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Bombing isn’t the only way out of the Houthi crisis

Bombing isn’t the only way out of the Houthi crisis

Diplomatic pathways are still open, if the Biden administration is willing to consider them

Analysis | Middle East

In a moment of unguarded honesty that went viral last week, President Biden was asked by reporters if U.S. airstrikes in Yemen targeting the Shia Islamist group known as the Houthis were “working.”

The President sheepishly replied, “Well, when you say ‘working’—are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.” In a single sentence, Biden captured the impuissant hollowness of two decades of U.S. foreign policy bromides on the use of military force, the Middle East, and deterrence.

Washington’s critics have often said that, whenever a crisis occurs, U.S. policymakers exhibit an almost Pavlovian instinct to reach for military options — no matter the facts on the ground or the odds of success — in a desperate attempt to “do something.” Amid mounting tension in the Middle East stemming from the Israel-Hamas conflict, the foreign policy establishment is again hand-waving those criticisms away amid vague calls for indefinite U.S.-led intervention in Yemen and even war with Iran — this, despite the President’s own admission that doing so will fail to change a thing.

Indeed, despite at least eight rounds of U.S. strikes that expended hundreds of valuable precision-guided munitions, Houthi attacks on ships transiting the Red Sea have only increased in frequency and scope, targeting more U.S.-owned and U.S-flagged vessels. While legitimate military analysts and regional experts knew these strikes were doomed to fail from the start, it should now be obvious there is no credible military solution to the crisis in the Red Sea.

More importantly, as three U.S. troops were killed and more than 30 injured in a local Shia militia attack on a remote outpost along the Syria-Jordan border known as “Tower 22” on Sunday, the last thing the Biden Administration should be doing is looking to escalate things in Yemen.

Instead, Washington should start by recognizing that both its economic and national security interests are largely unaffected by Red Sea transit. If it wants, the U.S. can truly afford to do nothing there. Despite a 65% decline in expected freight container volumes transiting the Red Sea, the U.S. saw just a 1% decline in net imports for the month of December. The U.S. does not need to spend between $260 and $573 million per month, as some analysts estimate, to defend foreign merchant shipping with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, China has eschewed the use of force and is instead free-riding on U.S. military action in the Red Sea, even though Beijing faces mounting freight and insurance costs that have caused its economy significant harm. China has a destroyer, frigate, and replenishment vessel currently situated in the Gulf of Aden — not to mention a naval base in Djibouti at the mouth of the Bab el-Mandeb strait — and is perfectly capable of stepping up to conduct defensive operations in the Red Sea.

Yet, through no cogent or intentional U.S. action, the demonstrated ineffectiveness of military action — alongside rising costs — are likely now spurring new Chinese efforts to pressure Iran to rein in the Houthis. While Iran retains very strong ties to the group, having provided them with weapons, training, and assistance over the years, it doesn’t have total control over the Houthis. Nonetheless, China has the requisite economic leverage over Tehran — and by extension the Houthis — to demand an end to the crisis.

For its part, the U.S. should not impede any such resolution simply because it didn’t play a leading role in brokering a deal. If a deal is eventually reached, many in Washington would view it as evidence of Beijing establishing itself as a key security broker in the Middle East. But if America’s recent experience as a security provider in the region is any guide, it is not clear such a development would be bad for the United States vis-à-vis its rivalry with China.

However, if the U.S. wanted to take a more active role in resolving the crisis than passing the buck to China, a diplomatic response could also be pursued. Diplomacy would serve to avoid an unpredictable and costly U.S. military campaign that would immediately compromise two of Washington’s stated objectives in the Middle East: to prevent the war in Gaza from further consuming the region, and officially ending the civil war in Yemen.

The Houthis have repeatedly linked their motive for attacking ships in the Red Sea to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Over the course of the war, Houthi attacks have correlated with events in Gaza. For example, Houthi attacks decreased during the brief truce in November, only to resume afterwards. In December, the group’s official spokesman claimed attacks on ships transiting the Bab el-Mandeb Strait toward the Suez Canal will continue until “Gaza receives the food and medicine it needs.” As Houthi strategic intentions have not changed, and their attack capabilities have not been meaningfully degraded, diplomacy is a low-cost option for Washington to consider without foisting some terrible result on the United States.

Working to increase aid shipments to Gaza would not just help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there, but would deprive the Houthis of their claimed justification for attacks in the Red Sea and provide the group with an offramp for de-escalation that would also serve to prevent indefinite U.S. participation in a broader regional war. However, this would also necessitate increased diplomatic pressure on the Israeli government to allow more aid into Gaza, a step the Biden Administration remains uninterested in taking.

Put simply, there are no existential or vital U.S. national interests at stake in Yemen, and very little is at stake for the U.S. economically in the Red Sea. Any multi-billion-dollar effort to fight a war in Yemen would render no political, economic, or security benefits to the United States. Strategies like “buck passing” and diplomatic engagement are perfectly viable, would do the U.S. no harm, and could resolve the crisis. Continued military action in Yemen, by contrast, presents dubious prospects for success. The pitfalls of sustained U.S. military action in Yemen — and in other fronts across the Middle East tied to the war in Gaza like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or yesterday’s tragedy in Jordan — still include a non-trivial risk of regional war that can only be ignored at the world’s peril.

The USS Carney intercepts Houthi missiles in the Red Sea on Oct. 19, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aaron Lau/ Public domain)
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