Building a legacy
The outgoing Trump administrations efforts to apparently box-in the incoming Biden administration with regards to foreign policy continues. In this last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has come forth with a flurry of important, last-minute foreign policy decisions. Just days after the bombastic announcement that the US would be abandoning previous communication restrictions with Taiwan, Pompeo came forth with two more explosive foreign policy moves. The first of these was re-designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. This sudden change is being seen as a clear attempt to reverse diplomatic gains made by the Obama administration in normalising US-Cuba relations. The specific allegations made by Pompeo as justification state that the Castro regime is engaged in using its resources to not only oppress its people at home but also spread their influence in Venezuela and the rest of the western hemisphere. While this designation may not significantly worsen the already constrained relationship between the Trump administration and Cuba, it will make it harder to fix relations for the Biden administration. Reversing this designation would require Biden to certify to Congress that the Cuban regime is no longer engaged in acts of terror. While this complex formal procedure plays out, the designation will result in restrictions on US foreign assistance to Cuba, an export ban on US arms to Cuba, withdrawal of US support for loans from global financial institutions, etc. To be clear, much of this is simply an extension of what the Trump administration already used as its policy towards Cuba but once again, the timing makes the matter seem suspicious. Critics are already calling the designation a baseless escalation that is only aimed at spitefully impeding efforts by the Biden administration to carry forward Obama-era policy of helping Cuba out of political isolation.
Further stirring up the proverbial pot of global politics, Pompeo made a second major foreign policy announcement — the US would designate Yemen's Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist group. The UN almost immediately reacted in alarm and issued a warning that the designation may destabilise delicate efforts to resume the political process in Yemen. The most immediate consequence may well be to nullify UN attempts to broker a new round of peace talks between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis who control the capital and large sections of the nation and its urban centres. Aside from antagonising the Houthi, many say this will also drive them further into the folds of the Iranian sphere of influence, an undesirable outcome for the US and Saudi Arabia.
This designation can only significantly impact humanitarian work and import into Yemen. With the Houthi being the de-facto authority in large parts of Yemen, all humanitarian organisations carry out their work in Yemen with Houthi permits. This designation may criminalise the work of such aid organisations. Then there is the added impact of the designation stiffening up compliance mechanisms for banking services to Yemen which could, among other things, make access to remittances from abroad harder as well as raise the price of basic commodities. All this comes at a time when 80 per cent of the population is in need of humanitarian aid and the UN warning of Yemen facing its biggest famine in decades.
At this stage, it is a moot point to mention that critics of the decision have found little merit to the decision, indicating that it simply follows a separate agenda. What has been debated is what this agenda really is. For the most part, Trump is simply solidifying his specific foreign policy legacy at a time when his administration is taking flak from all directions. There have also been recent reports that Trump continues to insist on an expedited pullout of US troops from Afghanistan despite many objections and fears regarding what such an abrupt pull-out would cause. There are already indications that the Afghan-Taliban peace process is already falling apart with allegations of ceasefire violations and tensions building up. Elements of the Afghan Government have already stated their expectation of a spring Taliban offensive emboldened by the American pullout. To Donald Trump, this is the fulfilment of his long-held promise to get it back.
To conclude, it would be easy to see this barrage of policy changes as an attempt to overwhelm the oncoming Biden administration. But it is also worth noting that these may also be part of a larger Trump effort to salvage his reputation and rally his base on his old message of "promises made, promises kept", regardless of the collateral cost of these decisions.