Biden Fails to Contain Houthi Threat on Red Sea Passage

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With their increasing attacks on shipping passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, the Houthis, an Iranian-backed tribal group from the Saada region of Yemen who seized power a decade ago, continue to endanger freedom of navigation and trade. The Biden administration initially used the U.S. Navy to counter the threat, but this was, at best, whack-a-mole and, at worst, military virtue signaling that wasted tremendous resources for little result. The Biden administration has quietly acknowledged failure by withdrawing the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group from the Red Sea to the eastern Mediterranean should fighting escalate between Israel and Hezbollah.

From the very beginning, a far better military strategy to counter the Houthi threat might have been to use the Somaliland airport at Berbera to run operations to counter Houthi threats and protect shipping. While it takes 4,000 men to crew an aircraft carrier, it takes only four to crew an Osprey or two to fly and fight in an F-16. President Joe Biden’s team, however, often downplays military strategies in favor of the belief that diplomacy alone can end threats posed by ideological and aggressive adversaries.

Here, too, though, a lack of creativity and attention to local dynamics lead the White House and State Department to miss opportunities to end the Houthi threat and bring stability and prosperity to the Yemeni people.

Throughout much of the country’s civil war, southern Yemen has been relatively peaceful and stable. Just as with Somaliland, South Yemen, with Emirati support, closed the door on Al Qaeda. Local attitudes matter, and if tribal leaders and politicians reject Al Qaeda, the group moves on to find more fertile ground. To recognize South Yemen’s and Somaliland’s rights to self-determination rather than sacrifice freedom of navigation and U.S. interests to a pro-Iranian regime in Sana’a and a pro-Chinese one in Mogadishu should have been an easy decision for U.S. policymakers seeking to consolidate stability and deny ungoverned space where Al Qaeda or other extremist groups could thrive.

Local politics also matter. In the run-up to and immediately following the 2020 election, Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan all declared, “Diplomacy is back.” By allowing Saudi Arabia to host the American mission to Yemen rather than operate a consulate in Aden, the State Department slammed the door on opportunities for diplomacy.

This leads the State Department to miss opportunities to checkmate the Houthis and return peace to the Arabian Peninsula. On June 22, 2024, Major General Aidrous Al Zubaidi, president of the Southern Transitional Council and Vice Chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council, met a dozen anti-Houthi officials from Saada in the northwest portion of the country. Zubaidi promised to support anti-Houthi resistance in Saada and across the Houthi-occupied provinces in Yemen. That tribal leaders from the Houthi heartland are willing to turn their back so publicly on the Houthis signal that the pro-Iranian tribal group has lost local legitimacy. Zubaidi’s meeting is akin to the flight of Afghans away from the Taliban after September 11, 2001.

Too often, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs appears more inclined to preserve the status quo rather than recognize the benefit of its collapse. For more than a decade before the Syrian civil war, American diplomats parroted the line, for example, that Hezbollah was a Lebanese nationalist organization that the United States must not simply dismiss as a foreign-backed terror organization. However, Hezbollah’s willingness to deploy units to fight for Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War belied this notion, as Lebanese from southern Lebanon are the first to point out.

The Zubaidi meeting reflects a similar dynamic. The notion that the Houthis have popular support is risible, especially when public opposition emerges in their home province. It is time to recognize that the Southern Transitional Council and Yemenis from both north and south have now turned the corner.

The Biden administration has again imposed sanctions on the Houthis entity after lifting them in the first weeks of 2021. It also recognizes that the Houthi drug trade fuels instability across Yemen and the Middle East.

Rather than disengage from Yemen, now is the time to double down and recognize the United States has potential local partners from Saada to Seiyun and from ‘Amran to Aden who wish to see the end of the Houthi reign of terror.

By Michael Rubin