Trying to Explain Biden’s Bumbling Policy on the Houthi Rebels and Iran

During recent interviews with two Arab-language TV networks, I was asked to comment on the Biden administration’s announcement that it has re-designated Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization. The programs’ hosts asked me to explain why this decision took so long and whether it indicates a significant change in the Biden administration’s policy.

My explanation puzzled the Arab TV hosts.

I started out by explaining that, despite press reports that the Biden administration reversed its 2021 decision to take the Houthis off the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, this is not exactly correct.

At the beginning of the Biden administration, the president rescinded decisions by President Trump to place the Houthis on the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) and to name the group a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization (SDGT).

The FTO designation represents the generally known U.S. terrorist group list; the SGDT is a little-known, weaker designation. The Biden administration only restored the SGDT designation and postponed enacting it for 30 days. Under this designation, Houthi members can apply for a U.S. visa; it is not a crime to support them; and U.S. banks are not required to seize Houthi funds.

Moreover, tough sanctions against the Houthis imposed as part of the Trump administration’s FTO designation will not be reimposed.

The Arab TV hosts were incredulous about my explanation and asked why the Biden administration would reimpose a weak terrorist designation against the Houthis and why, after three months of Houthi missile and drone attacks against Israel and Red Sea shipping, it took Biden administration officials three months to make this decision.

I answered that this decision was made for domestic political reasons in response to growing criticism in the U.S. of how President Biden is handling increased instability in the Middle East after the horrific October 7 Hamas terrorist attack against Israel. This was a symbolic move that allowed the White House to inform the press that the president was doing something in response to this instability. It was not a serious response to the Houthi missile and drone attacks.

I said I also thought this was an act of desperation by Biden officials after the airstrikes President Biden ordered against Houthi missiles and drone facilities in Yemen failed to stop Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping.

On the U.S. airstrikes against the Houthis that began on January 12, I said there was less there than it appeared. Although the first U.S./U.K. attacks on Houthi military sites were described as massive air and missile strikes against 60 targets at 16 locations, these attacks destroyed only about 20% of Houthi missiles and drones because these weapons are mobile and well-hidden.

In addition, according to a January 17 Wall Street Journal editorial, the U.S. warned the Houthis of the airstrikes in advance so they could evacuate targeted sites, a move the Journal said made the strikes less effective and probably was interpreted as a sign of U.S. weakness.

I told my Arab TV hosts that it was therefore unsurprising that the Houthis were undeterred by the airstrikes and escalated attacks against ships in the region, including a U.S. cargo vessel, which suffered minor damage from a missile strike, and a cruise missile fired at a U.S. Navy ship that was intercepted. As a result, the U.S. has conducted several follow-up attacks against missile and drone sites in Yemen., including airstrikes on January 17 that targeted 14 Houthi missiles.

I added that the airstrikes against the Houthis did not deter their sponsor, Iran, which also escalated tensions in the region over the last few days by firing missiles at targets in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. I noted that cross-border rocket fire into Israel from Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon, is increasing, and attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed militias are continuing.

My Arab TV hosts were dejected after hearing this depressing analysis and asked what the Biden administration should be doing to counter increasing aggression by Iran and its proxies.

I replied that President Biden must implement tough and credible policies against Iran and its proxies as soon as possible. This should include much more aggressive airstrikes against Houthi missile and drone sites and against Iran-backed militias that attack U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

The Biden administration should immediately return to President Trump’s tough “Maximum Pressure” sanctions against Iran. This must include fully enforcing oil sanctions against Iran and the end of providing Tehran with any more multi-billion-dollar sanction waivers, like the $10 billion sanctions waiver Biden officials quietly gave Iran in mid-November.

Neither TV host had any further questions after I gave my policy recommendations. They seemed confused and befuddled about Middle East security and U.S. policy toward the region.

Disturbingly, this also appears to be Joe Biden’s thinking about the Middle East.

Fred Fleitz is vice-chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security. He previously served as National Security Council chief of staff, CIA analyst, and a House Intelligence Committee staff member.

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Photo: RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA - JANUARY 18: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on his economic plan for the country at Abbot's Creek Community Center on January 18, 2024 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Biden's remarks were on how his Bidenomics and Investing in America Agenda are intended to repair and rebuild infrastructure, lowering costs, supporting a small business boom, and creating good-paying jobs. (Photo by Eros Hoagland/Getty Images)