On Saturday, Pompeo announced he was lifting formal restrictions on contacts between U.S. and Taiwanese officials, a sign of Washington’s deepening antipathy toward Beijing but also a curious policy decision for the Trump administration to take in its waning days in power. Successive U.S. administrations have carefully managed their ties with Taiwan, which the United States does not formally recognize because of its relationship with Beijing. In blowing up the status quo, the Trump administration may be forcing Biden into a more direct confrontation with China.
On Monday, the Trump administration opted to classify Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, an aggressively ideological decision that further deteriorates relations with Havana and reverses the steps the Obama administration took in delisting Cuba in 2015 as part of a broader thaw.
And on Tuesday, Pompeo declared Iran the “home base” for terrorist group al-Qaeda in a speech and announced sanctions on a handful of al-Qaeda-linked figures living within Iran. Critics of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign fear that the possibility of military action against Iranian targets before Trump departs the White House is still on the table.
These actions appear to have a clear purpose. One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to Foreign Policy, characterized the moves as “fire sale diplomacy” — or what the magazine’s reporters described as “parting shots from the outgoing administration deliberately aimed at hampering the incoming administration’s foreign policy.”
The incoming administration may be able to vacate or reverse some of these decisions. But it raises the stakes for Biden’s initial foreign policy efforts and sets the table for bitter political fights at home, with Republican opponents poised to cast Biden and his allies as weak or soft should they try to climb down from some of the maximalist positions taken by Trump and Pompeo.
Observers questioned the utility of the Cuba and Houthi designations. “This is pure diplomatic vandalism,” said David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, in a statement. He added that the Houthi designation made the task for his organization’s staff in Yemen “all but impossible. … [The] cost of terrorism designations in the middle of complex conflicts and humanitarian crises can be measured in innocent lives lost.”
Placing Cuba back on the state sponsor of terrorism list is more a sop to anti-communist hard-liners in Florida’s community of Cuban exiles than a reflection of anything the Cuban regime has done in recent years. “A U.S. economic embargo of Cuba already curbs Americans’ ability to do business with or visit the communist island,” my colleagues reported. “But the new terrorism label could hinder commercial deals with third countries Cuba relies on to import essential goods and turn off foreign investors in its all-important tourism industry.”
“There is no factual basis to re-list #Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terror,” tweeted Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group. “This is a malicious, last-ditch effort to handicap Biden’s foreign policy, and reward [Trump] supporters in Florida for sticking with Trump even after he incited terrorist attacks against the U.S. Congress.”
The decision to list the Houthis as a terrorist organization could have the most devastating effects. The Houthis, a rebel faction with ties to Iran, still control the majority of Yemen after years of ruinous fighting with a U.S.-backed and Saudi-led coalition. Hunger and disease stalk the land and aid organizations have already faced significant funding shortfalls this year, hampering their efforts to deliver urgent food and medicines to the country.
The Houthi designation only makes things harder. “It would prevent numerous Western aid organizations, concerned about prosecution for perceived support of the armed group, from operating in Houthi-controlled areas, where most Yemenis live,” my colleagues reported. “It could also prompt retaliatory measures by the rebels against aid groups, further undermining efforts to assist millions of Yemenis.”
“The consequences will be felt acutely across a country also hit hard by extreme hunger, cholera and covid-19, as banks, businesses and humanitarian donors become unwilling or unable to take on the risk of operating in Yemen,” said Scott Paul, Oxfam’s humanitarian policy lead. “Every day these designations remain in place will compound the suffering of Yemen’s most vulnerable families.”
Even Republicans in Congress, where there is bipartisan support for disentangling the United States from Yemen’s war, condemned Pompeo’s move.
“Yemen imports 90 percent of its food,” said two top GOP lawmakers, James E. Risch (Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Michael McCaul (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement. “In light of near-famine conditions that have already existed in Yemen, this designation will have a devastating effect on Yemen’s food supply and other critical imports unless the executive branch acts now to issue the necessary licenses, waivers and appropriate guidance prior to designation.”
For all his talk of bringing “swagger” and putting America first on the world stage, Pompeo leaves behind a legacy of bruising and overtly ideological policy and myriad outraged and exasperated U.S. allies. On Tuesday, the top U.S. diplomat also abruptly canceled his final trip abroad — a European swing through Belgium and, originally, a planned stop in Luxembourg as well — on the grounds that administration officials were now focusing on the presidential transition.
But it seemed that the decision had been made for him. Luxembourg’s foreign minister, whom Pompeo was scheduled to meet Thursday, recently described Trump as a “criminal” and “political pyromaniac” for inciting the events of last week. Pompeo was clearly radioactive and unwelcome. But he, too, still seems keen on setting fires.