viewed as an act of sabotage. It does nothing to improve the image of the United States in Yemen or to serve the interest of the Yemeni people in ending the humanitarian disaster that has befallen their country.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here