The U.S. “pivots to diplomacy” in Yemen

By James Durso

The good news is the United States is calling for diplomacy in the Middle East. The bad news it is because it was bested by Yemen’s rebel Houthis.

U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, bowed to the obvious and admitted, “We favor a diplomatic solution, we know there is no military solution.” Lenderking was channeling Britain’s former prime minister Winston Churchill who opined, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

The U.S. sent its navy to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in December 2023 in response to the Houthi attack on merchant ships the group claimed were connected to Israel. The Houthis claimed they were attacking maritime commerce in the area until Israel declared a cease fire in Gaza and allowed more aid to enter the enclave.

The Red Sea and Suez Canal see the transit of 30% of the world’s container traffic, so the attacks caused traffic to be rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope adding two weeks and significant expense to the journey.

The Houthis claim to have launched over 520 missiles and drones, a mix of anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned surface vessels, and unmanned underwater vessels, at more than 50 ships, most with no connection to Israel, and killed three merchant seamen.

The U.S. Navy suffered three deaths when two Navy SEAL commandos drowned in the Arabian Sea during a mission to interdict Iranian weapons shipments to Yemen, and a sailor went overboard in unknown circumstances and was declared lost. Houthi casualties numbered 37 dead and 30 wounded according to the rebels after 424 airstrikes by U.S. and UK forces

The Red Sea also hosts several fiber optic cables and four were reported damaged in early March. The cause was first feared to be the Houthis, but was likely the sinking merchantman Rubymar, damaged by Houthi anti-ship missiles, dragging its anchor across the cables.

And that’s where we stood until early April when Mr. Lenderking admitted there was no military solution and suggested the U.S. would lift the group’s terrorist designation if it stopped attacking merchant shipping.

OK, but the Houthis already announced their terms: they will stop when there is a ceasefire in Gaza and aid deliveries resume, and Lenderking acknowledged this.

Though the media is full of stories that U.S. president Joe Biden is angry at Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for excess civilian deaths in Gaza shipments of arms to Israel have not slowed, so the “angry Joe” stuff is likely for the benefit of Muslim voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.

The U.S. asked China to intervene with the Houthi’s patron, Iran, to get the Houthis to down tools. Nice, but what’s in it for China and Iran?

Though the Houthis have disrupted the maritime trade critical to the world economy, the U.S. Navy is probably secretly thrilled as it hasn’t seen any real action in decades. One Navy leader admitted, “I think you’d have to go back to World War II where you have [U.S. Navy] ships engaged in combat.”

The envoy’s admission that force has failed is a black eye for the U.S. and its allies that failed to subdue the Houthis, an outfit with less tonnage than the Cajun Navy.

But the U.S. is not alone. Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the Yemen civil war in 2015 but, despite 24,000 air raids, in 2022 they announced a cessation of hostilities and entered Oman-mediated peace talks. In the interest of a quiet neighborhood, the Saudis closed air, sea and land access to Yemen, but later allowed humanitarian flights to resume.

The U.S. military is also under increasing financial pressure as it is firing $2 million-dollar interceptor missiles at drones that cost $2,000. The non-stop operations of ships and aircraft will require intensive, costly maintenance when they return to port and may encourage many sailors to leave the Navy at a time when the service is chronically failing to meet its recruiting goals.

The Houthi tactics will be studied by America’s foes and refined as low-cost/low-tech methods to frustrate U.S. forces and, after, seeing the Americans bested first by the low-tech Taliban in Afghanistan and now the Houthis, others may be tempted to take a crack at the Americans.

Recent reports that Houthis are running out of weapons and Yemeni citizens lost access to remittances due to U.S. and European sanctions may be true, but the U.S. retreat to diplomacy will give Yemenis some breathing room. The Houthis may have suffered from the U.S. and UK bombing, but they persevered until the attackers changed course.

Any it wasn’t just U.S. and UK forces that underperformed.

In February, a German navy warship in the Red Sea opened fire on a U.S. drone that it misidentified as a Houthi drone and in April the German frigate Hessen has departed the Red Sea and no replacement will arrive until August.

Denmark dismissed its defense chief after a Danish navy ship demonstrated flaws in its air defense and ammunition systems. A French warship left the Red Sea after it ran out of ammunition countering Houthi attacks, and its commander confessed the “uninhibited violence…was quite surprising.”

The Houthi attacks are a tax on the rest of the world, and so is the reluctance of the U.S. to force a cease-fire in Gaza. With the 2024 presidential election looming, and with Black and Hispanic voters more favorable to Donald Trump and the Republicans, Biden won’t promote a cease fire as he needs to keep the Jews onside.

Egypt is losing Suez Canal revenue – down almost 50% – and will press the U.S. to get serious about a reconciliation that’s good for Yemenis, even if some people in Washington, D.C. are grumpy.

And Cairo won’t want to use military force in Yemen as Cairo remembers how its 70,000 troops got bogged down in the 1962-1968 North Yemen Civil War. Cairo will be reluctant to aid U.S. efforts to relieve the pressure in Gaza unless the Americans reopen the Red Sea to cargo traffic.

The Houthis have probably intentionally painted themselves into a corner with the demand for a cease fire. If the U.S. would test the Houthis with a cease fire and they kept up the attacks on shipping, it could publicly expose them as frauds.

Of course, if the Houthis keep their word it will raise their stature as having brought the Americans to heel, though Washington’s belated discovery of diplomacy may have accomplished that goal.

For reasons of bureaucratic organization, congressional oversight prerogatives, and ethnic politics, most U.S. foreign policy issues are managed in separate silos. Thus, it is not possible to take from Silo A to give to Silo B, but that’s what the Houthis demand.

So, what can the U.S. do?

Force a Gaza cease fire?

The Americans won’t do that with an election looming, and the only way to force a cease fire would be to stop providing weapons and intelligence information to Israel, a no-go with U.S. congressmen and their defense industry supporters, and especially after the Iranian counterattack on Israel.

Focus on the peace process in Yemen?

The Yemen peace process is on life support and an all-hands effort at reconciliation, led by the Arab League or the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, is needed for a successful reconciliation, which means a Houthi role in the unity government. U.S. voters won’t care, but will American officials and politicians push back at “rewarding terrorism?”

Probably, though that wasn’t a problem with Ireland or South Africa. On the other hand, Yemen’s neighbors will welcome a peaceful outcome and may stand aside so Washington can be the public face of a failed peace effort (and Al-Jazeera and other Middle East media will give non-stop coverage to Americans’ perfidy.)

In 2021, newly-elected President Joe Biden promised an era of “relentless diplomacy” but the Biden administration has continued the traditional American military-first approach to political challenges.

If Washington sticks to the script future American officials had better get used to encounters like this one between the U.S. and North Vietnam military:

“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ said the American colonel.

The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

The post-World War II free trading system was underwritten by American sea power, so the failure of the maritime expedition in the Red Sea is a bad look after the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Navy looks like it lost – or didn’t win – the first real maritime scuffle in decades at a time when the fleet is too small to meet America’s worldwide commitments.

So, Washington must consider rebalancing between warfare + sanctions and trade + diplomacy, then, consider the challenge of American navalist Seth Cropsey who asked, “What is a global navy for?”

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Featured Photo: GULF OF OMAN (April 14, 2024)

A Machinist’s Mate mans the hose for fresh water wash-down aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) in the Red Sea, April 14.

Mason is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to support maritime security and stability in the Middle East. (Official U.S. Navy photo)