President Donald Trump will soon be leaving the White House, but the shadow of his four turbulent years of foreign policy will linger. President-elect Joe Biden was already in for the formidable task of regaining international trust. But the president’s past few weeks have been filled with last-ditch efforts to solidify a legacy abroad that has been confrontational, especially with Iran.
Those efforts include a promise to impose new sanctions on Iran, State Department visits to the Golan Heights and the West Bank, and an intended sale of $23 billion in arms to the United Arab Emirates.
This is all quite calculated. A State Department source shared with CNN that the Trump administration trying to make it more difficult for Biden to undo his policies. Sparks are flying across the Middle East, but no place is more ablaze than Yemen. And for Biden, who has sworn that he’ll end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, Trump’s last-minute measures there are bound to be trouble.
Trump plans to designate the Houthi rebel group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Houthis are currently embroiled in the Yemeni Civil War as they combat the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. They have certainly committed atrocities—including strikes on civilian targets and recruiting child soldiers—and Washington has designated several Houthi leaders as terrorists. A collective FTO designation would freeze Houthi assets, bar members from traveling to the United States, and prohibit Americans from “providing material support or resources” to the group.
While that might sound justified, the material support clause could prove disastrous to Yemeni citizens who find themselves under Houthi rule. The designation would force humanitarian groups to navigate restrictive rules of conduct, as their activities constitute “material support and resources” and they must engage with the Houthis in order to deliver assistance. The Houthis control most of northern Yemen, where 70 percent of the Yemeni population lives, and aid provision there could be delayed or prevented altogether.
Yemen is already destitute and the Houthis are isolated to the point where the designation likely wouldn’t accomplish much. Even United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hinted at the foolishness of such a measure, requesting that “everyone avoids taking any action that could make the already dire situation even worse.” Currently in the throes of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Yemen is teetering on the edge of a famine so catastrophic that “millions of lives may be lost,” according to Guterres.
The designation wouldn’t be a particularly effective blow to the Houthis, nor would it help Yemeni citizens. What it would be, however, is a gift to Saudi Arabia. Long an enemy of Iran, the kingdom would see the blacklisting of the Iran-backed Houthis as a symbol of solidarity against Tehran.
Trump’s steadfast support for Saudi Arabia has been one of his foreign policy calling cards. His presidency began with a massive gift to Riyadh—namely, the $350 billion arms deal he signed with the kingdom on his first foreign trip in office—so it would only be appropriate for it to end with another.
Any gift to Saudi Arabia will be a headache for Biden. On the Democratic debate stage last November, Biden committed to making Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” He’s not alone in the sentiment, and a newly-introduced bill calling for an end to U.S. involvement in Yemen could be critical to his promise. Given the bipartisan support a similar measure accrued last year before being vetoed by Trump, the new bill will likely be successful.
The Houthi FTO designation, however, would be more difficult for Biden to overcome, given how difficult it is to roll back such classifications. In the short term, humanitarian groups will struggle to help vulnerable Yemenis. And in the long term, the designation may push peace talks hopelessly out of reach as Houthi leaders grow increasingly unwilling to join the negotiation table.
It would’ve been foolish to expect a sudden change in Trump administration policy, but even so, the Houthi designation would be a new low. It would only be the latest action the president has taken to remain in league with Saudi Arabia and complicate a devastating war. Biden has made his goals for the region clear—but he’ll be forced to tidy up Trump’s trail before he can accomplish them.
Fiona Harrigan is an Openness Fellow for Young Voices and a Marcellus Policy Fellow for the John Quincy Adams Society, where she researches U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations. Find her on Twitter: @Fiona_Harrigan.