Should We Freak Out About Biden and Sunak's Houthi Strikes? Or is it Just Business as Usual?
Strikes on Houthis in Yemen reflect a dangerous moment for the Middle East. Have Sunak and Biden changed the recent consensus on the US/UK avoiding direct attacks?
It only took a few days, but 2024 has started with a bang! Mostly in the form of direct US/UK strikes on enemy combatants. Happy New Year! 2022 threw Russians at us, and we didn’t fire a shot. 2023 threw Hamas at us and we didn’t fire a shot. We advised, supplied and financed their opposition but we took no action directly. Not our troops. They stayed out. Apparently what was needed to finally give in and use our weapons was a few Yemeni pirates aka Iranian Mullahs threatening the ships bearing the most essential of essential iPhones - plus a few Nikes, and other gear some poor Vietnamese child built.
Everything old is new again.
The recent strikes on the Houthi actually represent a return to Middle East norms despite the US and Britain’s, dare I say, Biden’s attempt to stop the endless US wars. Since the messy Afghanistan pullout Biden at least could say he managed to keep US boots off the ground. And he had a good 2 year run. But like Michael Corleone’s silent scream attests on the steps of the Sicilian opera house there’s no escaping destiny. Or an overwrought Al Pacino. The Middle East just keeps pulling us back in. To be biblical about it all - and why not its where the bible was birthed - there’s no escaping Original Sin.
It might be useful to explain what I mean by Biden’s ambition to reject direct US military intervention. Many may, rightly, honestly, be wondering how come there ever was such an interventionist western attitude toward the Middle East. Could it be religious - Ike’s 1958 boots on the ground in Lebanon to protect a Christian President? Or realpolitik - the 1953 US/UK instigated coup against Mosadegh in Iran? Or Cold War one-up-man’s-ship - Reagan’s support of Afghan freedom fighters? Is there really an about face from continued engagement in the Forever Wars.
Well, yes, since the Killer B’s (Blair and Bush) dropped their massive double hits on Afghanistan and Iraq and the 20 year aftermath both the US and the UK have been slowly, haltingly trying to exit direct engagement in Middle Eastern fighting. You know, like Liverpool FC supporters try to avoid bashing the heads of their more southerly rivals because regular fans get tired of all the rancour.
The first obvious moment in this trend to flight and less fight was very light. Proving, at least, that we can bang out a rhyme. In 2011, as the Arab Spring spread through North Africa, western nations began making decisions to prevent violent leaders from attacking their people. In the UK, this was first discussed in the context of Libya, where 40+ year dictator Muammar Gaddafi had apparently managed to get some pretty bad approval ratings - unlike Abba. But some popular (oil) hits, like Abba. The British PM wanted to pledge UK resources to intervene alongside NATO and prevent Gaddafi from overturning his poor approval ratings in a couple of slightly distasteful ways. But, in a dramatic shift in British military approach, he sought the approval of Parliament to do so.
He got overwhelming approval from Parliament. But it established a new precedent. From hereon in the Prime Minister needed Parliament’s permission before playing with guns and projectiles in any meaningful way. A bit of restraint on a PM’s foreign policy appeared. Then in 2014 western states’ restraint was tested once again. The sudden shocking rise of the Islamic State, ISIS, with its cruel harsh acts, and its direct recruitment of British citizens and teenage girls and sometimes both, prompted calls for the use of direct military intervention in Middle Eastern wars again. And not only from Britain.
ISIS, a group of paramilitary nomads, inspired by Osama Bin Laden, (not really a noble figure to model yourself around), were able to seize and hold significant territory within the Arab world, mostly within Syria and Iraq, while also initiating a terror campaign that struck at the very emotional heart of the European public. Vive la Republique just became ‘vive’! Execution videos and sudden, vicious attacks in Paris led many in Europe to fear that cells could rise up from under their mattresses faster than a bed bug. As a result they started to mull taking action in the Middle East, where the terrorists lived.
Nevertheless, unlike the days, months and few years following the terror attacks in the United States, Europe rejected a full invasion and intervention. Instead a global coalition, involving both the US and UK, was established. The West made use of its new allied government in Iraq and the forces of rebel groups/friendly governments in Syria, Iraq and Jordan to keep western troops from fighting ISIS militants directly. US and later French bombings did still take place, but they were by drone, or high-flying bomber jets. A new bloodless way to fight the Forever Wars. Toys for some… destruction by remote control for others.
Following the election of Donald Trump in 2016, American foreign policy became more isolationist. Unsurprisingly, it encouraged a resurgent drive to remove direct US involvement from the Middle East. In 2019, Trump (surely under no influence from his old friend Vladimir) announced that American forces would fully withdraw from Syria and the Syrian civil war. Then, in February 2020, ahead of slightly mishandling a pandemic to his endless live-streamed mansplaining, he signed off the official withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, ending the last (official) direct US war on foreign soil.
Thankfully for anyone who experienced the pandemic handling, it was Joe Biden who handled the withdrawal, in 2021. And of course, it didn’t quite go off without a hitch - mostly because they assumed that the Taliban was able to grab the hitch they left behind. Plus millions/billions? of dollars worth of military equipment…..
And thus we reach the modern day. What we’ve seen since invading Iraq in 2003 is that the UK and the US, once bitten/twice shy, have chosen to avoid direct involvement in Middle East conflicts. Better to leave it to another Laurence of Arabia! Or anyone really… Except… Bombing the Houthi. No politics there. Just protecting international shipping. And presumably they’ll bomb anyone else who interferes with the world’s iPhone supplies. They have, after all, finally overtaken Samsung in the global smartphone pecking order. Military intervention in the Mid-East - it's like heroin to western governments. They just can’t stop.
Of course, they still enable Arab conflict. Case in point: both nations have long funded Saudi Arabia’s genocide/war in Yemen. They have provided billions in both general funding and military funding to Israel for years, although of course we all know that they’ve only been attacking Palestinian’s since October 7th?? More recently, beyond the Middle East, they have responded to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by providing funding, training, military hardware, and weapons to Ukrainians, but crucially no British or American boots on the ground. They seem to prefer a few rebels with knives and short missiles - just not a nut-job with a nuke.
So, at the start of the election year both nations decided they needed to respond to Houthis in Yemen (that place we may or may not have been enabling Saudi Arabia’s attempt to flatten) attacking western shipping with violence. No longer does American or British military intervention look like 1990 in the Gulf War, or 2001 in Afghanistan, or 2003 in Iraq. Joint British-American strikes on the Houthis were restricted purely to aerial bombardment, selected at particular Houthi sites, and justified simply as retaliation and protection for western shipping.
The coming days and months might see Israel, or Saudi Arabia, or some other actor suggesting that this represents the US and UK taking direct action in the Middle East once more. However, what we take from this is that actually the last few decades have demonstrated largely the same consensus, and all this is - well, this is just a case of welcome to the new western intervention, same as the old western intervention. Just protecting the iPhone this time.
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