US and the Houthis: Once More Into the Quagmire
If this sounds familiar, it should
America’s entanglement in the Middle East appears to be taking place right on schedule. It began earlier this month with the rocketing of Houthi forces harassing Red Sea shipping in the wake of overwhelming force against Hamas by Israel in payback for the killing of 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, on October 7. Now three US servicemen have been killed by Iran-backed militias in a drone attack on a base in northeastern Jordan, the first time US troops have been killed by enemy fire in the Middle East since the October attacks. President Joe Biden said, “We shall respond.” This is what the US said in Vietnam in 1964 and Afghanistan in 2001.
The British now have joined the Americans in fighting a proxy war on Israel’s behalf, bombing Houthi targets in Yemen, apparently having forgotten that Saudi Arabia and allies including the UAE, US private contractors, the Egyptian navy, and others have been trying to destroy the Houthis, proxies for Iran, without success since 2015 – nine years ago. The latter are still described as “rebels” though they have long controlled the Yemeni capital Sana’a, and probably a majority of the 35 million Yemenis. The Saudis appear to have learned their Yemeni lesson and kept their heads down.
The US and its allies have avoided the fact that the Houthis have made it clear that their threats against shipping are a direct result of Israel’s actions in Gaza, which now have taken the lives of 26,400 people in Gaza and wounded 64,000, according to the Palestinian Health Authority, with 220 Israeli soldiers dead. The allies say they are defending Israel against Hamas but prefer to avoid the question of why they have done nothing to end the now decades-long (since 1968) de facto Israeli occupation of the West Bank and gradual Jewish colonization thereof, nor the making of Gaza into a kind of prison for 2 million people courtesy of the Western-backed arrangement between Israel and Egypt.
The United States, according to the pundits, will have to respond to the deaths of the US troops by “crossing the Rubicon,” a phrase used far too often since Julius Caesar did it 2,000 years ago. On the other side of the Rubicon is a long-term, continued distraction from other major problems with China and Russia in Ukraine and the South China Sea. There are suggestions that the US could pursue Iranian naval assets, target Houthi leadership, tighten sanctions against Tehran, and “deliver a strategic blow to Iran’s capabilities in Eastern Syria,” according to the think tank the Atlantic Council. On January 4, the US and its allies issued what was called a “final warning” to the Houthis. We know how that worked out.
As Asia Sentinel pointed out on January 11, more than 45,000 troops are on the ground in 11 countries throughout the Middle East. Once again, with no proper debate and with desultory calls from Congress complaining about the escalation, the US – and now its allies – is more and more likely to be drawn deeper into a conflict generated by Israeli imperatives for vengeance. There are another 15,000 men and women aboard two aircraft carrier battle groups – the USS Dwight Eisenhower and the USS Gerald Ford – and their accompanying vessels. These are all big targets. There is a growing certainty that troop engagements with hostile forces will increase. The US is exposed both on land and sea and with little evidence that planners are considering the potential consequences.
It is worth pointing out again the words of the late Colin Powell, one of the most thoughtful of US military leaders, in the runup to the 1990–1991 Gulf War, who created what became known as the Powell Doctrine, a list of eight questions that he said all must be answered before the US takes military action. Powell, a combat commander during the Vietnam debacle, privately called it the Pottery Barn rule – you break it, you own it: Is a vital national security interest threatened? Is there a clear attainable objective? Have the risks been fully analyzed? Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted? Is there a plausible exit strategy? Have the consequences been fully considered? Do the American people support it? Is there genuine broad international support?
The Powell doctrine has been mostly ignored by the US military ever since. There seems to be nobody in the US Congress willing to call hearings to ask those questions.
There is another question as well. The root of this problem goes back to the 1917 British offer to Zionist leaders, later taken up by US President Harry Truman, who granted diplomatic recognition in 1948, to make Palestine a National Home for the Jewish people, even though at the time they did not control it, let alone ask the inhabitants, who to this day continue to rebel against that decision. But as Zionist leader Theodore Herzl had always hoped, the British empire would be the instrument of his hopes for a Jewish state in Palestine. Once they had control, their imperialism was sanctioned by the almost entirely Western League of Nations which in 1918 gave them a “Mandate” to rule Palestine and Trans-Jordan, the territory east of the Jordan River. When the Palestinians revolted against large-scale settlement of Jews, almost all from Europe, they were suppressed with the loss of the lives of some 5,000 Arabs, 500 Jews, and 250 British servicemen. A two-state solution, the best of a bad bargain, has never been an Israeli goal.
The Israelis have fought wars with various Arab forces out to destroy them in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006. President Biden seems determined to join them in fighting another one. The troops in the Middle East are not expected to serve in combat roles, the White House said. They are already in combat roles, as the deaths of the three in Jordan and the injuries to 20 more have demonstrated. Remember the words “mission creep,” also a favorite phrase of Powell’s.
The US and the Israelis thought they were on their way to a partial resolution of the crux of the regional issue with direct dealings with Bahrein and UAE and the possibility of one with Saudi Arabia. They have treaties with Egypt and Jordan. All that was blown apart by the Hamas raid into Israel and Israel's merciless response.
This has brought the issue back to its fundamentals – the position of Palestinians who number about five million in the West Bank and Gaza, the former being nominally autonomous but occupied by Israeli forces and shrinking in the face of Jewish settlement. Add in about two million in Israel itself, where they are increasingly subject to discriminatory laws, and there are as many Palestinians as Israeli Jews (about seven million each) in this piece of land between the Mediterranean, the Jordan River, and the desert where 100 years ago Jews were about 11 percent of a 750,000 total population.
For years, there has been talk of a two-state solution but there has been scant pressure on Israel to accept this, and long-serving Prime Minister Netanyahu now rejects it. The logical conclusion is that either the Palestinians will be subject to perpetual occupation, or driven out. That is a recipe for endless wars in a region which has several minor ones already. The logic for the US is to either address the fundamentals or walk away. The danger for the US is being sucked further into marginal conflict zones without a clear and achievable goal.