Opinion | Sébastien Roblin: The secretary of state is throwing diplomatic banana peels in the path of his successor by spuriously designating foreign actors he doesn’t like as terrorists. - @NBCNewsTHINK
One might think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be preoccupied with shoring up the United States’ battered international image after his boss encouraged a mob that stormed the Capitol in a bid to reverse the outcome of the last election, leaving five dead.
But America’s top foreign policy official has more pressing matters to attend to. Besides burnishing his reputation with a barrage of over 200 self-congratulatory tweets, he’s spending his final days in office throwing diplomatic banana peels in the path of his successors by formally, but oh so very spuriously, designating foreign actors he doesn’t like as terrorists.
Unfortunately, Pompeo’s efforts to stick it to the Biden administration will impose harsh and entirely unnecessary costs on millions of civilians. Though ultimately reversible, the policies will inflict collateral damage on innocent people while the monthslong review process to terminate them is completed
Pompeo began on Sunday by designating the Houthis, a rebel group that controls large parts of Yemen, as a “foreign terrorist organization.” On Monday, he followed suit by designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.
The more obviously outrageous of Pompeo’s moves is that against Cuba. Yes, the country systematically represses political dissent and has a poor human rights record, and it’s allied with countries on bad terms with Washington, notably Venezuela. But that’s simply not the same as sponsoring terrorism.
The technicality Pompeo is leaning on for the accusation of terrorism is particularly risible. In 2018 Cuba agreed to a request from the Colombian government to provide safe harbor and passage to leaders of the ELN, a Marxist guerilla group in Colombia designated by the U.S. and others as a terrorist organization, so they could hold peace talks with Bogotá. But after the ELN claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing of a police academy in January 2019, a new Colombian government asked Cuba to drop its promise of safe passage and hand over the ELN leaders for trial, which Havana refused to do.
Not only is Cuba’s refusal to violate a safe harbor assurance made for peace negotiations a far cry from actually sponsoring terror attacks, but the U.S. has for years allowed other countries similar leeway — permitting Qatar to offer safe harbor to Taliban leaders, for instance, to carry out peace talks with the U.S despite ongoing attacks on U.S. forces.
Pompeo’s announcement also cites Cuba’s refusal to extradite violent 1970s-era radicals and renounce its relationship with Venezuela as justifications. But do these grievances actually fulfill the criteria of having “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” in any present day sense?
The misuse of the terrorism designation is generally understood to be a political handout to Cuban-American hard-liners who boosted President Donald Trump’s victory in Florida in November. But the terrorism designation will primarily harm Cuba’s tourism-oriented economy by impeding economic relations with other countries who could now run afoul of U.S. law for dealing with Cuba.That will succeed in hurting ordinary Cubans but not the regime’s hold on power.
Pompeo’s decision a day earlier to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization is superficially more defensible — but actually more fundamentally flawed, as it threatens graver consequences than the Cuba policy.