Jan 13,2021 – JORDAN TIMES – MICHAEL JANSEN
While unelected Donald Trump skulks in the White House speaking to few loyalists and barred from tweeting, surviving members of his administration are determined to continue adopting measures that will sabotage incoming President Joe Biden’s foreign relations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the most active in this sphere. Late Sunday, he declared his intention of branding Yemen’s Houthi rebels a “foreign terrorist organisation”. He had been contemplating this move since last fall but hesitated due to opposition from the UN, international aid agencies, former US diplomats who had served in this region, and Congressmen from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
He justified this move only 10 days before Biden’s inauguration on January 20 by saying that the “designations are to hold [the Houthi organisation] accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure and commercial shipping”.
He also claimed he had issued the characterisation to ramp up pressure on Iran, which has given the Houthis limited support since March 2015 Saudi Arabia and the Emirates launched their war to restore Yemen’s exiled interim President Abbed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to the capital, Sanaa, which came under Houthi control in 2014.
His real motive is of course to complicate efforts of the incoming administration to rejoin the 2015 deal providing sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for reducing by 90 per cent its nuclear programme. Trump violated the deal when he withdrew the US in 2018 and imposed increasingly punitive sanctions. He stepped up the process of imposing sanctions even after it was clear he had lost the November presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden, who plans to re-enter the accord. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi has warned him to do this as soon as possible because Iran will no longer allow agency monitors to inspect sites after February 21. Iran wants the US to lift sanctions on oil exports and international banking by that date. Grossi says this is doable.
An evangelical Christian deeply attached to Israel, Pompeo is particularly eager to cause as much damage to Biden’s bid to re-establish reasonable relations with Iran because Tehran is no friend of Israel. For Pompeo, Houthi connections with Iran, however slender, tar the rebels with the Iranian brush.
Pompeo’s initiative is dangerous. It “criminalises” the Houthis and makes it difficult for UN agencies and international aid organisations to deliver desperately needed food and medical supplies to the majority of Yemenis who live under Houthi rule. The UN estimates that 80 per cent of Yemen’s 28 million people are in need of external aid to subsist.
Furthermore, the “terrorist” designation makes it difficult for the UN mediator to broker peace talks between the Houthis and the Saudis and their allies. This harms Saudi interests as Riyadh appears ready to negotiate an end to stalemated war from which the Emirates, its main partner, has largely withdrawn.
Pompeo has also dispatched envoy David Shenker to Western Sahara ahead of the opening of a US consulate there. This follows the Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed former Spanish colony, where Polosario Front has been demanding and fighting for independence since the 1970s. Last year, Morocco joined the Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in normalising relations with Israel. The reward in this Trump transactional deal was Western Sahara, making the US the only major power to recognise Rabat’s contested sovereignty over the region. The administration’s decision to recognise Morocco’s claim amounted to a key change of policy and angered Algeria, which hosts and backs the Polisario Front which waged a war of independence from 1975-1991.
Pompeo has also upset China by lifting restrictions on contacts between US and Taiwanese officials in a move that has infuriated China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province and brands as “separatists” Taiwanese leaders who claim sovereignty. Removing restrictions should enable high level contacts between Washington and Taipei but it will be up to Biden, to repair relations between the two economic super-powers spoiled by Trump’s tariff war.
In 1979, the Carter administration retained ties to offshore Taiwan but recognised the People’s Republic as sovereign on the mainland.
Trump’s relations with China have deteriorated since April 2017 when he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar al-Lago resort in Florida and praised their relations as “outstanding” despite major differences on trade and North Korea. While the two leaders were eating chocolate cake at the end of their introductory dinner, Trump informed Xi that he had launched missiles at Iraq when the target was a Syrian airbase. This strike was meant to be in retaliation for an alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaikhoun in Syria’s takfiri-held north-western Idlib province. Trump’s demonstration of US power and glory was intended to pressure China to rein North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who was sparring with Trump. This did not happen and Trump staged a trade war with China by slapping heavy tariffs on imports and targeting Chinese high-tech firms doing business with US companies. China replied with similar measures.
As usual with Trump, the diplomatic upgrade with Taiwan was transactional: the sale of billions worth of arms to Taipei.
Pompeo is also expected to re-designate Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, thereby reversing the policy of reconcilition and rapprochement pursued by former president Barack Obama and Biden, his vice president. This could be another transactional deal: payback for the votes of right-wing Cuban exiles who “gave” Florida to Trump in the presidential election. With this goal in mind, Trump adopted a hard line on Cuba by reinstating many of the sanctions eased or removed by the Obama administration which lifted the “terrorist” designation as part of its efforts to ease tensions with Cuba.
These last ditch measures must be seen as revenge against Biden for defeating Trump’s bid for a second term in the White House and reveals Trump’s team as mean-minded and bitter, prepared to harm US relations with the world, instead of ceding the presidency gracefully and with dignity.