The Biden Administration’s Houthi Half Measure

January 18th, 2024

After three months of disruption of international shipping through the Suez Canal by the Iranian-proxy Houthi militia group, and the recent targeting of American military vessels, the Biden administration has finally begun to take the problem seriously. After its joint strike against Houthi sites in Yemen alongside the United Kingdom, the United States plans to define the organization as a “specially designated global terrorist” (SDGT) group, according to a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken released Wednesday. The order is set to take effect on February 16.

The Houthis had previously been recognized as both a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and an SDGT group; former president Donald Trump’s administration designated them as such in January 2021, but soon after that year’s inauguration, the Biden administration removed the label, arguing that the “designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel.”

National Review’s Luther Ray Abel noted Wednesday morning that the SDGT designation is fundamentally weaker than the previous FTO version in that the former does not create immigration restrictions for members of the targeted group, nor does it impose sanctions on “those who provide ‘material support’ to the group.” In short, it’s a cop-out:

Biden’s SDGT ploy allows him plausible deniability concerning inaction while also ensuring that U.S. strength cannot be applied to Houthi forces in any real capacity besides telegraphed and ineffective air strikes against a rebel force that has made a living of dodging similar Saudi strikes for years.

He’s not alone in voicing concern that the Houthis wouldn’t be given the full designation. Advancing American Freedom, a Mike Pence-founded group that has previously called on the Biden administration to add the Houthis back to the list of foreign terrorist organizations, issued a statement Wednesday, with executive director Paul Teller saying “the Houthis are a foreign terrorist organization, but the Biden administration would rather classify them as an SDGT, to avoid being called out for their about-face.” Teller accused the White House of being “more afraid of a bad headline than global threats.”

Gabriel Noronha, a fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, posted on X after the initial round of reporting that the designation means three things: 1) “Houthis can still get U.S. visas,” 2) “Not a criminal penalty to support them,” and 3) “U.S. banks don’t have to seize their funds.”

He elaborated on those three aspects of the decision, telling National Review that there are significant differences between the two types of designations.

“If you are sanctioned on the FTO list, none of the members of the organization can receive a visa to come into the United States, even if you’re a cook or a conscript or a low-level guy,” Noronha said, adding that, if an organization is on the FTO list, its “assets can be seized and forfeited to the victims of Houthi terrorists. . . . If you are just an SDGT, your assets in the U.S. are frozen, but they can’t really be turned over to the victims.”

Another distinction Noronha emphasized has to do with criminal prosecution. While offering an SDGT financial support carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence; the penalties for assisting an FTO are much harsher.

“If you are an FTO, it doesn’t have to be willful,” Noronha said. “Anyone that supports them in any way, shape, or form materially can go to prison up to a life sentence. It basically makes them radioactive as a group.”

Noronha then addressed a phone call between U.S. officials and reporters during which one administration figure said, “If we saw a cessation of Houthi attacks on ships, we are willing to relook at this designation.” He told NR that some of that perspective has to do with the administration’s general approach to sanctions, which he described as a “view that sanctions are intended to improve behavior but aren’t intended to be permanent.” Noronha noted that such an approach can be successful, but only if the other side actually follows through.

“We removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror,” he mentioned as an example, “as part of a process where they paid something like $340 million in damages and made peace with Israel. There is a path where that works and everyone is happy, but there’s a major difference between atoning for your behavior and making big political change and just saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to attack ships this month.’”

It appears the outcome here would likely be the latter. Biden’s half measure on the Houthis is simply another example of the White House’s failure to comprehend the necessity of a large-scale strategy of deterrence. And in effectively announcing its intention to keep its options open, the administration has signaled a dangerous level of unseriousness in dealing with a real geopolitical crisis.

“This is all part of the Biden administration’s broader Middle East strategy of ‘we don’t want conflict, we do not want escalation, we do not want things blowing up, and our solution is diplomacy. We believe that we are really good diplomats, and we can talk these things through,’” Noronha said. “And that is nice, wishful thinking. . . . Fundamentally, that’s just not how this region works, and [the Houthis] don’t care about those nice ideas.”

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