The disgraceful spectacle on display in the Red Sea, courtesy of Houthi impudence and Western “restraint”, is not just an outrage. It is also a fascinating microcosm of some of the fundamental dilemmas and contradictions facing so-called free and open nations in an age of growing global chaos.
For two and a half months now the Ansar Allah militants – the Islamist Shia organisation made up of Arab tribesmen from the Yemen, also known as the Houthi Movement – have been attacking and disrupting commercial shipping in the Red Sea leading up to the Suez Canal. As an Iranian proxy, they are using a range of sophisticated military equipment supplied by Tehran, including ballistic and cruise missiles and various drones.
Having rebelled against the “legitimate” government that emerged from their country’s version of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthis – who have been engaged in the Yemen’s interminable domestic conflicts for decades – have been fighting a much more “high-end” war since 2015 against a Saudi-led coalition.
By December 2021 – more than two years ago – the Houthis had already launched some 430 ballistic missiles and 851 drones against targets in Saudi Arabia itself, including Riyadh and high-value oil production facilities. They have acquired significant experience operating advanced equipment, and they are even quite adept at information warfare: this is no rag-tag militia sporting (just) AK-47s.
Houthi, vidi, vici
The current escalation began on October 19 with attacks on specifically-Israeli or Israel-linked ships, as Iran mobilised its regional network of terrorist partners once its other allies, the ISIS-Hamas murderers had sparked the Gaza war with their October 7 atrocities. The Houthi “freedom-fighters” – whose official slogan is “Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam” – were never going to stay out of this fight.
And fought they have. Over this period, the Houthis have launched a total of about 16 anti-ship ballistic missiles, nine cruise missiles and over 90 drones in more than 25 attacks against both cargo vessels and naval ships from the US-led protection task force deployed in the area since December. January 9 saw the most complex Houthi barrage so far, with a strike package including 18 drones, two cruise missiles and one ballistic missile, requiring the efforts of four US and UK destroyers as well as fighter jets from the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier to shoot down.
The main result is already the largest man-made disruption of seaborne trade in decades – to the point where it is now threatening to unleash a new inflation wave across the global economy due both to transport costs and delays. For example Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, has now instructed all its Suez-bound ships to go round the Cape instead.
The other outcome is political, with the whole world watching in disbelief how the Yemeni Islamist insurgents are able to get away with all this despite the presence, just off their shores, of an overwhelming US-led naval force.
As the Biden Administration hesitates about ordering direct retaliatory strikes on the Houthis on the mainland, America’s reputation as a custodian of the world order it has led for decades, and the guarantor of basic global “services” such as securing global trade, suffers immensely.
Despite the gains of civilisation through the ages, the foundation of leadership or hegemony among people and nations has remained the same since the dawn of organised human society: the ability to protect one’s subjects, allies or fellow-citizens from the depredations of others. To fail in this basic duty is to lose legitimacy, and vice-versa – from the ancient world, to the Dark Ages, to our own days.
This is why a strongman like Putin, with his medieval instincts, could understand the importance of sticking by allies like Assad at any cost: a reputation as a reliable protector of one’s friends is true power. Meanwhile, the US is doing the exact opposite, with predictable results.
Intervention is a thing of the future, too
All in all, the Red Sea crisis holds a key insight and warning for the West, which is that we are not past the age of Western military intervention overseas.
Over the past decade, the demonstrated futility of the campaigns in Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan have not just discredited but have also clearly turned public as well as political opinion against the idea of intervention. The beginnings of the non-interventionist backlash can be pinpointed to August 2013 when first the UK Parliament and then President Obama decided against a Syrian involvement – despite Bashar al-Assad crossing Obama’s famous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.
The anti-interventionist feeling was so strong in Britain that even when the ISIS monsters came on the scene from 2014, the idea of joining the US-led anti-ISIS coalition airstrike campaign was hugely controversial. A vote in Parliament in December 2015 passed only by 397 to 223 votes, a relatively small difference considering what ISIS were doing – occupying swathes of the Middle East and re-introducing slavery, beheading victims on live TV and launching major terrorist attacks in Europe, as at Bataclan.
Donald Trump’s presidency, as well as the wider MAGA movement and even sections of non-MAGA conservatives on the American “new Right”, have only reinforced the turn towards non-interventionism in the US foreign policy debate. While breathless accusations of isolationism against president Trump himself, by his detractors, have always overshot the mark, scepticism about foreign wars and entanglements – with the exception of countering China – now runs deep in the Republican party writ large.
If only it were that easy. The Red Sea crisis now offers ample proof that the pendulum of opinion – and strategic policy – has now swung too far towards non-intervention. Many of the erstwhile champions of this position, fierce critics of past “neocon” adventures in the Middle East and preachers of wise-sounding doctrines of “prudence” and “restraint”, are now exasperated that Biden is holding back and not ordering a full-blown wipe-out of Houthi positions.
They don’t seem to realise that it was precisely their and their friends’ advocacy of non-intervention, over the past ten years, that is responsible for much of the weak and uncertain US foreign policy we see today – particularly regarding the Houthis. For an entire decade and more the whole US national security apparatus, as well as public opinion, have been indoctrinated with the notion that military intervention – any, anywhere, anytime, for any reason – is always a mistake. America – and we with it – is reaping what it has sown.
Both action and inaction are a choice, and the cost of doing nothing can sometimes be much greater than the opposite. This is now being amply demonstrated off the coast of the Yemen, where refraining from striking the Houthis is simply irresponsible at this point. We don’t always get an opt-out from history.
Military intervention has been discredited by several failures over the past twenty years, particularly where we have had to put boots on the ground. But the West should not remain hostage to its own past mistakes, particularly since more such fights and dilemmas are gathering on the horizon. We shall have to fight again in foreign lands, and the sooner we snap back to reality, the better.
Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at Yorktown Institute in Washington, DC