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Yemen: Another Dangerous, Brutal, and Illegal War

Higher consumer prices are not a serious casus belli.

Credit: akramalrasny

Three years ago, candidate Joe Biden promised, “As president, I will use military power responsibly and as a last resort. We will not go back to forever wars in the Middle East.” Now he has followed his predecessors and launched illegal military strikes against Yemen. The president didn’t even make a pretense of consulting Congress before levying war.

Apparently tired of defending Red Sea shipping from drone and missile attacks, he targeted the government dominated by the movement Ansar Allah, or the Houthis. Alas, the international “coalition” organized by Washington was more notional than real. Only the United Kingdom joined in the military action. Unspecified “logistical and intelligence support” was provided by a few other countries, only one of which, Bahrain, was in much position to help. Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, and South Korea issued a joint statement, offering their endorsement and threatening further military action—though not by them.


The administration’s professed objective was to “degrade” the Yemeni regime’s ability to threaten vessels traveling through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. However, the New York Times reported: “Two U.S. officials cautioned on Saturday that even after hitting more than 60 missile and drone targets with more than 150 precision-guided munitions, the U.S.-led airstrikes damaged or destroyed only about 20 to 30 percent of the Houthis’ offensive capability, much of which is mounted on mobile platforms and can be readily moved or hidden.”

In fact, Sanaa responded by firing another barrage at passing ships, and announcing that U.S. and U.K. vessels would now be targeted. Ansar Allah shot at a U.S. warship and hit a U.S. merchantman, causing minor damage. There is more to come. Before launching a third assault, U.S. officials admitted that “finding Houthi targets is proving to be more challenging than anticipated.” 

Ansar Allah justifies its attacks as a means to support the Palestinians in Gaza, a “religious and moral duty” to some. The Houthis’ stance has enhanced their reputation at home and throughout the region, while Washington’s intervention has stoked anti-Americanism, including in allied Gulf states. 

With limited strikes unlikely to deter Sanaa, what comes next? The National Security Council spokesman John Kirby insisted, “We’re not interested in a war with Yemen. We’re not interested in a conflict of any kind.” The administration announced that it would redesignate Ansar Allah as a terrorist organization, but that label more accurately applies to the Saudi and Emirati governments and will have no practical impact. 

So, how else to halt Yemeni attacks? Ever-heavier air and missile action? Introduction of special operations forces? A ground invasion? Or, the worst idea of all, direct intervention in the Yemeni civil war?


Although the U.S. possesses by far the stronger military, Yemen is forbidding territory. Ansar Allah has been at war for some two decades, first against the authoritarian Saleh government, and then against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Washington provided the latter two with aircraft, munitions, maintenance, and intelligence, and for a time refueled Saudi warplanes. Nevertheless, the aggressors lost, and the Saudis are now desperate to conclude the conflict. Along the way hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians died, most due to the efforts of the Saudi and Emirati royals and their American enablers. Indeed, the State Department warned that U.S. officials could be held responsible for manifold war crimes committed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. 

Does the administration really want to double down on this record? 

The administration’s attack on Yemen demonstrates why the Constitution requires Congress to declare war. American security was not threatened in the Red Sea. Shipping was diverted, not halted. The result was inconvenience, not catastrophe. The chief impact was costs increased, not lives lost. Most of the world was affected, but only one other country, the U.K., was willing to act militarily. Higher consumer prices are not a serious casus belli.

Nor were there any exigent circumstances, existential threats, or emergency circumstances. Indeed, the administration spent weeks building up U.S. naval forces while pretending to put together an international coalition, most of whose members refused to provide military assistance or even be identified. If the administration believed that vital interests were at stake, there was ample time to go to Congress, ask for a conditional war declaration, and make the case for expanding Middle East hostilities. Then the American people could have weighed in, as they did when President Barack Obama asked for legislative authority to attack Syria.

Biden once claimed to believe in congressional control. In 2020, he criticized President Donald Trump for launching the air attack that assassinated a top Iranian official, stating that the former did “not have the authority to take us into war with Iran without Congressional approval.” Added Biden, “A president should never take this nation to war without the informed consent of the American people.” 

At least Trump’s action was a one-off event, targeting one individual. In contrast, Biden made scores of attacks. His illegal warmaking is far more likely to result in a wider conflict, which is why the once war-happy Saudis urged the administration to back off: “While the Kingdom stresses the importance of maintaining the security and stability of the Red Sea region, in which freedom of navigation is an international demand because it harms the interests of the entire world, it calls for restraint and avoiding escalation in light of the events the region is witnessing,” 

With Ansar Allah targeting U.S. ships, both military and commercial, the president will face ever stronger criticism as the 2024 campaign revs up. A major Houthi strike, causing substantial damage or casualties, would trigger a cavalcade of demands for Washington to go bigger and badder.

Ironically, Washington’s decision to turn the Red Sea into a battle zone is likely to further discourage civilian traffic. Reinsurers already have pulled back from the Middle East. The Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Forces command, the international coalition established to maintain open navigation in the Gulf, warned against transit in the days following the U.S./U.K. strikes. Civilian observers did likewise. Shipping rates are already up 310 percent from November. Costs are likely to rise further. The rating service Morningstar DPRS observed that “critical participants in the marine market, including underwriters and brokers, are now expecting an uptick in war insurance rates as the Houthi rebels announce a wave of retaliatory attacks.” 

Moreover, the conflict could draw in other forces. Although Tehran has avoided direct confrontation with the U.S., it has criticized American policy and continues to supply Ansar Allah with weapons. Iranian ally Hezbollah in Lebanon is on the verge of war with Israel. Moreover, Iraqi militias, linked to, but not controlled by, Iran, have launched at least 127 attacks on US facilities and personnel in Iraq and Syria since October 7. U.S. attacks on Yemen provide these groups with another reason to strike.

Risking another Mideast war deserves serious debate. Unfortunately, Biden apparently believes that he possesses the royal powers that Americans expressly denied their president when writing the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, the great friend of executive power, explained that the president’s authority was “in substance much inferior to” that of the British king, who routinely started wars.

A better response to the Red Sea imbroglio would be diplomacy. Efforts to deescalate were appropriate even before the Houthis began targeting international shipping. Warned my Cato colleague Jon Hoffman: “Amid this turmoil, Washington continues to reach for its old playbook: throwing money, weapons, and military assets at the region.” Which has yielded the same old results.

Ansar Allah’s attacks, though reprehensible, are an outgrowth of Israel’s brutal retaliation against Hamas for the latter’s murderous October 7 assault. With the number of Palestinian dead at roughly 24,000, 20 or more times the original Israeli toll, the Yemenis are targeting Western shipping to pressure Israel to end attacks on Palestinian civilians and allow shipment of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Both demands are reasonable and worthy of negotiation. In fact, Houthi strikes diminished during the late November Gaza truce. 

Moreover, if the conflict continues to expand, Washington will find support wane even among nominal allies and friends. Most of America’s Asian and European partners have remained aloof from the Yemen campaign. Washington’s Mideast allies are, if anything, more skittish: “Although some of the commercial ships the Houthis have targeted have no apparent links to Israel, the fact that they have repeatedly called their attacks an effort to support Palestinians limits the degree to which Arab states can respond to Houthi aggression, even if they were inclined to get involved. Public opinion in Saudi Arabia, for instance, has turned even further against establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.” 

Some governments have been publicly critical. Oman’s Foreign Ministry unkindly observed, “It is impossible not to denounce that an allied country resorted to this military action, while meanwhile, Israel is continuing to exceed bounds in its bombardment, brutal war and siege on Gaza without any consequence.” Even Yemen’s officially recognized government complained that “some of the policies of the international community toward Yemen contributed to the survival and strengthening of the Houthi militias and encouraged them to commit more hostile actions.”

Americans have tired of needless wars and lawless government. Biden administration Mideast policy embodies the worst of both. Decades of U.S. intervention have delivered the opposite of stability, democracy, and peace. The next administration should bring America’s military home from the Mideast.