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The only option

February 16, 2024 at 5:00:00 PM

Max Friedman '25

On January 27, a British oil tanker was struck by missiles coming from Yemen. The tanker survived, yet the event has already impacted the decreasing number of cargo traveling through the Red Sea.

An Iranian-backed terrorist group in Yemen, the Houthis, coordinated the attack. In response to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the Houthis, siding with the Palestinians, have vowed to attack all ships from nations supporting Israel. However, they have “mistakenly” hit vessels of other nations going to and from the Suez Canal via the Red Sea. UNCTAD estimates that since the commencement of the attacks, traffic through the Red Sea has decreased by 42%, and cargo traffic is expected to decrease even further.

The United States has decided to respond by striking key Houthi targets. Each missile barrage has cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and Lt. Gen. Douglass Sims estimates that the strikes have only reduced the Houthis’ offensive capabilities by 20-30 percent. President Biden himself said that the strikes have failed to stop the Houthis from disrupting global trade. These airstrikes have fallen under public criticism, as many see the strikes as a waste of time and money, and as having the potential to widen the regional conflict.

I disagree with the sentiment. The strikes have not been significantly effective; there is no denying that. However, when looking at the alternatives available to President Biden, it is clear why America has chosen and will continue to execute missile strikes on Yemen.

First of all, the United States cannot simply do nothing. The Houthi attacks have disrupted global trade to the point where the threat must be addressed. The delays as a result of redirected shipments have affected the prices of goods, and businesses that rely on a steady supply chain are at risk of shutting down. Several car factories throughout Europe have been forced to shut down for brief periods simply because they could not manufacture. Global food security is also at risk, as grain exported from Europe will now need to travel a significantly further distance to reach Asia and the east coast of Africa. If the war in Gaza continues throughout the year, the damage done to the economy will be significant.

How else can America respond to the attacks besides missile strikes? Any other intervention besides an airstrike would likely result in an invasion of Yemen. I personally do not believe that a long war in Yemen would be supported by the American public, succeed in eliminating the Houthis, or even result in a better Yemen. Should America opt for a quick invasion purely with the goal of eliminating the Houthis, they would likely have a much harder time than anticipated. As the Israelis have shown, it is very difficult to accomplish such a goal. While Israel is attempting to eliminate Hamas in the 365 square kilometer Gaza Strip, the United States would have to remove the Houthis from the 530,000 square kilometer nation of Yemen., and likely result in more problems. Experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the US that removing one group from power will just lead to a power vacuum, a vacuum that will be filled as soon as American troops withdraw. Finally, the death toll would be unbearable to the American public. An invasion of Yemen has no cause behind it, no reason to lose thousands of American lives or hundreds of thousands of  Yemeni lives. An invasion of Yemen would be an expensive, ineffective endeavor with a high death toll, and it would not be worth it for the United States to undertake such a dangerous attack.

Recently, the United States conducted a strike in Iraq as well. This was in direct response to an attack from Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist group. This has raised fears of an escalation of tensions with Iran, who are also major supporters of the Houthis. What the United States is currently doing will not lead to war with Iran. In fact, it perfectly balances the tension at a level beneficial to America. Yielding to the Houthis would send a sign to the Iranian government that the United States will back down when faced with pressure, and they would likely become more aggressive with their tactics. Further encroachment, however, might force Iran’s hand, leading to a war. Iran is suspected to have nuclear weapons, and war between the U.S. and Iran could very well result in World War III. 

If America yields, it shows Iran that it is weak, and they will become more aggressive. If America becomes more aggressive, Iran will understandably retaliate, which could have dire consequences for both nations and the globe. By remaining in this state of tension, America is keeping its delicate relationship with Iran and Yemen in check and ensuring global trade security while keeping unnecessary casualties to a minimum.

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