The disgraceful spectacle on display in the Red Sea, courtesy of Houthi impudence and Western “restraint”, is not just an outrage. It is also a fascinating microcosm of some of the fundamental dilemmas and contradictions facing so-called free and open nations in an age of growing global chaos.
For two and a half months now the Ansar Allah militants – the Islamist Shia organisation made up of Arab tribesmen from the Yemen, also known as the Houthi Movement – have been attacking and disrupting commercial shipping in the Red Sea leading up to the Suez Canal. As an Iranian proxy, they are using a range of sophisticated military equipment supplied by Tehran, including ballistic and cruise missiles and various drones.
Having rebelled against the “legitimate” government that emerged from their country’s version of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthis – who have been engaged in the Yemen’s interminable domestic conflicts for decades – have been fighting a much more “high-end” war since 2015 against a Saudi-led coalition.
By December 2021 – more than two years ago – the Houthis had already launched some 430 ballistic missiles and 851 drones against targets in Saudi Arabia itself, including Riyadh and high-value oil production facilities. They have acquired significant experience operating advanced equipment, and they are even quite adept at information warfare: this is no rag-tag militia sporting (just) AK-47s.
Houthi, vidi, vici
The current escalation began on October 19 with attacks on specifically-Israeli or Israel-linked ships, as Iran mobilised its regional network of terrorist partners once its other allies, the ISIS-Hamas murderers had sparked the Gaza war with their October 7 atrocities. The Houthi “freedom-fighters” – whose official slogan is “Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam” – were never going to stay out of this fight.
And fought they have. Over this period, the Houthis have launched a total of about 16 anti-ship ballistic missiles, nine cruise missiles and over 90 drones in more than 25 attacks against both cargo vessels and naval ships from the US-led protection task force deployed in the area since December. January 9 saw the most complex Houthi barrage so far, with a strike package including 18 drones, two cruise missiles and one ballistic missile, requiring the efforts of four US and UK destroyers as well as fighter jets from the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier to shoot down.
The main result is already the largest man-made disruption of seaborne trade in decades – to the point where it is now threatening to unleash a new inflation wave across the global economy due both to transport costs and delays. For example Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, has now instructed all its Suez-bound ships to go round the Cape instead.
The other outcome is political, with the whole world watching in disbelief how the Yemeni Islamist insurgents are able to get away with all this despite the presence, just off their shores, of an overwhelming US-led naval force.
As the Biden Administration hesitates about ordering direct retaliatory strikes on the Houthis on the mainland, America’s reputation as a custodian of the world order it has led for decades, and the guarantor of basic global “services” such as securing global trade, suffers immensely.
Despite the gains of civilisation through the ages, the foundation of leadership or hegemony among people and nations has remained the same since the dawn of organised human society: the ability to protect one’s subjects, allies or fellow-citizens from the depredations of others. To fail in this basic duty is to lose legitimacy, and vice-versa – from the ancient world, to the Dark Ages, to our own days.
This is why a strongman like Putin, with his medieval instincts, could understand the importance of sticking by allies like Assad at any cost: a reputation as a reliable protector of one’s friends is true power. Meanwhile, the US is doing the exact opposite, with predictable results.
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Gabriel Elefteriu is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute.