It’s Getting Hot Over There

Timestamp: Saturday morning

Friday night we got word of a second US-led attack on Houthi positions in Yemen in response to Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. And those are only the most recent developments in the region. You saw the timestamp because I’m sure it’s far from over. And it’s much more complex than just that.

Where to start? I’m not certain, or even certain that I have the expertise and knowledge to determine where, but here I go. The Houthis are an Iranian backed rebel group that has operated in Yemen for some time now. The war in Yemen is effectively a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It appears that US-led diplomatic efforts were close to brokering a cease fire/peace accord.

On October 7th Hamas forces operating out of Gaza launched an attack on Israel proper. (Selecting verbiage is a challenge.) In response Israel launched attacks on Gaza. We are used to short Israeli wars – this one has already lasted over three months and the end doesn’t appear to be in sight. The Houthis claim their attacks on shipping are in support of their Palestinian brothers.

Believe what claims you choose, but in short that brings us to today.
There is no doubt that President Biden is the leader of the US-led coalition and largely calling the shots. It has long been the position of seafaring nations, the US very much included, that freedom of navigation of the high seas will be preserved at any and all costs.

That alone justifies the recent actions. We simply can’t have a group of rebels and/or Iran dictating the freedom of navigation on the high seas. But I contend that it goes much deeper than just that.

The two lead countries in the coalition are the US and the UK. They are both democracies where their leaders are subject to election and thereby their voters. Biden is up for reelection this November. Especially when it comes to reelection efforts, Americans tend in large part to vote their perception of their family’s financial situation. In 2024 that means cost of living as they perceive inflation.

If Red Sea shipping, and with it Suez Canal usage, is disrupted among other things oil prices are certain to rise. Americans largely perceive inflation by the price at the pump and on the grocery shelf. One of the issues in the recovery from the pandemic was sorting out the supply chain. A shipping disruption will make for a second episode.
Getting to the bottom line, if voters perceive the economy to be in trouble the chances of Biden getting reelected diminish precipitously. Anyone who says foreign policy is blind to domestic political impact simply doesn’t know what they are talking about or is lying.

On a more fundamental level, the great democracies of the world (which certainly include the US and UK!) cannot allow some fifth-rate regional power via its proxy rebel group to control the high seas.

There is a lot at play here. Much more than I can cover in a short piece. The conflict in Israel is lasting much longer than most expected and it is spreading throughout a region that has been unstable for decades if not centuries. There are legitimate grievances on many sides. Managing it is going to be a delicate balancing act. It’s getting hot and keeping it from exploding is going to be a difficult task.

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