Trouble Brewing in the Red Sea
Escalating Houthi attacks on international shipping leave the United States with narrowing options.
It’s easy to understand why the ongoing Houthi attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea haven’t commanded greater attention in the United States and the world. Here at home, the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and our own inglorious domestic political debate over aid to Ukraine have consumed all the foreign policy oxygen we have available at the moment. Nor does the issue seem to have penetrated any deeper into international consciousness; it did not loom as anything more than a minor concern at the recent Doha Forum in Qatar, for instance.
The Biden administration has displayed understandable and otherwise admirable restraint in the face of these continued Houthi provocations. With the war in Gaza still raging, America doesn’t need to see another front opened up in the Middle East. But the Houthis have kept up their attacks on the freedom of the seas—the Navy destroyer USS Carney shot down 14 attack drones just this past weekend, for instance—and transnational container shipping companies Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, and MSC have announced they will keep their ships out of the Red Sea. The problem has slowly snowballed into a significant crisis, one that could find the United States and close allies like Britain and France taking direct military action against the Houthis in the near future.
America appears close to the limits of its strategic forbearance. Further Houthi drone and missile attacks on international shipping could well precipitate a U.S.-led military strike against the group. And a such strikes could work: in 2016, the Obama administration hit Houthi radar installations after a spate of missile attacks on American warships. The Houthis generally refrained from further attacks against American or international shipping until now.
This crisis hasn’t occurred in a vacuum, either. Houthi attacks against international shipping have escalated dramatically since the start of the war in Gaza, for instance, and other Iranian proxy groups have mounted their own rocket and drone attacks against U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Syria. It also represents a failure of the Biden administration’s Yemen policy, one driven mainly by domestic political advocacy campaigns to end the Saudi-led military intervention in the country and underpinned by the belief that just a little American pressure on Riyadh could bring the war to a rapid conclusion.
There are three main lessons that we can learn from this slow-boiling crisis and the years that led up to it:
Activist slogans are no basis for sound policy and can do more harm than good. Activist rhetoric calling on the United States to “end endless wars” does little to actually resolve conflicts in places like Yemen. Advocacy campaigns tend to be based on a series of faulty presumptions including American omnipotence, the perfidy of American partners, and ignorance or dismissal of the aims and allegiances of militant groups like the Houthis. The case of Yemen itself shows how such an approach can yield results inimical to U.S. interests—namely an Iranian-backed Houthi statelet that presents a chronic threat to freedom of the seas on one of the world’s major shipping lanes.
Fear of escalation creates its own set of risks and dangers. Prior to the recent spate of Houthi attacks on international shipping, there was reportedly “high-level consensus” in the Biden administration against “more forceful responses” to earlier attacks. The administration didn’t want to risk a wider regional war involving Iran and its proxies across the Middle East—a prudent calculation under the circumstances, but one that left the choice of escalation in Houthi hands. Fear of escalation can ultimately lead to the very thing it hopes to avoid, encouraging belligerent parties like the Houthis to continue their aggression rather than rethinking their own strategic calculations.
Tit-for-tat strikes against Iran and its proxies haven’t worked. In response to Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, the Biden administration ordered limited air strikes against Iranian and proxy targets on multiple occasions in both countries. But these strikes don’t appear to have more than momentarily deterred Iran and its proxies from harassing American troops and keeping them from performing their missions. These retaliatory strikes, in other words, haven’t changed the thinking of Iran or its proxies.
Right now, the Biden administration’s main response to the Houthi anti-shipping campaign appears to involve strengthening existing efforts to protect international shipping in the Red Sea. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, traveling in the region this week, will likely announce the creation of a new, souped-up international naval task force dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian. But it’s unclear whether this defensive move will do anything to stop the Houthis from launching drones and missiles at commercial ships.
When contemplating America’s next steps in this crisis, it’ll be important to keep the following considerations in mind:
No tit-for-tat when it comes to using force. If the United States uses force against the Houthis in response to their campaign against international shipping, it should aim to hit as many Houthi anti-shipping sites as possible in one fell swoop—eliminate the Houthi ability to strike ships in the first place, understanding that no U.S.-led air campaign can eliminate each and every Houthi missile launch site or drone storage facility. Instead of another unending series of tit-for-tat responses, the U.S. military should aim to do enough damage to relevant Houthi capabilities to make the militant group think twice about future attacks on international shipping.
Work with allies and partners. It’s something of a cliché to say the United States should bring its allies and partners along whenever it launches a major security initiative, but it’s a cliché because it’s true—especially when their interests are directly affected. British and French warships have already intercepted Houthi missiles and drones, for instance, and these long-standing American allies (and others) should be included in any potential military strikes against the Houthis and their anti-shipping capabilities. Regional partners should also be consulted at minimum, while the new maritime task force to be announced by Secretary Austin appears to include participation from these regional partners as well.
Prepare for further escalation. No matter what the United States does to counter the Houthi threat to maritime commerce, the Biden administration should prepare for escalation by Iran and its proxies across the region. That should include a serious discussion about the ongoing deployment of American troops in Iraq and Syria at current levels; right now, these troops appear to mainly function as targets for Iranian proxy harassment that makes it difficult for them to fulfill their stated counterterrorism mission. There are severe risks here as well: Tehran would undoubtedly see American withdrawal under pressure as a vindication of its own aggressive strategies and policies, encouraging Iran to pursue them even further moving forward.
There may be, as one analyst put it, no good options for the United States when it comes to the Houthis. But the bottom line for the United States remains that Houthi aggression cannot go unanswered and its attempt to hold global commerce hostage cannot pay. The Biden administration has been remarkably patient and restrained in the face of multiple Houthi attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea—but its patience may soon run out.