The Biden administration’s approach to the Iran-backed Houthis has been the very definition of “too clever by half.” And now the administration has frozen itself in place at the moment it needs the utmost policy flexibility.

In 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the revocation of the Houthis’ listing as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. As a proxy arm of the Iranian government, the group has made havoc of life in Yemen by destabilizing the entire country’s politics, renewing the slave trade, and sinking the populace into wars both civil and foreign.

From an anti-terrorism perspective, there was no reason to delist the Houthis. But from an “I really want another nuclear deal with the Iranians” perspective, this naïve concession to America’s enemies made some perverse sense, using the word “sense” very loosely. How do you justify removing a terrorist group from a list of terrorist groups if there has been no change in behavior? That’s where the administration’s cleverness asserted itself.

“This decision is a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Blinken explained. “We have listened to warnings from the United Nations, humanitarian groups, and bipartisan members of Congress, among others, that the designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel. The revocations are intended to ensure that relevant U.S. policies do not impede assistance to those already suffering what has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. By focusing on alleviating the humanitarian situation in Yemen, we hope the Yemeni parties can also focus on engaging in dialogue.”

This gave the administration an out for when the Houthis ramped up their campaign of terror against American targets. If delisting the Houthis wasn’t about terrorism, then relisting them wouldn’t be required if they resorted to terrorism.

But what sounded clever at the time is now clearly anything but. Ever since the Houthis launched a sustained campaign to target commercial ships in the Red Sea, in concert with Iran’s vastly increased attacks on U.S. targets in the Middle East since Iran-backed Hamas instigated a war on Oct. 7, the administration has come under pressure to admit the obvious: Its attempt to thread the needle in Yemen has failed, and its overtures to Iran have been rebuffed.

Now that President Biden understand it would benefit him politically to relist the Houthis, he runs into the problem he himself created. His officials have sworn up and down that the Houthis’ violence can be reined in without taking the obvious action of relisting them as terrorists and enforcing the sanctions and restrictions that come with that designation.

That’s why the administration announced today that it was going to relist the Houthis—but only on one of two terror lists, and not the FTO, which carries the full range of sanctions available.

“The Department of State today is announcing the designation of Ansarallah, commonly referred to as the Houthis, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, effective 30 days from today,” Blinken said in a statement, adding: “This designation seeks to promote accountability for the group’s terrorist activities…. The Houthis must be held accountable for their actions, but it should not be at the expense of Yemeni civilians. As the Department of State moves forward with this designation, we are taking significant steps to mitigate any adverse impacts this designation may have on the people of Yemen.”

This designation is weaker than the one conferred by the FTO listing, which imposes travel restrictions on members of the listed group and subjects those who materially support the terrorist group to legal penalties.

Biden is taking this step in part because he wants to send a message of toughness to Iran. But he is kneecapping his own response because he doesn’t want to admit he was wrong in the first place.

That sends a message to Iran, all right. Just not the one the president and the secretary of state think they’re sending.

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