Biden urged to reverse Pompeo-Trump move on Houthis

Calls are growing for President-elect Joe Biden to reverse the eleventh-hour decision by the Trump administration to label Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis a terrorist organization.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers, experts and aid groups are warning of mass starvation in the country, already the location of a major humanitarian crisis, if the decision is not reversed.

The designation took effect on Tuesday, but those calling for a reversal say Biden could avert a mass crisis with immediate action.

Yemen has been suffering through the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis amid six years of civil war between Houthi rebels in the north and the government backed by Saudi Arabia in the south.

Ninety percent of Yemen’s food is imported, making delivery of food one of the most important efforts to help relieve tens of millions of hungry Yemenis.

The Houthi terrorist designation will effectively destroy the structures in place that allow the importation of necessary items for civilians, critics say. Commercial importers are fleeing business in the country over the fear of running afoul of U.S. sanctions, United Nations officials have warned.

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the State Department is carving out humanitarian channels and developing licenses to exempt importers from sanctions, critics on the ground say they have seen little to no concrete language that such policies are in place and effective. 

“This is coming at the absolute most difficult time when over 16 million Yemeni women, children and men are living in severe and worsening food insecurity,” said Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE USA, an international nongovernmental organization focusing on combating global poverty and world hunger.

“This particular designation is tantamount to a cease-and-desist order for the humanitarian response in northern Yemen and its impacts will lead to more despair and lives lost across the whole of the country.”

Biden has yet to comment on the Houthi terrorist designation, first announced last week, but his incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said he supported reversing the decision, tweeting agreement with Republican Sen. Todd Young (Ind.), who earlier criticized the policy move. 

“Agree with @SenToddYoung on last-minute terrorist designation of Houthi Movement,” Sullivan tweeted on Saturday. He is the first Biden administration official to offer public comment on the designation. “Houthi commanders need to be held accountable, but designating the whole organization will only inflict more suffering on Yemeni people and impede diplomacy critical to end the war.”

Young, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the decision by Pompeo to label the Houthis a terrorist organization “another misstep in the United States’ years long misguided approach to the conflict in Yemen.”

He added that he looks forward to working with the Biden administration to overturn the “misguided decision.” 

Reversing the decision would require little bureaucratic effort or political capital.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, has the power to take action against the designation, said Dave Harden, a former senior State Department official focused on Yemen in both the Obama and Trump administrations and managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group.

“My understanding is that the acting secretary of State or secretary of State can amend, modify, or rescind on the authority of their own signature,” he said.

Blinken is beginning his confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. If a vote to confirm his nomination is not quickly taken up by the Senate, which is also preparing for a trial over President Trump’s impeachment in the House last week, Biden’s pick for acting secretary could also reverse the Houthi designation.

Democrats and Republicans both oppose labeling the Houthis as a terrorist group, though members of both parties see the organization as a destructive force in Yemen and accuse it of gross atrocities.

“The goal for the incoming administration should be to hold the Houthis accountable for their destructive and damaging actions while mitigating negative humanitarian impacts on innocent Yemeni civilians,” Leslie Shedd, spokesperson for the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), told The Hill. 

“Lead Republican McCaul hopes they will use all of the available options to achieve this and prevent a further crisis in Yemen.” 

Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the chairs of the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and the Rules committees, respectively, led colleagues in a letter to Pompeo last week opposing the Houthi designation and criticizing the secretary for having little to no plan in place to counteract the dire humanitarian consequences. 

“This designation will not help resolve the conflict nor provide justice for the violations and abuses committed during the war; it will only compound the crisis for millions of Yemenis fighting for their survival,” the letter read.

Amid the immediate dire warnings, stakeholders see a slight silver lining in the opportunity to elevate U.S. engagement on Yemen that would otherwise be pushed down the list of priorities for an overwhelmed Biden administration. 

Biden has reportedly set up an expansive list of items to do in the first few days of office and that will set the stage for carrying out longer-term policy on core priorities of his administration.

This includes beating back the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., implementing policy addressing social inequities and systemic racism, putting forth immigration reform legislation, engaging with foreign allies on combating climate change and pursuing diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program. 

The Yemen crisis might not otherwise get more attention until May 1, the due date for a congressional report drawn up by the Departments of State, Defense and director of national intelligence reviewing U.S. policy toward Yemen. The report is required under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. 

“If Pompeo wouldn’t have done this designation, the law requiring a policy review is still on the books,” said Harden, the former senior State Department official. “The Biden administration has lots of things to deal with and this would have been one of the top ones, but because of Pompeo’s actions, it actually elevates it.” 

Tags Adam Schiff Antony Blinken Biden transition Donald Trump Gregory Meeks Houthis Jake Sullivan James McGovern Joe Biden Michael McCaul Mike Pompeo Saudi Arabia Todd Young United Nations Yemen
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