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Washington consensus

Pro-Israel advocates push the White House to redesignate the Houthis as terrorists, but say it’s also not enough

Washington foreign policy experts say the U.S. will likely need to take military action against the Houthis to deter future attacks

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

Huthi military spokesman, Brigadier Yahya Saree, delivers a statement on the recent attacks against two commercial vessels in the Red Sea during a march in solidarity with the people of Gaza in the capital Sanaa on December 15, 2023.

As Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea and attempts to target Israel escalate — with growing implications for international shipping and the global economy — there’s growing agreement among pro-Israel advocates in Washington that the Biden administration should redesignate the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. But many say that the FTO designation is far from enough.

Tuesday brought a flurry of new developments in counter-Houthi efforts, including the formal announcement of an expanded multinational maritime task force to protect Red Sea shipping lanes from Houthi attacks. Bahrain was the only Arab country that publicly joined that effort, but several of the U.S.’s Gulf Arab allies are reportedly privately participating. And the administration is also said to be considering military action in Yemen against the Houthis.

But the Biden administration has yet to reverse one of its early foreign policy decisions, withdrawing the Iran-backed Houthis’ designation as a terrorist organization, a move that reversed a last-minute Trump administration edict.

AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann told Jewish Insider on Tuesday that the pro-Israel group “support[s] legislation to redesignate the Houthis as a FTO as they are Iranian terrorist proxies which threaten our ally, Israel, and global maritime security.”

William Wechsler, the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, told JI that “to pull back a rushed, last-minute designation and to try to give a new diplomatic approach a chance was not an irrational decision for a new administration”

But he said the time for that course of action has passed.

“Sometimes when people repeatedly tell you who and what they are, you actually have to listen to them,” Wechsler said. “The Houthis clearly are a terrorist organization as they have repeatedly and intentionally targeted civilians in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — and now in Israel and in international waters. They do not disguise these actions, proudly taking credit for them and promising to repeat them again.”

The FTO designation, Wechsler and other experts said, would provide more tools to help disrupt the Houthis’ financial networks, as well as provide clarity about the U.S.’s view of the Houthis.

“I think, in U.S. policy, it’s good to call a duck a duck,” Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JI. “They have earned the title as a terrorist organization… It made sense for the Trump administration to designate them as such, and I thought it was a mistake for the Biden administration to delist them. And I think it’s long past time to rectify that error.”

Blaise Misztal, the vice president for policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said the designation would provide a signal of the U.S.’s “seriousness about going after the Houthis” and show “political will” to take stronger action.

“So long as it seems like we’re going to tolerate what’s going on, the more likely it is to continue into the indefinite future. So that political signaling is important,” Misztal said. “But certainly the FTO designation in and of itself is not going to change the dynamics in the Red Sea.”

In Congress, the loudest support for the FTO designation is coming mainly from Republicans, but some Democrats are calling for the move too, and others are expressing an increasing openness to the step. The Biden administration has said previously it won’t comment on potential designations or deliberations.

Discussion in the pro-Israel world has largely advanced beyond the FTO designation, though, which many see as insufficient to put a halt to the Houthis’ activities.

SANA’A, YEMEN – DECEMBER 09: Protestors loyal to the Houthi movement rally for supporting the movement’s decision to target all Israeli ships or bound for Israeli ports, on December 09, 2023 in Sana’a, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

“That the Houthi’s FTO designation was ever revoked remains ridiculous; the least the Biden administration can do is redesignate these Iranian-backed barbarians as what they are: terrorists,” Sandra Parker, the chairwoman of the CUFI Action Fund, the lobbying arm of Christians United for Israel, told JI. “The consequences of America’s anemic policy towards Iran are now tragically on full display. As Washington once knew, one achieves peace through strength. It is our sincere hope that any redesignation is merely a precursor to meaningful action.”

Shipping companies have increasingly begun to divert traffic out of the Red Sea, around the southern tip of Africa, a significantly more costly and time-consuming route.

In Washington, there’s also growing discussion about potential retaliatory strikes against the Houthis, and reports suggest the administration may be preparing such a step.

Wechsler noted the dissonance between the reported consideration of strikes and the administration’s continued hesitance to impose a terrorist designation.

“It would be really difficult to explain to the American public a scenario in which we would consider the use of military force against the Houthis, and yet at the same time would not consider designating them as a terrorist organization. That would seem to me to be an untenable situation,” he said.

Wechsler said the U.S. and the new task force will need to prove it can effectively deter the Houthis in order to restore regular trade flows through the Red Sea.

“The shipping companies will quickly return to the Red Sea as soon as it makes financial sense to do so, when the insurance companies change their assessment of risk there. But for that to happen it will require more than just an announcement of another maritime task force,” he said. “They’re going [to] need to see how effective the task force is, what kind of assets are deployed, whether they take action when needed, and thus if the Houthis are again deterred against [threatening] international shipping.”

Wechsler said the U.S. is more likely to strike the Houthis if Americans are killed in Houthi strikes or the group targets American vessels directly. But he also said some form of military action will likely be necessary to restore deterrence in any instance.

“Houthi attacks indicate, by definition, that our deterrence has eroded. It is possible for that deterrence to be reestablished without any actual use of military force, but I suspect that in the end it’s going to require some kind of military response,” he said.

That could entail an attack in Yemen itself or other steps short of that, including intercepting arms smuggling to the Houthis and attacking Houthi assets at sea.

Bowman and Mistzal argued that a U.S. military response, in addition to the formation of the task force, is necessary. They both noted that the new task force is an outgrowth of an existing U.S. task force which has not prevented Houthi attacks to this point.

“The Houthi attacks are likely to keep coming because they enjoy a reliable supply of Iranian weapons,” Bowman said. “And they’ve been able to conduct these attacks with no consequences…. It’s just a matter of time, I fear, until you’re going to have some Americans getting killed because the Houthis feel they can conduct cost-free attacks.”

Bowman said the U.S. should hit back at sites inside Yemen from where attacks are being launched, or weapons are being produced, as well as make greater efforts to interdict Iranian weapons smuggling.

Misztal agreed that a solely defense-focused response won’t be sufficient to “deter and prevent [attacks] from happening in the first place.”

U.S. partners, particularly Saudi Arabia, are reportedly concerned that a more aggressive response, including an FTO designation, would upset their delicate truce with the Houthis and efforts at securing long-term peace. That concern was cited recently by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Other U.S. partners like the UAE are said to be more supportive of stronger U.S. action.

“I’m a little frustrated with the Saudis in this moment,” Bowman said, noting that they had historically been the primary target of Houthi attacks and pushed for a stronger U.S. response. He said that Saudi Arabia should be exercising pressure on Iran through its interlocutors in Beijing who brokered a detente agreement earlier this year. 

“You can’t expect us to sit on our hands when our folks are being attacked any more than we can reasonably expect the Saudis to sit on their hands,” Bowman continued.

Misztal also argued that, without a robust U.S. response, the Houthis’ attacks — so far targeted toward Israel and shipping lanes — could spill over into Saudi Arabia as well.

The administration has also been concerned that a Houthi designation could prevent humanitarian aid from flowing to certain parts of Yemen.

“I think that calculus might be changing as they get more aggressive and are starting to impact international shopping in a major way in the Red Sea,” Matthew Kenney, the vice president for government affairs at JINSA, said.

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