Prudence Means Fighting the Houthis Now

A grab from handout footage released by Yemen's Huthi Ansarullah Media Centre on November 19, 2023, reportedly shows members of the rebel group during the capture of an Israel-linked cargo vessel at an undefined location in the Red Sea. ANSARULLAH MEDIA CENTRE/AFP via Getty Images
A grab from handout footage released by Yemen's Huthi Ansarullah Media Centre on November 19, 2023, reportedly shows members of the rebel group during the capture of an Israel-linked cargo vessel at an undefined location in the Red Sea. ANSARULLAH MEDIA CENTRE/AFP via Getty Images

Yemen’s Ansar Allah—also known as the Houthis—poses a threat to commercial shipping in the Red Sea. From mid-November through mid-December, the group attacked at least 30 merchant ships in the area, prompting most of the world’s major shippers to reroute their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. The economic effects of these attacks have yet to be fully realized, but already insurances rates for shipping lines have doubled. Not only that, but circumnavigating Africa requires more time, fuel, and ships than routes through the Suez Canal, resulting in stretched supply chains and increased environmental damage.

Freedom of navigation is a core global interest of the United States. So how is it that the Houthis are getting away with rendering the Red Sea a no-go zone for all but a few shipping lines? It’s ostensibly stunning that the Biden administration has allowed this happen—but in many ways it’s not surprising at all. The hesitance results from the role Yemen now plays in the politics of U.S. foreign policy and prevailing fears the war in Gaza will become a regional conflict—but also from the longer-term trend of Washington having overlearned foreign-policy lessons of the recent past.

The civil war in Yemen is not well understood in Washington but has nevertheless been the subject of vehement debate inside the Beltway. Although Yemen’s civil war between the government and the insurgent Houthis began in 2014 and the Saudis intervened a year later on the side of the Yemeni government, it was not until October 2018 that most members of Congress, pundits of all stripes, journalists, and foreign-policy analysts bothered to pay attention to the nasty conflict underway in one of the Middle East’s poorest countries. It was that month when agents acting on the apparent orders of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a contributor to the Washington Post’s opinion page. The hit happened against the backdrop of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s confrontation with elites, assault on American political institutions, and close ties with a variety of global authoritarians, chief among them the Saudi royal family. As a result, the twin outrages over Khashoggi’s slaying and Trump’s offensive to undermine the norms and principles of U.S. democracy became superimposed on the conflict in Yemen.

Lost in the simplistic anti-Saudi narratives that followed were the fact that the Houthis, who fight under the slogan “God is Great; death to America; death to Israel; damn the Jews; victory for Islam” are not the world’s nicest group of people. They overthrew an internationally recognized government; violate human rights; use child soldiers; and have imposed their version of “Fiver” Shi’a Islam on the Yemeni population, persecuting those who resist. During the height of the civil war, the group also contributed to Yemen’s humanitarian disaster by blocking ports through which international aid was intended to flow, became fully aligned with Iran, and fired missiles and drones on Saudi and Emirati population centers with the sole intention of terrorizing civilians.

Through it all, however, progressives in Congress and a variety of activists tended either to overlook or minimize Houthi responsibility for Yemen’s tribulations. Instead they agitated against American support for the Saudis and Emiratis, which became identified with Trump, his administration, his son-in-law, “maximum pressure” on Iran, and accommodation of Israel. Of course, the Saudi and Emirati governments have much to answer for their interventions, but among some in Washington there was a willful effort to give the Houthis a pass for their part in the destruction of Yemen. That is because the group’s anti-Americanism, hostility to human rights, and own atrocities did not fit the preferred political narrative about Yemen, which had less to do with what was happening in that country than the political battles happening in Washington. It was a dynamic that carried over into the Biden administration and its early decision to reverse Trump’s designation of Ansar Allah as a terrorist organization. For U.S. President Joe Biden to order strikes on the Houthis now—in what would surely be interpreted as an act of war in support of Israel—runs counter to much of what a growing constituency of the Democratic Party believes about Yemen.

Of course, not everything is narrative. The Biden administration is concerned that if it were to act against the Houthis, it would be widening the war in Gaza, a development it has otherwise worked hard to prevent. As a result, it has put the U.S. Navy in the area in a defensive posture. American forces will shoot down Houthi drones and missiles aimed at commercial shipping and by extension the global economy, but will not destroy Ansar Allah’s ability to harass shipping. The recent announcement of Operation Prosperity Guardian—a multilateral effort to protect commercial shipping—is a manifestation of this reactive policy.

The White House’s approach makes sense, but only in a limited way. If the president and his team are worried about the conflict expanding regionally, there must be pages missing from their briefing books. The Houthis (like Hezbollah in Lebanon) have already widened the conflict by targeting shipping in the Red Sea. The Biden administration also seems to misapprehend why the events in the Red Sea are happening. If it had a better understanding of the situation, it would know that a naval task force—no matter how formidable—will not by itself ward off attacks.

It was not unheard of for the Houthis to target shipping before the conflict in Gaza, but it seems that the Iranians encouraged them to incrementally escalate now in order to disrupt the global economy, which would put pressure on the United States and other major powers to rein in Israelis as it pummels Gaza and weakens Hamas. If Israel can actually incapacitate Hamas, it would be a significant strategic blow to Tehran, which is why the Israelis will resist at all costs international pressure to bring Israel’s military offensive to an end—which is why the Houthis will not stop attacking shipping.

As a result, if the United States wants to protect freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and its environs, it is going to have to take the fight directly to the Houthis. There is precedent for this. Everyone remembers that in 1987, the United States agreed to reflag Kuwaiti tankers and provided U.S. naval escorts for those tankers after they came under near-constant harassment from Iranian forces in the region. What many forget is that, in parallel, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered several military operations to destroy Iran’s ability to disrupt freedom of navigation in the Gulf.

One can understand why Biden has been reluctant to take a similar step so far. The president has the responsibility to use the United States’ awesome force judiciously. But to compel actors not to act—to deter them—sometimes requires a country to not just brandish its military forces but actually use them. Critics will no doubt argue that this prescription risks ensnaring the United States in yet another open-ended conflict in the Middle East. Fair point, though the search for a risk-free policy is as close to a unicorn as one can get in foreign policy. Besides, disrupting or destroying the Houthis’ ability to disrupt shipping is hardly akin to the overambitious policies of the past aimed at regime change and remaking of societies. Rather, it’s a move to protect a vital national interest.

Many in the American foreign policy community seem to have overlearned the lessons of the recent past. Either that or their analysis begins and ends with the idea that the United States is the problem in the Middle East. The fact remains that, as difficult as the last three decades have been for Washington there, the United States still has interests in the region and freedom of navigation is one of them. To be self-deterred in this instance is to be self-defeating.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book, The End of Ambition: Americas Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East, will be published in June 2024.

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