Jan 11, 2021 - World

Trump administration launches foreign policy blitz in final days

Pompeo leaves the stage. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Yemen's Houthi rebels a terror group, labeled Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism and risked provoking China by lifting restrictions on interactions between U.S. and Taiwanese officials — all within 48 hours, and with less than two weeks left in President Trump's term.

Why it matters: The administration, and in particular Pompeo, has made little secret of the fact that it's trying to tie President-elect Biden's hands, in particular when it comes to Trump's hardline policies on Iran and China.

Bipartisan concerns are bubbling up on Capitol Hill over the sudden shifts across so many areas with so little time left, and without evidence of in-depth planning and coordination.

  • "I don't know if it’s the fact that it’s the transition and folks have left, or if they are just desperately trying to push things across before Jan. 20. It just seemed like there was a lack of preparedness on both of these issues," one congressional aide said, describing a contentious State Department briefing to committee staff today on the Yemen and Cuba moves.
  • The moves, driven primarily by Pompeo, come at a time when Trump himself seems to have largely disengaged from foreign policy.
  • They follow several other shifts in long-standing U.S. policy — most notably the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara — that have come during the transition.

The other side: "We’ve taken note of these last-minute maneuvers, one of which" — the Houthi designation — "is operative on Jan. 19," a Biden transition official told Axios. The official added that the transition was reviewing each policy and would determine whether to keep or reverse them, based on "the national interest."

Driving the news: The Houthi designation has sparked particular backlash because it comes after weeks of warnings that such a step would impede the international response to the world's most dire humanitarian crisis and make a peace deal harder to reach.

  • Background: The Iran-linked Houthis toppled Yemen's government in 2014, and a Saudi-led bombing campaign since then has largely failed to dislodge them. Biden said during the campaign that he would end U.S. support for that campaign, and he's already facing congressional pressure to reverse Pompeo's latest move.

Cuba's state sponsor of terrorism designation had been lifted in 2015 by Barack Obama as part of a détente policy that Biden seems inclined to resume.

  • The Trump administration had previously reversed several of Obama's other policies toward Cuba, and today added Cuba back to the terror sponsor list alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Pompeo also lifted four-decade-old restrictions on official government visits to Taiwan — the self-governing island that is claimed by China.

  • China's Foreign Ministry issued a threatening response on Monday, warning the U.S. to "refrain from going further down the wrong and dangerous path."

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has continued to reduce troop numbers in Afghanistan toward a target of 2,500 by Jan. 15, despite a provision in the defense spending law — approved by Congress on Jan. 1 over Trump's veto — intended to stop him from doing so, Reuters reports.

  • The law requires the Pentagon to provide a detailed rationale before accessing funds to lower troop levels below 4,000.
  • The Pentagon told Reuters on Monday that there had been no orders to slow the withdrawal, and one official added that the troop count was already down to around 3,000.
  • Biden has also called for Trump reductions in Afghanistan, while keeping open the possibility of a counter-terrorism force remaining in the country.

The bottom line: The administration is clearly more focused on pushing its policies as far as they can go before Jan. 20 than on ensuring a smooth transition.

Go deeper: Pompeo's last-minute Yemen move sparks outrage in Congress

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