Biden and the Houthis
from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Biden and the Houthis

After two years at the State Department as Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela, I have returned to the Council on Foreign Relations and will start this blog going again.  Here is the first entry.

Last week the Biden administration announced that it was reversing the Trump administration’s decision to name the Yemeni Houthis (formally, Ansar Allah) a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group.

And then, two days later, came this statement from the State Department:

As the President is taking steps to end the war in Yemen and Saudi Arabia has endorsed a negotiated settlement, the United States is deeply troubled by continued Houthi attacks.  We call on the Houthis to immediately cease attacks impacting civilian areas inside Saudi Arabia and to halt any new military offensives inside Yemen, which only bring more suffering to the Yemeni people.  We urge the Houthis to refrain from destabilizing actions and demonstrate their commitment to constructively engage in UN Special Envoy Griffiths’ efforts to achieve peace.  The time is now to find an end to this conflict.

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This statement appeared to be a reaction to four Houthi drone attacks on Sunday, which several Arab governments also condemned, and a previous drone attack on Saturday.

Now, there is a very clear contradiction here. What do we usually call attacks on civilians, of the sort that led to this State Department rebuke?  Terrorism.

What might we call this December Houthi attack, as reported by the BBC:

At least 22 people have been killed and more than 50 wounded in an attack at the airport in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, officials say. There was at least one explosion shortly after a plane carrying the war-torn country's newly formed government arrived from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Aid workers and officials were among the casualties.

Again, this is rightly called terrorism. The main defense of the Trump administration decision to call the Houthis terrorists is that they repeatedly commit acts of terrorism. QED. And the main critique of the Biden administration’s revocation of that decision is equally simple: the Houthis have long committed, and continue to commit, acts of terror. They should be designated an FTO because they are an FTO.

The motivation for the Biden decision is clear: the FTO designation may have a negative humanitarian impact in Yemen because some suppliers of food and other goods may back away for fear of prosecution. It may also be that the administration concluded the terrorism designation would make negotiating with the Houthis more complex, thereby hindering efforts to end the war.

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But if one’s central goal is to end the war, what is the impact of this FTO reversal regarding the Houthis? Is it clear that they will react by changing their behavior and stopping acts of terror? That theory may have already been proved false. Is it clear that with renewed good will toward the United States Government because the FTO designation was reversed, they will now negotiate in good faith with our new Yemen envoy, the excellent Foreign Service Officer Tim Lenderking? There is no evidence for this theory.

Logic suggests an alternative view: that the Houthis will be less inclined to negotiate, especially because the administration’s decision comes only days after its statement that it would no longer support offensive military operations by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. If I were a Houthi leader, I might conclude “I am winning. The Americans want out. They’ve walked away from the Saudis and reversed the terrorism designation even though my own behavior has not changed. Why negotiate?” If that is right, the Biden administration ought to be thinking hard about ways to change the incentive structure it has backed into.

If at bottom the Biden administration considers the war lost and is willing to hand Yemen over to the Houthis (though slowly and using negotiation as a cover), its steps make sense and will likely be followed by additional, similar moves. If the administration seeks to end Houthi terrorism and negotiate an agreement that creates a national government the Houthis do not control, it is far from clear that these initial U.S. moves will prove conducive to those goals. One wonders: might it have been better to tell the Saudis privately we’d end our support for “offensive military operations” in 90 days if they did not make progress toward a negotiated solution? Or to tell the Houthis privately that we were willing to reverse the FTO designation if they pledged to stop hitting civilian targets? Perhaps these efforts at creating some incentives would have failed, but were they not worth trying?

For the moment, we can state one thing with clarity: the Houthis committed acts of terrorism before they were designated an FTO, continued to do so while they were designated, and are still committing acts of terrorism now that the Biden administration has revoked that designation. While we debate what labels to apply to them, their attacks on civilians continue. Wish Mr. Lenderking good luck, for he has been handed a most difficult file.

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