Another Mideast War Beckons America
Joe Biden is dangerously close to letting Gaza and Yemen spiral into a major global conflict.
President Biden can’t seem to help himself. His administration is veering toward another war, this one against Yemen’s Houthis, who have been attacking ships in the Red Sea bound for or related to Israel in retaliation for the latter’s brutal assault on Gaza. The longer Palestinian civilians are being killed by Israel, the greater the likelihood that the ongoing naval conflict will expand.
However, Washington has been indirectly fighting the Yemeni insurgents for more than eight years. In 2015, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates invaded their impoverished neighbor, joining a struggle the roots of which ran back a decade or more. They wanted to restore a friendly regime ousted by the previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in league with Ansar Allah, a Shia movement also known as the Houthis.
The war heralded the rise of soon-to-be Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, later infamous for murdering and dismembering critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The KSA and UAE employed Sudanese to do much of the dirty work on the ground, but later had a falling out over objectives in Yemen. The overconfident MbS, as the de facto Saudi leader is known, expected the conflict to last just a few weeks.
Although both sides deserved to lose, it was the Saudis and Emiratis who turned a domestic battle into an international crisis. The U.S. had no cause to join the fight. Saleh, overthrown in 2011 during the Arab Spring, had previously cooperated with Washington. Ansar Allah was hostile to America, but the group did not target the United States. More importantly, the Houthis opposed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s most active chapter.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration, desperate to secure the KSA’s acquiescence to nuclear negotiations with Iran, supported the invasion. Washington provided warplanes, maintenance, munitions, intelligence, and, for a time, aerial refueling. Even so, the homegrown insurgents—soon without Saleh, with whom they had a deadly falling out—largely won the fight on the ground, aided by Iran, which was only too happy to bleed its royal adversary. The Saudi and Emirati invaders were primarily responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The Saudi-Emirati coalition’s depredations ultimately led the State Department to warn that U.S. officials risked being cited for war crimes.
Yet Washington is now sliding into a shooting war with the Houthis. Observed Politico’s Jamie Dettmer: “Whether the West wants to admit it or not, thanks to the Hamas attacks on southern Israel and Iran’s response to Israel’s self-defense, it is at war in the Middle East once again.” So far Washington has staged occasional patrols in the Red Sea, shooting down drones and missiles aimed at passing merchantmen.
Ansar Allah has only damaged a few ships (and seized one), which may be what it privately desires. In doing so, the group has simultaneously aided the Palestinian cause, enhanced its regional reputation, and reinforced domestic political support. Without drawing much blood—or U.S. retaliation—the Houthis have diverted shipping and raised insurance rates, gaining the world’s attention.
The series of ship attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Red Sea could curtail global shipping capacity by 20 percent, according to experts, in a fresh blow to supply chains that could reignite inflationary pressures. At least 121 containerships are already taking longer routes to avoid the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.
Overall, an estimated 40 percent of container ships are suffering delays. As for American consumers, the National Retail Federation’s Jon Gold observed: “These disruptions are adding two or more weeks to transit times for retailers, resulting in increased rates.”
Although Ansar Allah has staged more than 100 attacks so far, it has mostly relied on drones, which are more likely to damage than destroy. Dettmer figures that the lack of serious harm has helped keep the peace:
We should all breathe a sigh of relief that missile interceptions have so far prevented the sinking of a Western warship or merchant vessel—something that would accelerate the out-of-sight conflict in the Red Sea into something much bigger and more obvious, risking further military escalation in a region already peering nervously over the precipice.
One better-placed or more powerful strike could change everything.
The U.S. has formed a naval coalition of sorts, but it falls short of earlier efforts. Although ships of at least 50 nations have been affected by Ansar Allah’s attacks, just 20 governments have signed up, almost half of which refuse to be named. None of the leading Gulf monarchies is officially on board, preferring not to be seen as acting on Israel’s behalf. Nor is Egypt, since it desires “to increase pressure on Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza in order to remove considerations for transferring Gazans to Sinai, an issue it fears could lead to the start of another war.”
The only Arab state that has publicly joined is Bahrain, one of the region’s most despotic regimes, and it is only expected to provide logistical support. Australia, Canada, Norway, and the Netherlands are offering personnel, not warships. France and Italy promised to act on their own, which in the latter’s case means sending one vessel that was already designated for the region.
Moreover, some governments are actively obstructing U.S. efforts. For instance, Spain surprised Washington by blocking European Union involvement. Madrid addressed the elephant in the room, Israel’s refusal to accept a ceasefire in Gaza or allow entry of humanitarian assistance. Reported Politico: “in statements to the Cadena SER radio station, Spanish vice president Yolanda Díaz said it was ‘enormously hypocritical’ that the international community was rushing to protect commercial interests in the Red Sea, but remained passive when it came to defending the civilian population in Gaza.”
Equally significant, after having spent years turning Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe, Riyadh opposes U.S. military action. Most assuredly, MbS has not gone soft. Rather, he wants to end his misbegotten intervention in Yemen. As a result, reported the New York Times, Riyadh
would rather watch these latest developments from the sidelines, with the prospect of peace on its southern border a more appealing goal than joining an effort to stop attacks that the Houthis say are directed at Israel—a state the kingdom does not officially recognize and which is widely reviled by its people.
Moreover, MbS, despite having endless tools of brutal repression at his disposal, hesitates to antagonize virtually the entire Saudi population. A poll earlier this month found that 91 percent of Saudis believed the Gaza attack was a win against Israel, and 96 percent believed that “Arab countries should immediately break all diplomatic, political, economic, and any other contacts with Israel, in protest against its military action in Gaza.” Last month, Riyadh joined with Tehran to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Apparently, the current U.S. plan for Operation Prosperity Guardian is to establish intermittent patrols for the Red Sea. That will leave merchant ships vulnerable to attack. Frequency and proximity will determine the ability of allied ships to down drones and missiles. Even success is scarcely cost-effective when multi-million-dollar missiles are used to shoot down much cheaper drones. Convoys are possible, though that also would result in some delay and inconvenience and require greater international coordination.
The U.S. could target drone and missile launch sites in Yemen, though they are mobile. Washington also could deploy special operations forces but that would bring Americans into direct combat with war-hardened locals. Finally, the military could strike other Houthi military assets in retaliation—reportedly the administration is preparing targets should any Americans be killed. However, such action would entangle the U.S. in another fruitless Mideast conflict and encourage Ansar Allah to hit American ships as well as bases throughout the region. The group might also choose softer allied targets, including energy facilities, airports, and more.
The Houthis, whose popularity at home has risen since they challenged Israeli commerce, know that they are essentially speaking on behalf of the entire region. So far, they are maintaining an aggressive public stance. Stated Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a leading member of Ansar Allah: “America’s announcement of the establishment of the Coalition of Shame will not prevent us from continuing our military operations until the crimes of genocide in Gaza are stopped, and food, medicine and fuel are allowed to enter its besieged population.”
U.S. intervention in Yemen also might trigger retaliation elsewhere. Some Iran-supported groups might intensify attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria. A spreading conflict might draw in Lebanon’s Hezbollah and even Iran. (U.S. retaliation is less than convincing, having not deterred almost routine rocket assaults and oft angering even friendly governments, as in Iraq.) America’s royal allies are likely to remain aloof, like Saudi Arabia fearing populations enraged by Israel’s bloody destruction of Gaza. America’s popular standing in the Mideast already has reached new lows, creating lots of geopolitical kindling awaiting the right spark.
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Rather than rush into war, the U.S. and other trading nations should address Ansar Allah’s fundamental complaint: the suffering of Palestinian civilians. Otherwise, the Pentagon will only be responding to symptoms, with the problem likely to burst forth again in different circumstances.
Indeed, shipping delays are among the least important consequences of the Gaza war. Americans can adjust to slower and costlier trade better than to yet another endless war in the Middle East. The Red Sea disruptions offer an important educational moment, that other trading nations should no longer expect the U.S. to solve their security problems. If “the world” is at risk, then a genuine international coalition should act, both to address the cause and rebuff the threat.
Americans want to avoid additional Mideast conflicts. The Gaza tragedy highlights the failure of decades of intrusive U.S. involvement—political, economic, and military—in the region. The appropriate response is to reverse course, and especially to reject calls for new military commitments, like in the Red Sea.