The Biden Administration Is Strong in the Red Sea but Weak in Gaza

After enduring weeks of regional tension, including Houthi rebel attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and on American commercial vessels, the Biden administration, in conjunction with the British government, has struck Houthi radar and launch sites in northern Yemen multiple times since January 11. Although President Joe Biden has acknowledged that the strikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis immediately, he apparently expects that they will degrade their military capabilities to such an extent that this vital shipping route will no longer be in danger. While the United States is showing strong international leadership in this instance, the same cannot be said for its role in Gaza, where Palestinian civilian deaths and dire humanitarian needs continue to mount. US entreaties to Israel to limit civilian casualties and allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza are clearly not working. Only a tougher US response, including calling for a ceasefire and placing conditions on US military sales to Israel, as some Democrats in Congress are demanding, has a chance to change this dynamic.

Protecting a Vital Shipping Lane

The Biden administration initially hoped that the Israel-Hamas war would be contained to Gaza and would not lead to a broader regional conflict that would draw in the United States, but that has not been the case. Pro-Iranian Shia militias in Syria and Iraq have undertaken dozens of strikes on US positions in these countries (prompting retaliatory US strikes). Hezbollah in Lebanon has unleashed rockets into northern Israel (though desisting from a full-scale attack that has the potential to open a new military front). And the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who control large swaths of territory in the northern part of that country, have attacked commercial shipping in the Red Sea, ostensibly to prevent ships from traveling to Israel. Although some of these actions undoubtedly may be encouraged or even directed by Iran, these groups often act under their own ideological imperatives, which include strongly opposing Israel and the United States.

The Biden administration initially hoped that the Israel-Hamas war would be contained to Gaza and would not lead to a broader regional conflict that would draw in the United States, but that has not been the case.

As of this writing, the Houthis have launched some 30 missile or drone attacks against ships traversing the Red Sea. In response, the United States has taken the lead in creating an international maritime coalition with the mission of protecting this vital shipping lane, which stretches from the Bab al-Mandab strait in the south to the Suez Canal in the north. About 12 percent of worldwide commercial shipping transits through this waterway. The Houthis have claimed they are targeting either ships bound for Israel or ships representing nations that are aiding Israel in Gaza, though some of their targets have been neither.

Until late December, the US Navy’s approach had been to foil such attacks by intercepting Houthi rockets and missiles over the Red Sea. The Biden administration had hoped that such defensive actions would show the Houthis that their efforts were failing, but this did not deter them. On December 31, events escalated when US Navy helicopters from the USS Eisenhower in the Red Sea answered a distress call from a Singapore-flagged, Danish-owned Maersk ship whose security team exchanged fire with Houthi militants who approached the ship in four small boats. US Navy helicopters answered the Maersk ship’s distress call, and engaged in a firefight with the Houthi militants, sinking three of the four Houthi boats and killing all aboard. A Houthi spokesman charged that the “American enemy” bears “the consequences of the crime and its repercussions.”

Reluctant but Decisive US Actions

It is fair to say that the Biden administration did not seek an escalation with the Houthis, not only because it did not want the Israel-Hamas war to widen but because it did not want to upset the delicate situation of a possible negotiated end to the Yemen conflict. Tellingly, the Saudis, who have been engaged in negotiations with the Houthis and wish to extricate themselves from the Yemen conflict, have refused to be part of the US-led Red Sea maritime protection force because, analysts say, they do not want to jeopardize these talks.

For its part, the Biden administration, faced with escalating Houthi attacks on commercial shipping, believed it had an international obligation as the world’s “indispensable nation” to stop such attacks. By December, some private companies already had started to reroute their ships from normal transit through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, and directed them to go around the Cape of Good Hope by southern Africa, a longer and more costly voyage. According to press reports these companies include the large oil firm BP and the giant Maersk shipping container company.

The additional costs for the transport of goods and oil could lead to higher consumer prices, which would hinder efforts by the United States and other governments to reduce inflation in their respective countries. And with the US presidential election coming in November 2024, Biden likely worries that ongoing Houthi attacks could cause supply chain problems and higher inflation. Hence, on January 11, after more ships were attacked in the Red Sea and the adjacent Gulf of Aden area, the United States and the United Kingdom decided to launch a series of attacks on Houthi radar and missile launching sites inside Yemen. Speaking shortly after the first strikes, President Biden stated that he would “not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.” US-UK strikes continued in subsequent days with increasing ferocity.

With the US presidential election coming in November 2024, Biden likely worries that ongoing Houthi attacks could cause supply chain problems and higher inflation.

In light of the Houthis’ experience of withstanding Saudi bombing attacks during the height of the Yemen conflict, some analysts predicted that such US and UK strikes would have little deterrence effect, and that has proven to be the case. On January 18, when asked by a reporter whether the strikes against the Houthis were working, President Biden answered “No,” but added that they would continue.

The US strategy at this point is to degrade the Houthis’ ability to launch strikes on commercial shipping and to stop Iran from resupplying these rebels, as evidenced by the US Navy’s recent seizure of a suspicious dhow (a traditional boat used in maritime trade) containing Iranian weapons that was thought to be bound for Houthi-controlled territory.

The United States has also upped the ante against the Houthis by naming the group, on January 16,  as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity,” reviving a Trump-era designation that the Biden administration had delisted when it first came to office in order to facilitate the provision of international humanitarian assistance to Yemen. However, indicative of the Biden administration’s desire not to have this conflict expand further and as an inducement to the Houthis to re-think their strategy of attacking commercial ships, US officials determined that the terrorism designation would not take effect until February 16, giving the Houthis time to re-calibrate.

Iran’s Destabilizing Role

Whether or not Iran in fact pulls the strings with its allied militias in the region has long been the subject of debate. On the one hand, Tehran, through the Quds Force of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has provided military weapons, advice, and other assistance to  various Shia militias, including the Houthis, over the years. On the other hand, the Houthis, because of their own ideological positions, may have wanted to show that their attacks in the Red Sea were their own response to show solidarity with the Palestinians and oppose Israel in the Gaza war. On January 22, the US Navy’s top Mideast commander told the Associated Press that “Iran is very directly involved” in the Houthis’ ship attacks. The Iranian regime may view these attacks, as well as the attacks against US personnel in Syria and Iraq, as a low-cost way to draw the United States into a regional war. Iran may hope that the United States will overreact in a way that weakens America’s position in the Middle East.

On January 17, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, said that “security in the Red Sea is tied to the developments in Gaza, and everyone will suffer if Israel’s crimes in Gaza do not stop…All the (resistance) fronts will remain active.” He added that if the war in Gaza stops, it “will lead to an end of military actions and crises in the region.” Amir-Abdollahian was trying to be clever by half. Though not claiming that Iran was directing these militias, he seemed to suggest that the Islamic Republic could use its influence to have them desist from military actions when conditions warranted. From the perspective of many US officials, all roads lead to Tehran. On January 12, Biden

said that he had sent a private message to Tehran about ongoing Houthi attacks on shipping.

US Leadership Absent in the Gaza Situation

This forceful and arguably principled US stand to lead the international community in protecting freedom of transit in the Red Sea has not been matched by US leadership in the Gaza war. There, the United States has used its influence several times to block a growing international consensus at the United Nations in favor of a ceasefire. Most UN member countries see the mounting death toll (now over 25,000) and destruction in Gaza as an intolerable situation that must be stopped. Biden and his team reportedly have grown frustrated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government over such issues as Israel’s failure to reduce Palestinian civilian casualties and to allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. Yet US criticism, usually expressed in private, has not been accompanied by any concrete measures. And, in clear defiance of Biden, Netanyahu has openly and categorically rejected the US plan for a reinvigorated Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza after the war ends and opposed the administration’s commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict. Netanyahu has recently affirmed his view that Israel must exercise full security control of all territory west of the Jordan River, a stance that would exclude any version of a Palestinian state, let alone any autonomous Palestinian entity. It may be claimed that the Israel prime minister makes such comments only to appease the extreme right-wing members of his cabinet, but it is likely that Netanyahu firmly holds these positions.

Biden’s reluctance to get tough with Netanyahu and his refusal to use US leverage to change Israeli tactics in Gaza has upset not only the Arab world and the broader international community, but also an increasing number of officials in his own party.

Biden’s reluctance to get tough with Netanyahu and his refusal to use US leverage to change Israeli tactics in Gaza has upset not only the Arab world and the broader international community, but also an increasing number of officials in his own party. A small but growing number of Democrats in Congress have stated their concerns about the administration’s arms sales to Israel without any strings attached.

These Democrats, including some centrists in the party, objected to the Biden administration’s use in December of an emergency authority that allowed it to bypass Congress to expedite a $147.5 million sale of artillery rounds and related equipment to Israel. And nearly a dozen senators have opposed the administration’s request for new legislative language permitting the executive branch to bypass congressional oversight of future arms transfers to Israel. (The White House proposal is part of Biden’s October supplemental national security funding request, which also asks Congress for $10 billion in emergency defense funding for Israel, which would be on top of the annual $3.8 billion in US military aid.) Some progressive lawmakers, such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have objected to the entire supplemental request for Israel; Sanders described Israeli military actions in Gaza as “grossly disproportionate.”

But instead of taking the moral high ground and using aid as a lever to halt the bloodshed and the dire conditions in Gaza, including the lack of food and medicine for the hard-pressed population, Biden is squandering US leadership by continuing to give Israel a blank check. He may assume that he will have more sway with Netanyahu if he is seen as Israel’s protector. But the reality is that Netanyahu will simply pocket unconditional US support and then do whatever he wants, knowing there will be no punitive action coming from Washington.

All this gives the impression that the United States is more concerned about protecting commercial shipping than protecting the lives of the Palestinian people under siege. This is not a desirable position for a country that aspires to be the peacemaker in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoD