Pompeo's Last-Minute Moves are About Damaging Biden, Not Securing America | Opinion

You may not know it from turning on cable news, but the Trump administration is using its last week in office to throw a bagful of heavy wrenches at its successor.

As the nation continues to come to grips with the first invasion of the Capitol Building since 1814, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is using his last week on the job to push through foreign policies that saddle the incoming Biden administration with additional problems and undermine the new team's diplomatic agenda. Indeed, given the timing, it's difficult to argue that these last-minute changes are being enacted out of sincerity for U.S. national security.

On January 9, Pompeo issued new internal State Department guidance that would eliminate what he called "self-imposed restrictions" between U.S. and Taiwanese officials. In Pompeo's own words, "The United States government maintains relationships with unofficial partners around the world, and Taiwan is no exception." The move came days before Kelly Craft, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was scheduled to fly to the island of Taiwan this week for a formal visit (per the State Department, that visit is now cancelled). Supporters have hailed the State Department's rules change as the beginning of stronger bilateral relationship between two democracies and a stern message to Beijing that it doesn't have the right to hold a veto over Washington's Taiwan policy.

Some form of retaliation from Beijing, however, is all but baked in. What that retaliation may look like is uncertain, but what is certain is that China will in fact find a way to make its displeasure known. Over the last year, China has operated on the principle of proportional retaliation, where sanctions, visa freezes or the closing of diplomatic facilities are met with similar behavior against the United States. Chinese officials responded immediately to the State Department's weekend announcement, in a predictably livid fashion, calling more regularized U.S.-Taiwan contacts a violation of the "One China policy." The Biden administration was already going to inherit a U.S.-China relationship at its most strained since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. The rules change with Taiwan is destined to make the job of more pragmatic state-to-state relations any an even more arduous journey.

Thousands of miles away, the Trump administration took another monumental decision, designating the Houthis in Yemen a foreign terrorist organization. In his reasoning, Pompeo claimed that a terrorism designation on the group was more than warranted given its links to Iran and the group's missile attacks against neighboring Saudi Arabia. But the merits of the designation are questionable at best and aren't cost-free to Yemen or even the United States. While the Houthi movement is a brutal domestic insurgency that deploys disgusting tactics on the battlefield like diverting food aid and recruiting children, this unconscionable behavior doesn't mean it's a foreign terrorist organization seeking to kill Americans. Nor will labeling the Houthis terrorists do anything to change the facts on the ground or facilitate U.N.-led peace negotiations as the State Department baselessly claims.

Unfortunately, what it will do is deter humanitarian organizations from operating in Houthi-controlled territory, which comprises roughly 70 percent of Yemen's entire population. Banks that would ordinarily finance or approve payments for humanitarian assistance destined for these areas will now think twice due to the risk of violating U.S. law, leaving millions of men, women, and children in further destitution. As the Norwegian Refugee Council stated immediately after Pompeo's announcement, "Getting food and medicine into Yemen—a country 80 percent dependent on imports—will become even more difficult."

On the same day as the Houthi designation, the State Department also placed Cuba back on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But much like the decision on the Houthis, the justifications are lacking. Re-inducting Cuba on the terrorism blacklist has less to do with punishing Havana for terrorism-related activity than it does with complicating President-elect Biden's policy reforms, which entail lessening travel, financial, and remittance restrictions on the island and increasing the pace of diplomatic engagement. In order for the Biden administration to pursue this policy change, it will now have to use its leverage in Congress, consult with lawmakers, and submit a report on why removing Cuba from the list is in the U.S. national interest—all of which takes time and political capital that could otherwise be spent on other priorities.

And of course, one can't mention Pompeo and the Trump administration without mentioning Iran, a nation the secretary of state has had an unhealthy, dangerous obsession with throughout his career. Trump and Pompeo understand full well that Joe Biden is preparing to replace a failed maximum pressure strategy with pragmatic dialogue. The first step in this approach is returning the U.S. to the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump has tried to kill for the last three years. So on January 12, Pompeo delivered remarks at the State Department about a supposed alliance between Iran and Al-Qaeda, asserting without evidence that Tehran agreed to allow the terrorist network to establish a new "home base" on Iranian soil as long as Al-Qaeda avoided attacking Iranian interests. The speech, not to mention the series of economic sanctions the White House has imposed on Tehran this year, will force the next administration to spend as much time justifying diplomacy with Iran domestically as it spends on the very negotiations Biden and his national security advisers hope to conduct—precisely the intention behind Pompeo's speech.

Technically speaking, the Trump administration has the right to issue any decision it wants for as long as it holds the reigns of government. But let there be no mistake: in choosing to wait until the last possible moment, the White House and Secretary Pompeo specifically is handcuffing the next administration and doubling down on policies that are either risky, counterproductive or predestined to fail.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.