The United States will revise its designation of Yemen’s Houthi militia as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), according to secretary of state Antony Blinken, who told senators at his confirmation hearing that such a designation complicates humanitarian efforts in Yemen and obstructs talks to end the war. But if Washington does remove the Houthis from its FTO list, and it has now initiated a review of this, it will politicize a process that has been – until now – a legal and technical issue managed by bureaucrats at the departments of state, defense, justice and treasury. By politicizing the terror designation, Blinken will erode global confidence in such a process.
Speaking before the senate foreign relations committee, the soft-spoken Blinken depicted himself as the “voice of reason” who will reverse four years of willy-nilly decision-making. Those years, Blinken argued, have cost America its global friends and, more importantly, its credibility.
Credibility, however, is not dependent on flowery diplomatic language, but rather on consistency. President Joe Biden’s administration will have to show the world that its foreign policy is governed by an organizing principle. For decades now, America has struggled to reconcile itself between the two pillars of its foreign policy: American interests and American values. At times, America’s interests and values coincided, such as when they resulted in ejecting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait.
In countering terrorism, America also has found it easy to combine its interests with its values. It is in the interest of America, and the global order, to maintain sovereign states and eradicate violent non-state actors. And like combating crime, local or global, eradicating terrorism stands on firm ethical grounds. Thus, the wars against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq have always received full American and global support.
But with Blinken’s review of the terror designation of the Houthis, presumably to alleviate human suffering, America is reinterpreting the rules: why wage war against Al Qaeda and ISIS, despite the great human and material cost, but spare the Houthis?
Just like how ISIS swept through Mosul and wrested control of it from the Iraqi government, the Houthis invaded Sanaa and toppled the Yemeni government. And just like how ISIS set up a government that invited mockery with its medieval emirs, the Houthi government has also been a joke, consisting of “committees” with no clear hierarchy or operating norms.
From their so-called state, ISIS terrorists launched attacks across the region, striking Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. Likewise, from their so-called state, the Houthis launched attacks against Saudi Arabia, the UAE and international shipping in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The territories of both ISIS and the Houthis exported refugees. Those who stayed behind either died or are living in punishing circumstances.
Yet, while Blinken now argues against placing the Houthis on the FTO list, for humanitarian reasons, no one in Washington ever argued that ISIS should not have been designated a terrorist group in order to spare Iraqis the hardships of war, or to help negotiate a settlement with the terrorists.
In fact, a terrorist designation on a group never stopped negotiations. In the early 1990s, Israel negotiated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, then a terrorist organization that was later delisted after talks led to peace. Similarly, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, on the US state department’s FTO list since 1996, fought in 2006 a devastating 33-day war with Israel that ended through negotiations mediated by the UN. Hezbollah and Israel even exchanged prisoners under UN auspices. European governments also arrived at settlements with separatist groups that had previously been classified terrorist.
If the Houthis ever wish to come to terms with the global community, their designation as a terrorist group won’t come in the way. On the contrary, Blinken removing them from the terrorist list, without a peace deal, might prove to be a reward.
Blinken’s opposition to former President Donald Trump’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization is not convincing and smells of partisan spite. Reversing the Houthi designation also smacks of the same favoritism that former President Barack Obama extended to Iran, and that never led to any peaceful settlement or the disbanding of any of the trouble-making, pro-Iran, militias across the region.
When combating terrorism, America should show consistency and pursue all violent non-state actors. Going after some terrorist groups but not others is what undermines America’s credibility, and makes the world believe that – to Americans – everything, including rules, are negotiable.
Blinken would be well advised to keep domestic politics out of foreign policy. For as the Democrats often told Republicans after November 3, the election is over.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.