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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

How the Yemen Strikes Help China and Europe, But not America

State of the Union: On the rhetorical nonsense of “restoring deterrence.”

Taiz,Yemen,-,22,Aug,2016,:,A,Child,From
Credit: akramalrasny

At the time of this writing, Britain and the U.S. have conducted their eighth military strike on the Yemeni Houthis. This is the second joint operation with the two countries, the rest all being carried by the U.S. alone. The official statement noted that this was to “de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea,” with a warning that more is in store “to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways in the face of continued threats.”

This is relatively correct. At least they have moved on from insulting intelligence by saying these are strikes to “restore deterrence.” It made no martial sense to state that we are striking to restore deterrence and then follow up with a terse sentence about how the Houthis might escalate in return. Deterrence, by definition, shouldn’t entail the other side escalating. If that happens, you’re quite simply not deterring anything.

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The question of prudence in striking the Houthis is a complex one. I personally have mixed feelings about this. To secure the frontiers of the United States and to secure seaborne trades are the reasons why the American armed forces exist. It is particularly the raison d’etre of the Navy, to protect commercial shipping. 

A better question is to ask why it is solely America’s burden to secure all shipping, especially when the major beneficiaries of the free trade routes are China, India and Europe, and why they do not pay security levies to the U.S. Yet purely from a mission perspective, it is more worthy to bombard pirates and sink their boats than it is to promote democracy across the globe. 

Both Jefferson and Madison reluctantly, and with proper Congressional authorization, involved their country in protecting seaborne trades. Even John Quincy Adams thought it was beneficial for the common good to join European sea powers to protect commercial shipping, dealing with the Algerian human traffickers “in the proper manner.” The U.S. Marines get their anthem from their actions against Arab and North African slavers and pirates. 

Nevertheless, they were not about restoring anything. In fact, our forefathers would do a spit-take if they hear such nonsensical midwit D.C. jargon. You see, prior to the era of “human rights,” they understood, as good students of human nature, that a prime component of war is fear. Accordingly, you don’t try to change the culture of a region—you bring the fear of God into them. These actions in the 19th century would have been called punitive raids, and they wouldn’t be limited to simply military installation. They would be short and overwhelming, to put fear in the hearts of the adversary. 

Viscount Lord Pellew, leading a joint Anglo-Dutch naval squadron against Algerian slavers and human traffickers, told his seamen to negotiate with “shots, and nothing but shots.” The result was incessant bombardment for a day, after which the Algerians agreed to release their Christian slaves and cease piracy in the North African coastline. It is a lesson that worked well in those days, and might work well now too, if used against Mexican cartels, slavers, or Red Sea pirates. What doesn’t work is managerial jargon, followed by nominal bombing. It continues the conflict and traps the administration into overcommitment. After all, there’s no end to restoring deterrence if deterrence isn’t restored. It’s a recipe for another “forever war.”