Another Bad Idea on Yemen from the Trump Administration

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

The Trump administration’s Yemen policy is already indefensible, and they may be about to make it even worse:

The Trump administration is considering designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels a terrorist organization, people familiar with the discussions said, as part of a campaign to end that country’s civil war and put pressure on the Houthis’ ally Iran.

The terrorist designation, which would inject an unpredictable new element into fragile diplomatic efforts to initiate peace talks, has been discussed periodically since at least 2016, according to several of the individuals. But the matter has received renewed examination in recent months as the White House seeks to stake out a tough stance on Iranian-linked groups across the Middle East, they said.

A formal terrorist designation by the State Department could further isolate the rebels, members of a minority Shiite Muslim sect who seized control of Yemen’s capital in late 2014, but critics warn that such a move might also worsen already dire humanitarian conditions without pushing the conflict closer to a conclusion.

Labeling the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) is what the government would do if it wants to ensure that the war continues and escalates further. For one thing, the designation wouldn’t have much merit and it would be widely perceived as part of the administration’s obsession with Iran. The Houthis are guilty of war crimes, recruitment of child soldiers, torture, arbitrary detention, and other abuses against Yemeni civilians in the territory they control, but to call them terrorists stretches that term to mean nothing more than “armed people we don’t like.” Terrorist designations have always been politically motivated, but there is usually some legitimate basis for including a group on the FTO list. There wouldn’t be one in this case. Designating the Houthis as terrorists would have no real effect on their finances, since they aren’t relying on any institutions that the U.S. can sanction, but it would adversely affect humanitarian relief efforts in Houthi-controlled territory:

Aid groups fear a designation could worsen suffering among Yemeni civilians because it could require groups to obtain licenses from the US government before they were able to continue their work in Houthi-controlled areas.

Labeling the Houthis as terrorists might be satisfying to the Saudis and Emiratis, who are desperate to cast their unjust war as something other than an indefensible attack on their poor neighbor, but it would be a mistake that would likely have harmful effects on Yemen’s civilian population. If the administration were genuinely interested in helping peace negotiations in Yemen, they would be spending much more time pressuring the Saudi coalition members to halt their Hodeidah offensive and they would stop trying to blame Iran for everything.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.