In US Middle East policy — as terrible as Israel’s war against Gaza is right now — there isn’t a more urgent priority than addressing the threat posed by the Houthis to maritime security.
This Iran-backed rebel group, which the world has chosen to ignore since the cessation of hostilities in Yemen’s civil war in April 2022 despite it still being a menace to regional security, has managed to challenge a core and enduring US interest in the region – freedom of commerce and navigation.
Now, the question is: how should Washington respond to the Houthis’ attacks against commercial ships in the Red Sea?
I will lay out four options, some of which may not be mutually exclusive. I will list them in accordance with their position on the escalation ladder, starting with the least escalatory to the most. I will also assess their pros, cons, and probabilities.
Lastly, I will advocate for what I judge to be the least costly and possibly most effective option should the Houthis continue with their attacks – striking Houthi military targets inside Yemen.
Option 1: Defense and diplomacy
This option is based on an American conviction that a war with the Houthis will only embolden the group and bolster its credentials, both domestically and regionally. Also, the use of force will neither politically defeat nor militarily destroy a determined, resilient, and dispersed movement that can hide in mountain caves and tunnels.
The Houthis survived a Saudi-led Arab coalition bombing campaign for years. Limited attacks by the United States and possibly its Western allies, no matter how painful or surgical, will not crush an organisation that will continue to receive military supplies, intelligence, and training from Iran.
Instead of falling into the trap of a military confrontation with the Houthis, the United States would strengthen its diplomatic efforts to put an end to Israel’s war in Gaza, which, if you believe the Houthis, is the reason why they are launching attacks in the Red Sea.
This would essentially amount to calling the Houthis’ bluff. It may not work, and most likely it won’t – because the Houthis see opportunity in picking a fight with the United States regardless of what is going on in Gaza – but it will give Washington more ammunition as it works the diplomatic angle at the UN Security Council.