January 20, 2024 - 8:00am

Asked this week whether the joint US-British airstrikes on Yemen’s de facto Houthi government were “working”, President Biden replied: “Well, when you say ‘working’ — are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they gonna continue? Yes.” While his response has been satirised as the perfect summation of US Middle East policy, there is another way of reading the dynamics of the current crisis: that every military escalation so far, arriving each day with grim inevitability, is so carefully calibrated that the effects are strangely de-escalatory.

Certainly, the Houthis have shrugged off the effects of the airstrikes so far. Yesterday Centcom, the US strategic command for the greater Middle East, announced the third Houthi attack on commercial shipping in as many days, while the Houthis have declared, with customary bellicosity, that “a retaliation to the American and British attacks is inevitable, and that any new aggression will not go unpunished.” Yet the airstrikes themselves, focused on a minimalist target list and telegraphed well ahead of time (whether through conscious intention or, as the Americans allege, poor British information security) were so limited as to be hardly more than a rap across Houthi knuckles, a dramatic and costly equivalent of a tetchy diplomatic note.

A similar dynamic can be seen with Iran’s recent and dramatic ballistic missile strikes across the region. Though clearly a warning to Washington that Tehran can inflict pain on both American bases and US allies should the crisis escalate further, the chosen targets — a prominent Iraqi Kurdish businessman’s home, the defunct base of a Syrian jihadist group and a Baluchi separatist group’s base in Pakistan — were all expendable whipping boys for America itself. While the missile strikes were in themselves escalatory, the targets chosen simultaneously served to de-escalate, flexing muscles while pointedly giving no grounds for a direct US response.

If we are sliding down an icy road towards war, at least the primary actors involved are pressing heavily on the brakes. While the United States possesses vast reserves of unused military force, it is likely beyond its capacity to force the Houthis into a more amenable course of action, particularly given the growing political pressure Biden is already facing. The Iranians too are capable of causing great damage across the region to the US and its allies, but for the most part have chosen a path of carefully calibrated escalation, delegating direct and ineffective attacks on US positions to its newly-unified constellation of Iraqi Shia militant groups.

While the Gaza war is spinning the broader Middle East into crisis, the pace of escalation is, we can say, reassuringly slow. The primary actors are affording themselves as much room as possible to save face without committing to a historic conflict that, ultimately, no one wants to wage. 

Yet, as always, there is a downside: the only viable means of de-escalating the crisis is Israel declaring its war aims fulfilled and winding down the Gaza conflict, an outcome that goes against Benjamin Netanyahu’s direct interests in political survival. Openly spurning Biden’s pleas to not ethnically cleanse or annex Gaza, and hinting at expanding the war to Lebanon, Netanyahu has shown himself defiant in the face of the desires of the great power sponsor on whom Israel’s security depends. The Middle East crisis may be a regional front of a great struggle over America’s role in the world order. But, through his own inability to impose Washington’s will on Netanyahu, Biden has made the global superpower a backseat passenger hurtling down the road to wider war.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.