Pompeo throws diplomatic banana peels in Biden's path on way out the door
You'd think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be busy bolstering America's tarnished international image after his boss encouraged a mob that stormed the Capitol to reverse the results of the last election, leaving five dead.
But America’s top foreign affairs official has more pressing business to attend to. Not only does he polish his reputation with a barrage of over 200 congratulatory tweets, but he also spends his last days in office getting diplomatic banana peels to his successors by formally, but oh so wrongly, naming foreign actors who he doesn't like terrorists.
Unfortunately, Pompeo's efforts to keep it to the Biden government will place harsh and completely unnecessary costs on millions of civilians. Although the guidelines are ultimately reversible, they do cause collateral damage to innocent people as the month-long review process to end it is completed
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Pompeo began calling the Houthis, a rebel group that controls large parts of Yemen, a "foreign terrorist organization" on Sunday. On Monday he followed suit and named Cuba the state sponsor of terrorism.
Obviously, the more outrageous thing about Pompeo's movements is that against Cuba. Yes, the country systematically suppresses political disagreements and has a poor human rights record. It is allied with countries that have bad relations with Washington, particularly Venezuela. But that's just not the same as sponsoring terrorism.
The technology that Pompeo relies on to allege terrorism is particularly risky. In 2018, Cuba agreed to a request from the Colombian government to allow the leaders of the ELN, a Marxist guerrilla group in Colombia that the US and others have labeled a terrorist organization, a safe haven and passage so they could hold peace talks with Bogotá. After the ELN assumed responsibility for a deadly bomb attack on a police academy in January 2019, a new Colombian government called on Cuba to drop its promise of safe passage and turn ELN leaders over to negotiate, which Havana refused.
Cuba’s refusal to breach a safe harbor insurance secured for peace negotiations is not only a long way from actually sponsoring terrorist attacks, but the US has given other countries similar leeway for years, such as Qatar to the Taliban leaders Providing a safe haven can hold peace talks with the US despite ongoing attacks on US forces.
Pompeo's announcement also cites Cuba's refusal to extradite violent radicals from the 1970s and abandon its relationship with Venezuela as a justification. But do these grievances actually meet the criteria of “having repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” in today's sense?
The misuse of the term "terrorism" is widely understood as a political aid to hardliners Cuban-American who promoted President Donald Trump's victory in Florida in November. However, the term terrorism will primarily harm Cuba's tourism-focused economy by hindering economic ties with other countries that could now violate US law when it comes to dealing with Cuba.
Pompeo's decision the day before to designate Yemen's Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization is superficially more defensible - but actually more fundamentally flawed, as it threatens more serious consequences than the Cuban policy.
The Houthi rebels, who rule the majority of the population centers in Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, are undoubtedly a violent group. They took control of much of the country in 2015 and are currently at war with Saudi armed forces and Yemeni factions to restore the previous government and are receiving moderate levels of material support from Iran in their military endeavors.
In this context of war, the Houthis launched attacks against targets in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (most of which withdrew from the conflict in 2019). However, they have not launched any significant attacks against the US or its close ally Israel.
The definition of a foreign terrorist organization specifies that the country or group must have carried out or intended to have carried out or intended to have carried out politically motivated attacks on non-combatants that specifically threaten the interests of the United States. While Houthi rocket strikes have indiscriminately killed civilians, the same is true of much larger Saudi air strikes that killed thousands of Yemeni civilians while being backed by President Barack Obama and then Trump.
The terrorist group's label is undoubtedly intended as a parting gift for a country that Trump still sees as a loyal partner, and as a means of increasing pressure on Iran by referring to its increasingly open support for the Houthis as aid to terrorists - which may help undermine Biden's already difficult project to revive Trump's denounced nuclear deal with Iran.
Of course, the Houthis are guilty of indiscriminate and brutal acts. By identifying a rebel army with purely regional targets as an international terrorist group, Pompeo is creating a humanitarian crisis that will hit the more than 16 million Yemeni civilians living in Houthi-controlled areas hardest.
This is because the terror label makes humanitarian aid groups potentially criminally responsible for the delivery of food and medical aid to these areas, with potentially devastating consequences for the 80 percent of Yemen's population who depend on humanitarian aid. Although Pompeo has signaled that the legal powers of the designation will not be used against humanitarian groups, in Pompeo's rush to introduce the designation for terrorism, no legal protection was put in place for aid groups.
Pompeo knows this decision will create a mess that his successor will have to clean up, as the Trump administration had decided two years earlier not to use such a designation precisely for fear of aid delivery.
And it doesn't matter that decades of US sanctions against Cuba and years of wars in Yemen should long since destroy the illusions that additional disapproval from Havana or the Houthis would force them to leave.
Unfortunately, the damage caused by this irresponsible movement extends beyond Cuba and Yemen. Pompeo's blatant abuse of the term "terrorism" also weakens the application of the term to states and groups that undeniably engage in terrorist activities. Eventually, the presumed moral authority governing the list and compliance by foreign corporations could disappear if their powers are lightly used against states and armed groups that do not fit the bill.
Fortunately, the Biden Administration can and almost certainly will reverse Pompeo's short-term names. However, it will require a controversial and time-consuming review process that wastes taxpayers' money and political capital.
That goes well with Pompeo and Trump, of course, as it will create new opportunities to fuel outrage over Biden and improve the work of his foreign policy agenda. However, this does not make these acts of "diplomatic vandalism" against American foreign policy any less intentional or childish.
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