Limits of Power: The US Military Response to the Houthis

The US-led military effort to defend against attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden by Yemen’s Houthi militia, and to deter future attacks of this nature, is floundering. Neither objective has been accomplished — merchant ships continue to be attacked, and there is no sign that the military strikes by the US and the UK have given the Houthis pause. Traditional diplomatic tools have been undermined by geopolitical factors outside the framework of US-Houthi interaction, namely the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. The only mechanism of US policy implementation available is the one chosen at the start — the military option. Now, confronted with the inability of military force to achieve its policy objectives, Washington is caught in a trap of its own design, compelled to continue a policy course devoid of potential for a positive outcome because of the political and geopolitical consequences of conceding failure. As such, the US experience with the Houthis is a case study on the limits of power.

One of the important factors in the ongoing Middle East crisis that has grown out of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, and the subsequent Israeli military response, is the reactive nature of the actions of all parties involved. Other than the initial Hamas attack, there are no premeditated events — everything flows from a cause-and-effect reaction derived from the original sin, so to speak. What makes this phenomenon so critical is the self-limitations it has imposed on all the parties involved — by using extreme violence as the initiating factor, Hamas dictated that violence, not diplomacy, would be the dominant characteristic of any response.

Israel has defined its goals and objectives in response to the Hamas attack in stark, uncompromising terms — the military and political destruction of Hamas. The US, in supporting Israel, is constrained by the limitations imposed by the Israeli policy. To the extent that diplomacy has been employed, it is in the furtherance of Israel’s stated objectives — talks regarding hostage exchanges, humanitarian assistance and cease-fire arrangements are treated as situational events, as opposed to conflict-ending mechanics.

The Deterrence Trap

The all-or-nothing approach taken by Israel has impacted the ability of the US to shape the conflict using traditional diplomacy. Under normal circumstances, the threat of military force would be de-emphasized and, if mentioned at all, would only be in the context of deterring escalation, or as a force of stability or guarantor of peace in any conflict resolution discussions. The limitations imposed by Israel’s hardline stance has pushed US military power to the forefront, however. From the start, the US has been focused on facilitating Israeli policy objectives vis-a-vis Hamas, supplying military weapons to Israel while deploying military forces to the region to deter Hezbollah and Iran from entering the conflict on the side of Hamas. Diplomacy has been relegated to a supporting role, namely blocking any intervention by the UN Security Council deemed incompatible with Israeli goals and objectives.

The key to military-based deterrence is the ability to create the impression that any failure to comply with the demands or requirements of the party seeking to deter a specific behavior or action will result in a military response that would inflict such harm as to far outweigh any potential benefit from undertaking the proscribed activities. One of the first actions of the US in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack was to deploy US Navy carrier battlegroups into the region as a signal of resolve. The intent of these deployments was clear — to deter both Hezbollah and Iran from intervening.

Hezbollah still began carrying out limited attacks on Israeli military positions in northern Israel designed to divert Israeli military resources away from Gaza. To the extent that Hezbollah was deterred from any precipitous escalation, the impetus for limitation was self-induced, with the Hezbollah leadership seeking to avoid Israeli escalation, as opposed to acting out of concern for any US military response.

Likewise, the presence of US military forces not only failed to intimidate Iran and its proxies in Syria and Iraq, but served to justify their decision to strike US military bases located in the region. The ineffective US military response to these attacks undermined the very principles of deterrence that the presence was intended to impose, as US military power became diluted in a series of tit-for-tat exchanges designed more to manage escalation than deter action. Military deterrence, ineffectively deployed and indecisively employed, became a policy trap, where any use of force only highlights the failure to achieve the desired results, resulting in a perceived need for more action.

The Houthi Debacle

On Nov. 19, Yemen’s Houthi militia began attacking commercial shipping on either side of the strategic Bab al-Mandeb strait. The Houthis have linked these attacks to Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip, saying they wouldn’t halt unless Israel agreed to a cease-fire and the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. The Houthi action has created the conditions of a de facto blockade of the southern Israeli port of Eilat and has severely disrupted international shipping through the Suez Canal. A month later, on Dec. 18, the US announced that it was forming an international maritime security force whose mission, codified as Operation Prosperity Guardian, was to end the Houthi blockade.

On Jan. 11, confronted by the failure of Operation Prosperity Guardian to end the Houthi attacks on international shipping, the US and UK initiated a series of air strikes against military targets in Houthi-controlled Yemen. These attacks were not done under the auspices of Operation Prosperity Guardian and were described as “self-defense.” One of the stated purposes of these strikes was to deter further Houthi attacks on international shipping.

More than a month after the initiation of the strikes, US policy-makers acknowledged that the attacks were having a negligible impact on the Houthis, neither disrupting their ability to strike international shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, nor deterring them from continuing their attacks. If anything, the US-UK actions have only exacerbated the situation — since the status quo has changed nothing, the two countries face a need to either escalate or seek non-military (diplomatic) solutions. Israeli reluctance to agree to anything that interferes with its ongoing military operation prevents the US from meaningfully engaging the Houthis on their conditions for conflict termination — particularly a cease-fire (the US is working with other nations to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza.)

Military escalation options, however, are hampered by the availability of military force — the US has only so many carrier battle groups — and the lack of political support for such action in the US. Some members of the US Senate, including close allies of President Joe Biden, have questioned the legality of the current military operation against the Houthis. Lacking any viable off-ramp, the US has no choice but to continue military strikes against the Houthis which, with each ineffective action, only further undermine the very principle of deterrence, exposing the limits of US military power for all the world to see.

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