Hit the Houthis Hard

Column: And go after their patrons in Iran

Houthis fly over ship (Houthi Military Media/Handout via Reuters)
January 11, 2024

Since last November, Houthi terrorists operating from enclaves in northern Yemen have launched 27 attacks on commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea. The Houthis have fired drone swarms, cruise missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Houthis have pirated ships. They have endangered lives, disrupted international trade flows, and raised the cost of shipping a container from Asia to northern Europe by 173 percent. And until January 11, they paid no price.

Inspired, financed, and trained by the Iranian revolutionary regime, the Houthis have given America the bird. They flout any pretense of international law. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the Houthis are not a legitimate state actor. They have no serious grievance or ideological cause. Their claim to act in solidarity with Palestinians is a crock. Even if they were sincere, it wouldn't justify their onslaught. The Houthis are a terrorist gang, and if they are not stopped, then the toll they exact in blood and treasure will grow.

How to stop them? First, tell President Biden that his strategy to contain the Houthis hasn't been working. Last year, when this latest wave of violence began, Biden and his national security team did nothing but order U.S. naval assets to intercept the Houthi barrages. The Houthis kept firing.

Then, in mid-December, the United States announced that an international coalition would protect commercial transport. Toward the end of the year, the Treasury Department sanctioned one of the Houthis' Iranian fixers. Neither the display of multilateralism nor the financial threat stopped the Houthis. On New Year's Eve, U.S. forces destroyed four Houthi small boats attempting to hijack a container ship. This act of self-defense also failed to restore deterrence.

Biden went to the United Nations. Maybe, if the so-called international community condemned the Houthis' malign behavior, Iran and its proxy would think twice before the next assault. And maybe the sea will turn to pink lemonade.

On January 10, a few hours before the U.N. passed a resolution calling on the Houthis to quit it, the militia launched its most sophisticated offensive to date. U.S. and U.K. ships and planes knocked out 18 bomb-carrying drones and 3 missiles launched from Houthi territory. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visiting Bahrain, said, "There'll be consequences for the Houthis' actions."

Note Blinken's use of the future continuous tense. It's diplomatic code for woulda, coulda, shoulda. His promised consequences are long past due. Of course the Houthis increased their attacks. Their harassment wasn't punished until the other day. It was ignored, evaded, swept under the rug.

Why? Because the administration was fearful. It is overburdened by wars in Ukraine and Gaza, threats from Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq, a migrant crisis on the U.S. southern border, shortfalls in weapons stocks, and threats from China and North Korea. It worries that a clash with the Houthis might lead to direct conflict with Iran. It hears from the Saudis that retaliation could unravel the fragile ceasefire in Yemen and cause the Houthis to resume their attacks on the Kingdom.

As happened in Ukraine, Biden's attempt to avoid escalation has given the adversary the upper hand. Biden suffers from self-deterrence. He allowed the Houthis to take the initiative. They chose the time and location of their strikes. They crowed about their victories. Their evil achievements gave them a sense of élan. They felt the wind at their backs.

Let's shake their confidence. Biden's  strikes against Houthi encampments and missile sites on the Arabian peninsula was the right move. With this proviso: Limited and proportional strikes on materiel do not go far enough. The enemy doesn't appreciate the nuances of "proportionality." It cowers at—and it is incapacitated by—disproportionate responses.

You hit the Houthis hard on several fronts. Go after their camps and munitions and boats, for sure. But also restore the Houthis to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, from which the Biden administration removed them in 2021. And follow the advice of my AEI colleagues Kenneth Pollack and Katherine Zimmerman. "The U.S. needs to begin military support to the Yemeni government," they write in the Wall Street Journal, because "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."

This strategy would require Biden to abandon the illusion that the Houthis are rational diplomatic actors interested in a peaceful settlement with the Yemeni government. It would require the fortitude to allay the concerns of the Saudis and Emiratis. Above all, it would require the administration to recognize that America and her allies are under sustained assault from Iran and its proxies and must act accordingly.

That's a hard lift with this crew. Yet continuing the present course will result in more chaos and economic pain, an emboldened Iran, and the further erosion of American power. Russia, China, and Iran feel, with some justification, that America is a helpless giant whose days as a superpower are numbered. We need to change that perception. Change starts by putting the Houthis in their place—and Iran on the defensive.