Pompeo’s flurry of foreign policy moves hampers Biden start
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pushing through last-minute foreign policy decisions ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration as part of an effort to cement his and the Trump administration’s legacy in their final tumultuous and violent days in office.
The moves are likely aimed at hampering efforts by Biden to reverse Trump-era policy measures, creating a laundry list of intricate policies, big and small, that will take time, effort and organization to unravel.
With less than a week left in office, while much of Washington is focused on President Trump’s second impeachment, Pompeo has instituted a flurry of policy changes and ramped up a public relations campaign to tout the administration’s accomplishments.
He has elevated U.S. relations with Taiwan in an affront to China, designated Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis as a terrorist organization and put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called Saturday’s announcement on Taiwan “the policymaking equivalent of a hit-and-run.”
Pompeo “announced a policy shift on one of America’s most sensitive foreign policy issues in his final days in office, and with full knowledge he will not be around to contend with the consequences,” Hass said.
Ash Jain, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council who has served as a State Department official in Republican and Democratic administrations, said the eleventh-hour actions by Pompeo “reflect a desire to box in the incoming administration.”
Removing the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization is one area where Biden is likely to have bipartisan support.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans are sympathetic to the Houthi separatists, viewing them as responsible for gross atrocities in Yemen’s six-year civil war and dangerous allies with Iran, but Pompeo’s recent action toward them united lawmakers in opposition, saying such a designation would hinder the delivery of critical humanitarian aid to Houthi-controled areas.
Experts say Pompeo’s action toward the Houthis is part of his push to solidify his legacy on Iran.
The secretary is the chief enforcer of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, a policy geared toward financially and diplomatically isolating the Islamic republic in an effort to thwart its nuclear ambitions and eliminate the threats from its proxy forces in the Middle East.
“The administration is seeking to fortify its pressure campaign against Iran in advance of the Biden administration, particularly given concerns that Biden may seek to return to a deal with Iran,” said Varsha Koduvayur, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that has been supportive of the administration’s policy toward Iran.
Koduvayur added that designating the Houthis as a terrorist group “will severely impact humanitarian aid efforts in Yemen and will constrain the ability of the US, and likely the UN also, to play a role in the diplomatic process. It will certainly clip the Biden administration’s wings, at least in the beginning.”
Biden has vowed to return the U.S. to the 2015 Obama-era nuclear deal if Iran returns to compliance. The agreement aims to reduce Iran’s uranium enrichment to levels that would significantly delay the time it would take to obtain nuclear capabilities.
The Trump administration, buoyed by Republican support, pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018, and Pompeo has remained forceful in his arguments against any rapprochement with Iran.
“Let’s not lie to the American people about Iranian moderation and pretend appeasement will work,” Pompeo said in a speech Tuesday at the National Press Club.
He later announced new sanctions against members of the al Qaeda terrorist organization being harbored in Iran, adding to what he said were nearly 1,500 sanctions levied by the Trump administration against individuals and entities that contribute revenue to the Iranian government.
Pompeo announced even more sanctions on Wednesday, targeting two charitable organizations controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, charging the charities with corruption and enriching the religious and political leader.
Tehran is likely to benefit from immediate sanctions relief if the U.S. reenters the 2015 nuclear deal, though it won’t eliminate all of those imposed under Trump.
Kaleigh Thomas, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security, which has been critical of Trump’s foreign policy, said that while the administration’s decisions are not impossible for Biden to reverse, they will still eat up time and energy.
“It will take time, effort, and potentially even political capital to determine which policies must be rolled back and to actually undo those identified as roadblocks to the implementation of the Biden administration’s agenda,” she said.
“And in the context of all the Biden administration will have to address outside of the Middle East portfolio starting on Day One — including the ongoing pandemic and the Capitol Hill insurrection last week — it’s important to remember that time, effort and political capital are finite resources.”
It’s unclear how those resources will be directed toward action on Cuba. Pompeo’s last-minute designation of the country as a state sponsor of terrorism is being viewed as a direct snub and obstruction of Biden’s promise to return to Obama-era diplomatic engagement with Havana.
“Secretary Pompeo has self-righteously defended Donald Trump’s worst foreign policy failures, and on his way out the door he seems intent on making things as difficult as possible for his successor,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), an advocate for engagement with Cuba, and the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Lawrence Ward, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney who works with international businesses to prevent running afoul of federal sanctions on foreign governments, said reversing the Cuba designation will require time and energy that will be critical for larger issues like combating COVID-19 and confronting more threatening foreign adversaries.
“Removing the designation would require a certification to Congress. And because the Biden administration will be focused on achieving as much bipartisan support as possible on a host of important domestic issues, it is tough to imagine that the administration will prioritize such a certification over ongoing tensions with China, Iran and Russia,” he said.
Jain, of the Atlantic Council, expressed more optimism about the ability of the Biden administration to quickly reverse or scale back some of Pompeo’s last-minute moves.
“Most of these policies can be fairly easily reversed, and the Biden team is certain to give careful scrutiny to each of these eleventh-hour actions. In others, it may need to navigate through various review processes,” he said.
Pompeo, who is considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has been using his official government Twitter account since Jan. 1 to lay out what he views as his and the Trump administration’s greatest successes.
On Wednesday, he issued a farewell ahead of Biden’s inauguration, saying followers should migrate to his personal page.
“One week from today, I will be stepping aside as Secretary of State and this account will be archived. Be sure to follow me @mikepompeo. Go do it now.”
Updated at 11:45 a.m.