The Hawks, Lobbyists And Dictator Who Are Pushing Joe Biden To Spark A Historic Famine In Yemen

White House aide Brett McGurk, Republican lawmakers and the United Arab Emirates want to restore a Trump-era terror designation for the Houthi militia.
Yemeni children carry jerrycans at a makeshift camp for people who fled fighting between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government forces, in the village of Hays near the conflict zone in Yemen's western province of Hodeida, on Jan. 28.
Yemeni children carry jerrycans at a makeshift camp for people who fled fighting between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government forces, in the village of Hays near the conflict zone in Yemen's western province of Hodeida, on Jan. 28.
KHALED ZIAD via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s national security team is in a complex tug of war over a decision that could push millions of people into starvation — weighing the advice of humanitarian experts, most government officials and top Democrats against arguments from hawks who want Biden to restore one of former President Donald Trump’s most controversial policies.

Biden is considering slapping the U.S. government’s “foreign terrorist organization” label on the Houthis, an Iran-backed militia that has been fighting American-backed forces in Yemen since 2014, the president told reporters last month. Trump applied the label to the Houthis last January but Biden lifted it shortly thereafter.

While advocates of the move claim it would make the Houthis less aggressive, aid groups say it would devastate the struggling country. Banks and other businesses would likely become extremely reluctant to work in Yemen for fear of being hit by U.S. sanctions, which would make it nearly impossible and astronomically expensive to import food and other essential goods. Most foreign policy analysts also say it would ratchet up tensions.

Biden’s aides are working on a final recommendation to the president that is expected to come later this month. They discussed the matter at a high-level White House meeting on Friday, two sources familiar with the decision-making process told HuffPost, and top officials have now asked lower-level staff at government agencies to provide further analysis. (The sources requested anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.)

The internal debate could doom millions of Yemenis who are already enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. When Trump introduced the measure, the United Nations’ then-aid chief warned that it could produce “a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years.” Since then, Yemen has received far less aid than the amount the U.N. deems necessary and clashes between U.S.-backed fighters and the Houthis have marred thousands more lives; just weeks ago, airstrikes by Saudi Arabia, a close American partner, killed 70 people and wounded hundreds.

But bellicose voices in Washington want Biden to overlook those humanitarian concerns.

Former Trump officials, Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits are pushing for the designation. So are Yousef Al Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates, one of the most influential ambassadors in town; at least one prominent Democrat, Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.); Saudi officials; and, according to two sources, the top White House adviser on the Middle East, Brett McGurk.

Akin Gump, a powerful lobbying firm contracted by the UAE, is aggressively urging lawmakers to support the terror group label, two sources familiar with its work told HuffPost. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a former Republican congresswoman who chaired the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Geoffrey Verhoff, a prominent GOP fundraiser, are leading that effort, which has not been previously reported. (Akin Gump did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Backers of the designation cite recent Houthi attacks on the Emirates, which supports anti-Houthi forces in Yemen, as evidence that the U.S. must crack down on the group whatever the cost.

Their case seemingly ignores two key facts: that Biden has already sent U.S. assistance to the UAE in recent days and that the Houthis do not rely on the forms of support that a U.S. terror designation would cut off. And it’s unfathomably chilling for Yemenis.

“As we are comforting our children among airstrikes and see our economic crisis spiral, its extremely disheartening to see the Biden administration consider a policy that would mean even further suffering and death,” Abdulwasea Mohammed, a Yemeni staffer for the global charity Oxfam, said in a recent statement. “Many in Yemen were encouraged by Biden’s policy shifts a year ago, so this reversal is particularly upsetting … We know well the attacks the Houthis have carried out on civilians, but we should not be caught in the middle of the U.S.’s counterproductive efforts to penalize them.”

Revenge Of The Hawks

In 2021, Biden officials slammed Trump’s designation of the Houthis. Leading Democrats — and some key Republicans — cheered the president’s revocation of it on Feb. 16. They said he could acknowledge the Houthis’ misdeeds without worsening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen or making the group less likely to negotiate, framing Biden’s move as part of a broader bid to end the war.

The policy took force even as the GOP tried to portray it as a sign of weakness; Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, called it “a gift to the Iranians.”

But later in the year, as peace talks floundered and the Houthis carried out a brutal new offensive, administration officials began more aggressively blaming Yemen’s woes and regional instability on the militia, while Democrats became less assertive in pressing Biden on Yemen and the misconduct of U.S. partners there, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Since the Houthis this year twice struck the Emirates — where thousands of American troops are based — and the Emiratis and Saudis activated their lobbying machines, the idea of restoring the terror group designation has gained a surprising degree of traction.

Fighting between Yemen's Houthis and U.S.-backed forces has displaced tens of thousands of Yemenis.
Fighting between Yemen's Houthis and U.S.-backed forces has displaced tens of thousands of Yemenis.
KHALED ZIAD via Getty Images

Last Wednesday, Moulton began asking fellow Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee to sign a letter to Biden in support of the designation.

“I understand that removing the designation was meant to help the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, but it has done little outside of embolden the Houthis to escalate their attacks and block reconciliation,” read the message obtained by HuffPost.

Moulton’s spokesman this week declined to say whether the congressman had already sent the letter to the administration or to explain why he was breaking with humanitarian groups and the vast majority of Democrats on the issue. Last year, Moulton was also one of only 11 House Democrats to oppose an amendment barring American military support for Saudi-led forces in Yemen.

A spokesman for Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican who is co-sponsoring the letter, told HuffPost that Moulton’s office was taking the lead on the effort and did not provide further details.

That push in the House echoes a Senate bill from a group of Republicans led by Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Tom Cotton (Ark.). Their legislation would require Biden to reverse what Cruz called “a reckless, self-indulgent and catastrophic move.”

Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador and a likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate, also wants Biden to apply the label. And multiple hawkish commentators in the conservative orbit, like former official Dennis Ross, have joined the chorus too.

That bolsters Biden staffers who are seeking the change internally, like McGurk at the White House. He has strong ties with the UAE, the Saudis and other American partners in the Middle East, and has said he wants to show them that Biden’s team will keep them close amid fears that they will pursue other friends like China.

One of the sources familiar with the administration’s decision-making said McGurk’s “power and force of personality” had become a major factor in the internal tussle over the policy. He is especially influential right now because most top national security officials are focused on the flare-up in Ukraine, the source added.

Still, many officials at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are forcefully objecting to the designation, a congressional aide told HuffPost.

Spokespeople for State and the White House declined to comment for this story.

Critics of the proposed designation are highlighting a consensus among experts that it would do little to rein in the Houthis. Writing for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in Europe, analyst Lucy van der Kroft argued, “the group accumulates funds through resource theft and illegal taxation, limiting the impact of international sanctions ... Trump was prepared to endanger Yemeni civilians for the sake of a symbolic gesture towards Iran and to place obstacles in his successor’s path, using U.S. counter-terrorism policy as a tool against his domestic political opponents.”

That echoes what Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his confirmation hearing last year, when he told senators the label “seems to achieve nothing particularly practical.”

Joseph Votel, a retired general who once led U.S. forces in the Middle East, has also opposed the policy, as has former ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer, who recently advised the Biden administration to instead “focus its energy on engaging the Houthis and reassuring Saudi Arabia.”

Administration officials are currently brainstorming alternative policy shifts to reassure Arab partners and signal toughness to the Houthis, one source familiar with the decision-making process told HuffPost. Last week, Biden approved nearly $90 million in new weapons sales to the Saudis and Emiratis.

Meanwhile, lawmakers opposed to the move are mobilizing to influence Biden. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is actively reaching out to colleagues to highlight the possible toll of reimposing the designation.

The move “shuts down commercial food imports to Yemen. That is nothing that any member of Congress wants on their conscience and something I hope the administration doesn’t want either,” Murphy told HuffPost on Wednesday. “So I know it sounds good, because the Houthis are terrible. And you can call them whatever you want. But this particular designation comes with real consequences and it’s starvation ... I think there’ll be bipartisan pushback.”

Preparing For The Worst

Aid groups are lobbying against the potential designation while preparing for it to rip through Yemen’s fragile communities — cutting off medicine, driving up food prices and starving children.

“We know exactly how it’s going to play out: a year ago pharmaceutical companies began canceling their plans to send needed supplies to Yemen — despite licenses in place. This is of course a core humanitarian need, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Scott Paul of Oxfam America.

He added that banks would likely severely limit transactions with Yemenis for fear of incurring American sanctions, which would make any transactions harder, from businesses paying for imports to Yemenis abroad sending remittances to family members.

Amanda Catanzano of the International Rescue Committee told HuffPost that if Biden imposes the label, he would “cut an already collapsing economy to its knees.”

“There’s a lot of people already not getting the aid they need ... this would happen against that backdrop,” she added, noting that budget shortfalls last year meant that aid went from reaching 9 million Yemenis in need to fewer than 7 million. “Humanitarian exemptions [to sanctions] can go part of the way but are rarely sufficient ... it would be trying to run up a downward escalator.”

Before Trump imposed the designation, importers and banks already began pulling back from Yemen in anticipation, humanitarian experts say; the longer there is uncertainty about Biden’s decision, the greater the risk for that to happen again.

Before Trump imposed the designation, importers and banks already began pulling back from Yemen in anticipation, humanitarian experts say; the longer there is uncertainty about Biden’s decision, the greater the risk for that to happen again.

As the hawks try to get their way, “now they’re putting this weird campaign into overdrive,” the congressional aide said.

Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.

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