There is a simple reason why U.S. and U.K. military strikes against Yemen’s Houthis will not achieve their objective of re-opening the crucial Red Sea lanes for international shipping: The Houthis don’t have to succeed in striking additional commercial vessels, or even successfully retaliate against U.S. military ships. All they need to do is to try. That is enough to sustain a de facto shipping blockade of the Red Sea, through which a staggering 12% of global trade flows. Western commercial vessels will simply not risk moving their ships through those waters, not in spite of President Joe Biden’s military strikes, but now because of them.
The irony is evident as the wealthiest nation in the world bombs one of the poorest. Biden, by escalating tensions with the Iran-backed Houthis, has inadvertently bolstered the militant group’s ability to disrupt international shipping. The Houthis had managed to increase the cost of container shipping in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war by launching missile attacks at cargo ships passing through the vital waterways. But the Biden Administration’s retaliatory strikes on Yemen’s Houthis have turned off shipping companies, perhaps irrevocably, until the war ends.
The Houthis have continued to fire missiles at ships almost daily since Thursday. The latest Houthi missile—shot down by the U.S. Navy—was fired on Sunday. It never hit its target, but it still served its purpose: Keeping tensions high and scaring away Western ships heading toward Israel. As such, the Houthis have already succeeded in inflicting a cost onto Israel’s economy, all the while making a mockery of Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s effort to re-establish deterrence.
Biden can certainly choose to up the ante and intensify the targeting of Houthi weapons depots and missile launchers. But unless there is a substantial degradation of Houthi military capabilities—a scenario that seems improbable given their large arsenal of anti-ship missiles and estimated 200,000 fighters—continued strikes will only beget more of the same: escalating tensions that strengthen the de facto Houthi blockade and elevate the potential for the conflict to expand into a full-fledged regional war. This is an outcome the Biden Administration claims to want to prevent.