Kenneth M. Pollack
Jan. 8, 2024 5:45 pm ET
It’s time for the U.S. to stop thinking tactically about the Houthis in Yemen and start thinking strategically. The growing number of attacks on shipping in the Red Sea demonstrate they are now a strategic threat to America, its allies and the global economy. We must address them as such.
For the past two decades, the U.S. has dismissed the Houthis as a nuisance. Washington recoiled when the Saudis and Emiratis intervened in Yemen against them in 2015, and the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have tried to end the fighting with minimal exertion regardless of the outcome. Americans have tended to see the civil war as a humanitarian catastrophe and a breeding ground for terrorists. Our position therefore has been that all that mattered was peace—not who won or on what terms.
That has proved mistaken. The Houthis have made significant gains in Yemen, allowing them to commit aggression beyond the country’s borders. They are doing so as part of Iran’s axis of resistance—the loose alliance of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. groups in the Mideast—and for their own interests.
Though the Houthis claim their actions are in support of the Palestinians, many of the ships they are trying to hit have no connection to Israel. But these attacks do appear to be closely tied to Iranian interests. Tehran is enabling and possibly guiding these attacks by providing targeting information to the Houthis.
These attacks are really about the Houthis demonstrating their ability to disrupt shipping in the vital Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and through that, to threaten the global economy.
That ability is of enormous value to the Houthis and their Iranian allies. For the Iranians, it allows them to demonstrate the power and reach of their axis of resistance, and to use both to pursue their ultimate goal of regional hegemony and the destruction of Israel. For the Houthis, it displays their power and glory, advances their millenarian ideology, galvanizes domestic support that had been in decline, and will doubtless lead them to believe they can strong-arm concessions from other countries.
These threats notwithstanding, the U.S. has continued to act as if the Houthi attacks are little more than an unfortunate byproduct of the wars in Gaza and Yemen. Washington’s response has been purely tactical: Defend shipping in the Red Sea and threaten unspecified consequences for the Houthis. They haven’t stopped, but no consequences have materialized.
Even if the U.S. decides to strike some Houthi asset, such a tactical solution is unlikely to work. Yemen is a desperately poor country; the Houthis are religious zealots; and their military is extremely low-tech. That is why U.S. sanctions have had no effect. It also means they don’t have good targets—such as expensive infrastructure or large warships—that the American military could destroy.
It’s almost impossible to find targets to strike—or even threaten—that would somehow be worth more to the Houthis and Iranians than the enormous benefits they are accruing from the Red Sea attacks. They simply gain too much by assaulting global shipping in a key choke point of world trade.
All this demands that the U.S. take a strategic approach to Yemen and the Houthis—namely, stop them from winning the civil war. It’s clear from the mess in the Red Sea that a Houthi victory would endanger American interests and those of our allies. If they win, the Houthis are likely to become more aggressive and more active helpmates of Iran in its campaign to dominate the Mideast.
Their control and eventual conquest of Yemen is also the one thing the Houthis care about and that Washington could put at risk. It’s proved a strong motivator in the recent past. In 2018, a combined task force of Emirati armor and local Yemeni tribesmen retook most of southern Yemen and then began driving up the Red Sea coast, smashing Houthi defenses and threatening Hudaydah, the last major port in Houthi hands. The Houthis raced to the negotiating table, desperate to cut a deal and stave off a disastrous defeat.
These two factors combine in one clear strategic necessity: The U.S. needs to begin military support to the Yemeni government. That is the only way to ensure the Houthis won’t consolidate their grip on the country and be able to project more power abroad. And it is the only thing that might cause the Houthis and Iranians to rethink their current strategy.
This is a tried and true American approach to troublesome, violent and ideologically difficult states. It was the strategy the Reagan administration ultimately adopted against Libya in the 1980s. To get the Libyans to stop sponsoring terrorist attacks, subverting U.S. allies like Egypt and attacking neighboring states, Washington began providing military support to Libya’s adversaries in Chad. That produced a dramatic Chadian victory—and even threatened a counterinvasion of Libya—which became a key element in eventually forcing dictator Moammar Gadhafi to reverse course.
That successive U.S. administrations largely ignored the Houthis was understandable but unsuccessful. It’s time for Washington to adopt the only promising strategy by threatening the one thing the Houthis hold dear.
Mr. Pollack is a senior fellow and Ms. Zimmerman a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.