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America’s Yemen airstrikes are leading to mission creep

The Houthis vow to retaliate against US-led airstrikes. Credit: Getty

January 15, 2024 - 7:00am

Following US-UK naval force strikes on Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, America’s military sounded triumphant. As Lieutenant General Douglas Sims told the media shortly after the attacks: “We have degraded their capability — I don’t believe that they would be able to execute the same way they did the other day”.

If Sims’s statement is accurate, then the US-UK naval force had achieved in one night what a Saudi-UAE led coalition had failed to achieve in nearly a decade with a force of over 130 warplanes and over 180,000 troops. Shipping companies did not buy it. 

Shortly after the strikes, the Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk released a statement stating that their “hope that these interventions and a larger naval presence will eventually lead to a lowered threat environment” (emphasis should be placed on the terms “hope” and “eventually”). 

Despite protestations to the contrary, the strikes signalled that Operation Prosperity Guardian, which was launched in December to protect commercial shipping in the region, was a failure. It clearly did not succeed in ensuring the safe passage of transit goods through the Red Sea. By turning the region into an active warzone, the strikes will obviously worsen the problems with shipping.

Freight rates are now spiralling upwards for all routes. In Europe, for example, Tesla and Volvo are halting production due to shortages of key inputs. These are the first companies to be impacted, but they are unlikely to be the last. Unless something changes, expect others to halt operations when faced with the worst supply chain disruptions since the Covid lockdowns. 

It seems likely that another bout of inflation will now hit Western economies by May or June – but probably sooner. This is what data suggests from the lockdown period, which shows a clear lagged correlation between freight rates and inflation. Such a development would certainly hurt Joe Biden’s already flailing election prospects, as well as the Tories’.

Why did the US and UK intervene in a way that would make the situation worse? What we are seeing is obvious mission creep, and what started as a clear-cut, if flawed, plan to protect shipping has now turned into a crude attempt to “show strength” in the face of Houthi attacks. The Houthis, having endured far worse during the Saudi-UAE led war, shrugged it off, and committed to continuing and indeed broadening their strikes. 

There is now also a risk that the Houthis might start targeting naval assets. This is a serious threat: according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Houthis have access to anti-shipping cruise missiles with a range of up to 800 km and advanced radar and infrared homing systems. It is unclear what type of an impact Iranian-made weapons can have on Western navies, and our adversaries will be jumping for joy at the opportunity for them to be put to the test.

When confronted with these problems, those who support the strikes asked what the alternative was. But given the realities on the ground, there may be no good options available here. The economist Steve Davies, of the IEA, usefully highlighted the difference between a problem and a predicament. “Unlike problems,” Davies wrote, “predicaments do not have solutions.” When we try to “solve” predicaments — especially by lashing out in a show of force — they tend to worsen. That appears to be exactly what is happening in the Middle East right now.


Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional, and the author of The Reformation in Economics

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Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
6 months ago

An excellent analysis of the situation.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

More like lazy finger pointing.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago

What are the alternatives, though? The Houthis can’t be left to take pot-shots at passing shipping whenever the mood takes them?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

The obvious alternative is to put more pressure on Tehran instead of continuing the current Obama Biden policy of appeasement. Whoever in Washington thought that stability in the ME could be achieved by promoting Iran as a counterweight to the Sunni states needs to be retired now.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

So the alternative is an escalation? ‘We’ can’t stop one of their alleged proxies, so we must ‘put pressure’ on Iran – who are much better equipped to respond themselves.

rupert carnegie
rupert carnegie
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Iran has an interest in freedom of navigation as well. It depends on exporting oil via the straits of Hormuz and out via the Indian Ocean.

These issues have been around and successfully managed since the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s (when the two sides bombed, gassed and otherwise attacked each other on land but – after a few initial raids on oil rigs and tankers – accepted peaceful freedom of navigation at sea). Basically, it works providing everyone accepts what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The alternative is thus to make clear that the de facto agreement not to interfere with shipping applies not only to the Persian Gulf but also to the Red Sea AND that hostile action by the Houthis will be treated as an action by the Iranians (as Kennedy declared that action by Cuba would be treated as an action of the USSR). The Houthis may have some independence but are susceptible to Iranian influence not least because the latter provide the missiles.

A diplomatic threat to Iran – backed up by unambiguous threats to Iranian shipping – was the logical response. A military attack on a few Houthi bases is extremely unlikely to eliminate the threat and is misguided since it implies they are independent actors and therefore that Iran should not be held responsible.

The bone headed suggestion that the military operation had been entirely successful lends support to the idea that Washington is no longer engaged in joined up thinking and each department is pursuing its own policy.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
6 months ago

If an attack by the Houthis is deemed to be an attack by Iran, then an attack by Ukraine on Russia can be deemed an attack by its backers ie the USA, UK, Germany etc, justifying an attack by Russia on those states.
That really is a route which should be avoided.
It is highly unlikely the USA would be attacked; not so with the others.
The USA would do prescisely nothing.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

The West have been diplomatically, and actually, threatening Iran for years – they’ve also been sanctioning them and fighting them by proxy – not to mention murdering their generals. All of which is partly how & why we’re here. It’s hard to see what extra ‘pressure’ could be applied now that doesn’t include military action – which would be disastrous for the US when that too turns out to be ineffective.

Oh and you do know that the Israelis have already been routinely bombing Iranian ships carrying oil and cargo to Syria don’t you? Talk about sauce for the goose.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

The minute that external powers cease threatening Israel and its right to exist, the minute that Israeli actions outside its borders will cease.
No other argument has any relevance.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Can you explain the relevance of that to us, 3,000 miles away? Spell it out to me, I’m a bit slow.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Biden and Obama have tried to appease Iran and its proxies. Clearly this has failed. Biden actually lifted the terrorist designation of the Houthi’s shortly after his election. He also lifted the economic sanctions on Iran that has freed up billions in revenue. They need to stop playing footsie with terrorists.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Stop playing footsie & do what exactly? How about murdering one of their Generals? Oh no, they tried that/

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

And what was Iran’s response? Crickets. Biden freed up billions in revenue for Iran and what was its response? The Oct. 7 massacre and now the Houthi’s.

Mary Bruels
Mary Bruels
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The US has not had a coherent Mideast policy for decades. The Obama/Biden administrations were/are exceptionally confused when it comes to foreign policy.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  Mary Bruels

This is true.

Bernard Brothman
Bernard Brothman
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I would go back to the sanctions that former President Trump had in place against Iran and re-designate the Houthis a terrorist organization. At the time of Trump’s exit from the Presidency, Iran was down to about 18 bill in foreign currency reserves (Iran had about $128 billion in 2015).
Deterring the Houthis requires more countries involved than just the USA and the UK. Egypt loses Suez Canal revenue. EU countries have to pay more for goods shipped from Asia via sea. If the UK and the USA are the only ones fighting the Houthis, on their turf, it will be difficult, especially with the Ukraine and Gaza Wars ongoing and the massive debt our counties have.
Step one requires President Biden to meet with US Congressional Leaders and get backing for fighting the Houthis in a significant way to deter them. Step two requires diplomatic discussions with the above mentioned counties impacted by the Red Sea attacks to get their participation, and perhaps some help from the Saudis.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
6 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

What pressure do you suggest?
Iran is already detached and isolated from the West, and China and Russia certainly won’t be co-operating in any pressure.
The result will be negligible.

Stewart Cazier
Stewart Cazier
6 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I don’t anybody thought that since the demise of the shah. The history of US engagement in Iran since they took over the relationship from the UK in 1953 after rescuing the UK’s failed attempt to launch a coup and to recover BP’s assets has been one of failed intelligence and mismanagement. Certainly the shah was their man, but so was Saddam who launched a war against Iran at their behest in the 80s. The US was very certain about the chemical weapons ans Rumsfeld organising their supply when the Iranian wat didn’t go so well. Often overlooked is the return of Khomeini from exile. The US thought him another tame poodle, let him return from France and found out otherwise.
It is actually difficult to think of much that the US has got right in the ME. Worst of all was encouraging the Saudis to promote their puritanical version of Islam believing that it was a means of undermining the Soviets through their large and growing muslim minorities in their Asian republics.

D Walsh
D Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Good man Martin, there is no war so dumb that you wouldn’t support it

Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

End the war in Gaza

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
6 months ago

The easiest way to stop the war in Gaza is eradicate Ham

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

We have killed people because they lived in the same place as those who, killing no one, had blockaded shipping, though not even our shipping. We and the Americans have gone low in our time, but this is something else, ranking only with the Biden Administration’s decision to leave an American citizen, Gonzalo Lira, to die when it could have saved him with one videocall.

But waiting for today so that Parliament could have had a say would have achieved what, exactly? The Leader of the “Opposition”, who maintains that bombing Yemen was not military action, was squared before it happened, as was the supposedly impartial Speaker of the House of Commons. If the Liberal Democrats and the SNP had also been extended such deference, then they would have had no objection to what Keir Starmer would have us believe was this civilian inaction.

Look out for more of this. The other frontbench and the Speaker’s Chair will be on board in advance of all sorts of things, by no means only in foreign policy, and then who will ask anything awkward that anyone might notice very much or take seriously, and who will call anyone at all who might wish to pose such a question?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Goodness. I don’t know. What would possibly make the Houthis stop attacking ships in the Red Sea? To answer, one would have to know why they started attacking the ships to begin with. And the Houthis have been completely silent on this crucial point.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago

And what exactly is the Author suggesting instead?
Having made a critique he then flags it’s a predicament without any obvious solution. If anything the US/UK taken too long to respond so hardly a knee-jerk lashing out. But come on what’s he suggesting as the alternative?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

It is probably best not to use force which simply demonstrates how ineffective it is…and those who used it.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I don’t think authors drop below the line here – but see my comment below for an alternative – someone needs to voice them even if Phillip doesn’t seem to want to. An alternative might be to take the Houthis at their word. Tell them we’re not going to defend Israeli bound or owned ships and then put the ball in their & the israeli’s court. If ‘we’ are happy with the expense of this defence – or not willing to pay the cost of the 10 day extra shipping times, then so be it, but don’t pretend there are no alternatives.

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

This is a great alternative. Tomorrow they will say that they will sink or capture British ships for supporting Israel, then European ships, then… In short, it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine what happens if you allow a bandit to take a little bit from you.
But it is with imagination that many people have problems 🙂

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

We know exactly what bandits do when they’re allowed to get away with it for 75 years – genocide. However, what matters now is what is currently in the UK’s national interest – not that of a settler colonial state 3,000 miles away. We have to judge this in terms of our capabilities and resources – that’s all.

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

We know exactly what bandits do when they’re allowed to get away with it for 75 years – genocide.
If I understand you correctly, Israel is committing genocide today and during 75 years. Am I wrong?

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Not quite, they’re enacting genocide today, but have been taking a long run-up to it. They wouldn’t be doing so now if the West had ever said ‘no’ to them.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago

Why did the US and UK intervene in a way that would make the situation worse?

If one is going to ask such questions perhaps offering alternative courses of action would lead to wider discussion. Seems that was too difficult for the author.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago

Ask the South African ANC government to intercede with their masters, Iran – after all, they fancy themselves as players on the world stage (but only if they get paid for it). Strangely the ANC is suddenly flush with money again – after being bankrupt.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago

“By turning the region into an active warzone, the strikes will obviously worsen the problems with shipping.”

The air strikes are not creating an active war zone. No one is invading Yemen and the Houthi’s have no air or naval capability. And how exactly will this worsen the problem? The author doesn’t say. I think it’s fair to argue the air strikes won’t improve the situation – I hope that’s not the case – but I fail to see how they will make it worse.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

 “…those who support the strikes asked what the alternative was.”

Here’s one. How about a proper, clear-headed analysis of what ‘our’ current unconditional support for Israel is costing us? Leave aside the moral & diplomatic issues if we focus on the economic alone we might wish to ask if the financial hit we’re taking or going to take from these disruptions is worth it.

Of course ‘caving in’ would have it’s own costs – of ‘emboldening’ our enemies, but when it becomes clear that ‘our massively expensive ‘strikes’ haven’t made a jot of difference to the Houthi’s capabilities (and they almost certainly won’t) then we’ll be in entirely the same position, but a few billion dollars better off.

The problem for the West is that their hugely expensive militaries aren’t actually that effective nowadays. They’ve put all their eggs in too few, very expensive, baskets that are now showing themselves to be out classed in either quality or sheer weight of numbers by our adversaries – adversaries who are less casualty averse than we are.

The alternative then, is to properly understand our capabilities – and to plan and act accordingly. This, of course, will never happen, our political structures aren’t capable of it, but don’t pretend that alternatives do not exist outside the bounds of the Establishment thought exemplified by the question in the quote above.  

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

What about good old carpet bombing?

Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
6 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Saudis tried that for years

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago

I’m not sure the Saudis have B52s.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
6 months ago

I feel torn. As the Houthi actions mean they are kind of begging to be made an example of. And it’s probably too early to judge how effective or otherwise this intervention is. However, given the history of Anglo-American involvement in the Middle East in the past 35 years or so, plus the failure of the western backed Arab states intervention in the Yemeni civil war, one can’t help feel a bit of scepticism about if this will achieve much and could even go completely wrong. Having David Cameron as FM hardly inspires confidence given his role in making Libya even worse than it was under Gadaffi (no small feat!).

Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
6 months ago

If the Saudis joined the US they would abandon the current armistice and the Houthis would be free to attack the Saudi oil refineries. There goes Pax Americana!

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
6 months ago

Pax Americana has been gone for some time.
As Trump said the USA hasn’t won a war since 1945, certainly in the sense that it hasn’t achieved an outcome which it intended, or which was beneficial to the USA…Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, all US interventions in the Middle East and Africa…

Flibberti Gibbet
Flibberti Gibbet
6 months ago

Saudi Arabia is engaged in a costly effort to achieve regime change in the Yemen whereas the US/UK are simply attempting to prevent drone strikes from threatening a major world shipping lane. The comparison made by the author is fallacious.
Before the New Year shipping rates were spiking and vessels were heading to the Cape of Good Hope because of manifest dangers in the Red Sea.
Prosperity Guardian is just ramping up, it takes a few weeks for warships to deploy from northern Europe or the US, particularly when the Western world has shut down for Christmas.
It will be a month before we can assess what the strikes have achieved.

Tim
Tim
6 months ago

All military responses risk escalation. There is no scenario in this ‘predicament’ that doesn’t risk escalation and drawing in other groups/actors. Maersk have said they are hopeful, and air strikes have proved effective in the past (Syria – though not without great cost and suffering). So it does seem like, at least for now, strikes are the best option for all those who rely on shipping in the region.

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago

As long as the West continues to pursue a strategy of “humanitarian persuasion,” there is no hope of pacifying the Houthis. The opposite is more likely; the Houthis will only get stronger and have imitators. The fight against postcolonialism will prove to be quite a profitable endeavor.
It is no coincidence that I mentioned carpet bombing, and I refer those in doubt to Wikipedia, Pompey’s campaign against the pirates

Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
6 months ago

Great, another easy victory. Remember Afghanistan?

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
6 months ago

And yet ….

Andy Hughes
Andy Hughes
6 months ago

I don’t understand the thinking or argument of this article. US/UK naval vessels have already been directly targeted by the rebels – that gave the UK and US a clear context to mount the counterattacks on targets in Yemen. Not that I think they needed them, seeing as the rebels have been targeting civilian vessels with international crews – any attack like that is an act of war surely? What’s the alternative? (none offered in the article) Piss away millions on anti-drone missiles which cost a few thousand? The net result on shipping would be the same, fewer and fewer carriers would risk the Red Sea and insurance premiums would creep up, as would/will shipping costs. Are the UK and US expected to just revert to a convoy system indefinitely? They and other western countries are caught in a bind (made worse by the Panama Canal problems) and realistically trying to degrade the rebels military reach is the only viable option.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
6 months ago

Let’s be honest, the obvious alternative to this stupidity was to tell the Israelis we wouldn’t give them any more weapons if they kept bombing children with them.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

What about the people who supply the weapons that Hamas use to bomb children?

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
6 months ago

The way to a solution would entail the US and the UK actually diplomatically engaging with Yemen, paying attention to why they are causing mischief, and take steps to address whatever it is (besides, they have been quite clear about it, we’re just ignoring it).
All of the crisis points in the world right now are due to a categorical refusal to engage. Any politician with sense enough to call for engagement is tarred and feathered with “Chamberlain” and “Munich” epithets, making actual diplomacy impossible. The West’s “diplomatic” repertoire these days is limited to shouting, threats, sanctions, and bombings. We “negotiate” amongst ourselves and are insulted and taken aback when the addressees of our “compromise” ridicule our “solution” and reject it.
In the meantime, China used old-fashioned diplomacy to achieve a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Neither has submitted to the other, both still pursue their sometimes parallel, sometimes diverging interests. Not every compromise is a “Munich”.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

I don’t think it is “Yemen” that is the problem. It is “the Houthis”.

Archibald Tennyson
Archibald Tennyson
6 months ago

Four days into my attempts to quit nicotine, my policy proposal has become quite simple.
Time for a f*****g crusade. The West should conquer the whole Middle East, every last square inch of it. No half measures, no liberal pussyfooting – an actual crusade.
“Oh no, that would mean conquering Muslims!!” Yes, I’m aware. That’s the point. We shall have a desert and call it peace. Roma Aeterna!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago

How much cargo going through the area is actually destined for America or the UK? If it’s very little then why is it their business to defend this stretch of water? Leave to those who need it to stay open

William Brand
William Brand
6 months ago

America is too squeamish and ethnocentric to have success in wars against fanatical insurgents with a foreign sanctuary and supplier. One picture of a napalm burnt child destroyed our support for the war in Vietnam.

William Brand
William Brand
6 months ago

America is too squeamish and ethnocentric to have success in wars against fanatical insurgents with a foreign sanctuary and supplier. One picture of a napalm burnt child destroyed our support for the war in Vietnam. Moslem fanatics do not think like western intellectuals. Egypt is a big looser over Suez Canal passage fees. Let their army chase the Houthis through the desert. Let it be Moslem vs Moslem. American leftists won’t cry when atrocities occur since we won’t be responsible. America can supply carrier bombers and drones but don’t put Americans ashore. The American eagle is a sea and sky bird. It loses in land fighting.

William Brand
William Brand
6 months ago

Sun Su states that one must know both the enemy and yourself. The Moslem fanatics know both themselves and something about the west. American Woke ruling Democrats intellectuals barely know the prole soldiers in our army who come from red states. They are clueless about the Moslem fanatics we face. They botched the wars in Irack an Afghanistan when they tried nation building. The American eagle is often victorious at sea and in the sky. He loses on the ground. America and Europe may send planes, ships, drones and satellites to this war but must arrange for Egypt or Saudi to do all the ground action. No American must go ashore. No nation building again if we win. Egypt is losing a fortune on Suez Canal fees. Their army should do all the land action. Let Saudi Arabia pay Egypt’s bills for their army. Europe must contribute ships and money. America is broke and the red sea route is Europe’s lifeline, not America’s.