When it comes to explaining this question, i.e., why the US is attacking the Houthis in the Red Sea, most mainstream western media gives a similar answer, i.e., the Houthis are part of Iran’s “axis of resistance”; the Houthis seek Israel’s destruction; the Houthis are a terrorist group seeking to bring Yemen under their exclusive control, etc. Almost every major western media outlet has singularly highlighted what they call is the central Houthi slogan: “Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam”. The purpose is to criminalize them. Therefore, retaliating against them is crucial for the West to ensure its own security. But the US and its allies also need to frame it in a way that can get maximum political sympathy from within their countries. Speaking to reporters in Bahrain on the 10th of January, the US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, warned that continued Houthi attacks in the Red Sea could disrupt supply chains and in turn increase costs for everyday goods.
This particular framing of US counterattacks has direct appeal to the people, i.e., if the Houthis continue to attack ships in the Red Sea, it will disturb global supply chains, which will lead to the shortage of commodities, including food, that might contribute to inflation, making ordinary people’s lives difficult. Therefore, to ensure that people face minimum difficulties, the US is attacking the Houthis.
Contrast it with the fact that the Houthis’ target in the Red Sea are the Israel-bound shipments. But the West suppresses this reality. It is not untrue that the Houthis are against Israel and that the core purpose of their attacks is to dent Israel’s ability to wage its war. The US, on the other hand, has jumped on the anti-Houthi bandwagon to take care of the threat that the Houthis present to Israel so that the state of Israel can continue, safely, to wage its war on the Gazans.
But this is not how the US frames its attacks. The US-led task force called Operation Prosperity Guardian has been patrolling the Red Sea to, in Blinken’s words, “preserve freedom of navigation” and “freedom of shipping”. But the only freedom Washington cares about is its own ability to dictate geopolitics in its own exclusive ways; hence, the attacks. Still, if Washington and its allies see the Houthis as part of the “axis of resistance”, for the Houthis, for Iran, and for the people of Palestine, the “axis of resistance” exists, fundamentally, due to the ‘axis of domination’ the US wants to accomplish. For the Houthis and its allies, this ‘axis of domination’ includes the US and its NATO allies plus Israel and the West’s reluctant allies in the Middle East, i.e., states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
What the Houthis Say
For the Houthis, the main reason for their attacks is the collective inability or the unwillingness of the West to prevent the unimaginable loss of life at the hands of Israel in Palestine. A senior Houthi official said, in a statement released on ‘X’ (Twitter), in December that the Houthis would only halt their attacks if Israel’s “crimes in Gaza stop and food, medicines and fuel are allowed to reach its besieged population”. Later, in response to the US decision to launch a coalition force in the Red Sea, Houthi Major General Yusuf al-Madani said in a statement that “Any escalation in Gaza is an escalation in the Red Sea … Any country or party that comes between us and Palestine, we will confront it.”
The question, therefore, is: will the Houthis still be attacking if the West was playing a more responsible role, i.e., not allowing Israel to execute its own version of the so-called final solution to the Palestine question. The answer is probably no. But if this was not the case, i.e., if there was no crisis in the Red Sea, the US would have little excuse to launch a coalition and use the war to augment its dwindling position in the Middle East.
The US-led coalition is the US entry point in what the US calculates could be a long war in the region, a war that would become long only because Israel needs a lot of time to execute its cardinal objectives. Apparently, Israel’s objective is eliminating Hamas. But, as the war has progressed and its current trajectory, i.e., the utter destruction of the entire Gaza and the displacement of millions of Gazans, shows, Israel’s objective is to fundamentally change the socio-political reality of the Gaza Strip in a way that would allow it to permanently annex this region in its pursuit of ‘Greater Israel’.
Israel confirmed earlier this month that the war is unlikely to come to an end in 2024. The West, in response to this warning, has practically sealed its lips. On the contrary, the Houthi attacks have allowed the West to practically shift the blame on them for creating tensions. This is a classic western way of giving spins to issues in a way that a) not only allow it to execute its plans and b) frames them in a way that minimizes the political risk.
For Biden, it is important to minimize the political risk now more than ever because of the seemingly unstoppable Trump resurgence. If Trump wins the next election in the US, it does not mean an end to the US support for Israel. It might increase, given that the Trump administration, by accepting Israel’s decision to declare Jerusalem as its capital and supporting the Abraham Accords, directly contributed to the present war. But for Biden, this is still a political nightmare. Therefore, the Biden administration is excessively framing the issue as existential not only for Israel but also for the US. This makes a lot of sense for him for the elections, given that Biden’s unflinching support for Israel and his willingness to expand US involvement in favor of Israel has led to nearly three-quarters of Jewish Americans approving his policies. Biden’s domestic imperatives in this sense trump the imperative of saving innocent lives and preventing the war from spreading. It is for this reason that Washington is attacking the Houthis.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”