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US should help Yemen fight Houthis

Jan 18

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Recent Houthi attacks on U.S. Navy vessels and U.S. counter-strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen have triggered a foreign policy debate on how the United States should proceed and on whether a larger U.S.-Houthi conflict might be imminent. Houthi leaders say that their aim is to impede Israeli trade and shipping, even though many of the vessels targeted have no apparent Israeli affiliation. Meanwhile, the United States has already begun assembling an international maritime alliance to guarantee the safe passage of ships through the Red Sea, and the U.S. and U.K. have already struck 60 Houthi targets inside Yemen.

Straight Arrow News contributor Katherine Zimmerman discusses the different options that the United States has in how it plans to address the Houthi threat. In the end, she recommends applying a policy that was successful several decades ago against another rogue actor, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Two options for responding to the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea seem to be on the table in the U.S. policy discussion. One, do nothing, or two, strike the Houthis. The first has yielded rising attacks against commercial vessels and an increased demand to defend them. The latter is unlikely to change the Houthis’ behavior. Instead, it’s time to apply the Reagan Doctrine in Yemen, as Ken Pollack and I argued in the Wall Street Journal. But what does that mean?

The idea is similar to what was the American approach to managing the bad behavior of the Gaddafi regime and Libya in the 1980s. Under Gaddafi, Libyans were sponsoring terrorist attacks, hurting American regional partners like Egypt, and attacking neighboring states. And so, the United States started actively supporting Libya’s adversaries and Chad, which tipped the scale in favor of Chad and nearly led to a Chadian invasion of Libya. Gaddafi stopped behaving so badly once this happened. Applying the Reagan Doctrine in Yemen means supporting the Yemeni government and the factions that back it against the Houthis, who seized control of the country almost 10 years ago and set in course the events that led Yemen to collapse into civil war.

Why is just defending the commercial ships from the Houthi attacks, the so-called do nothing option, not what we should do? It’s a victory for the Houthis, and given the already-realized and potential further impact on the global economy, allows a strategic threat to the United States to persist.

Why won’t retaliatory strikes against the Houthis work? For starters, the Houthis are baiting us to take action against them because they will be able to spin a narrative of defending Yemen against the big bad United States. But more practically, the Houthis simply don’t have the major weapons depots or types of targets to strike that will permanently handicap them or cause a shift in their calculus.

Two options for responding to the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea seem to be on the table in the U.S. policy discussion: One, do nothing, or two, strike the Houthis. The first has yielded rising attacks against commercial vessels and an increased demand to defend them. The latter is unlikely to change the Houthis’ behavior. Instead, it’s time to apply the Reagan Doctrine in Yemen, as Ken Pollack and I argued in the Wall Street Journal. But what does that mean?

 

The idea is similar to what was the American approach to managing the bad behavior of the Gaddafi regime and Libya in the 1980s. Under Gaddafi, Libyans were sponsoring terrorist attacks, hurting American regional partners like Egypt, and attacking neighboring states. And so the United States started actively supporting Libya’s adversaries and Chad, which tipped the scale in favor of Chad, and nearly led to a Chadian invasion of Libya. Gaddafi stopped behaving so badly once this happened. Applying the Reagan Doctrine in Yemen means supporting the Yemeni government and the factions that back it against the Houthis, who seized control of the country almost 10 years ago and set in course the events that led Yemen to collapse into civil war.

 

Why is just defending the commercial ships from the Houthi attacks, the so-called do nothing option, not what we should do? It’s a victory for the Houthis, and given the already-realized and potential further impact on the global economy, allows a strategic threat to the United States to persist.

 

Why won’t retaliatory strikes against the Houthis work? For starters, the Houthis are baiting us to take action against them because they will be able to spin a narrative of defending Yemen against the big bad United States. But more practically, the Houthis simply don’t have the major weapons depots or types of targets to strike that will permanently handicap them or cause a shift in their calculus. They and Iran benefit significantly from the ongoing Red Sea shipping attacks. It’s near impossible to identify a military target that they would not simply deem as part of the price they have to pay for their current success.

 

But the Houthis have shown that they care about power and control. Whenever that has been threatened, they have responded almost immediately. Take 2018, when Emirati-backed Yemeni forces were advancing on [sic] and preparing for an amphibious assault to recapture the port city. The Houthis waved the white flag and went to the U.N. to negotiate a deal that protected their own interests. [Sic] through which the majority of goods enter Yemen is incredibly important to the Houthis. They outmaneuvered negotiators and walked away with their control of the city intact and a deal that has yet to be implemented to this day. And they reacted similarly in early 2022, when Yemeni forces made gains against them. The Houthis announced a unilateral ceasefire and then agreed to a two-month truce that they then repeatedly extended, all the while continuing to prepare for war.

 

U.S. military support to the Yemeni government does not mean Americans fighting the war against the Houthis. But it means tipping the balance of power against them by providing Yemeni factions with better intelligence and capabilities to fight their own war and to win against the Houthis. Threatening what the Houthis value is a strategy that could work.

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