US Air Strikes in Yemen Are Risking Regional War

Joe Biden could use US leverage to support a cease-fire in Gaza and end the Houthis’ attacks on commercial ships. Instead he’s chosen to escalate the Gaza war by bombing Yemen.

US president Joe Biden speaks in Allentown, Pennsylvania on January 12, 2024, the day after he launched airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

None of what we’re watching unfold in the Middle East right now had to happen. It could have all been avoided, and still could be, even now.

The ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Gaza could end, the Houthi attacks on international shipping could stop, the wider, catastrophic war that day by day gets closer to breaking out in the Middle East could be prevented.

All it would take is doing the one thing that president Joe Biden has refused to do, in the face of all political logic, common sense, and public pressure: support a permanent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and use the enormous power and leverage Washington has over the tiny Middle Eastern country to make it stop its war on Gaza.

Biden continues to balk at doing this. So what we’ve gotten instead is Thursday’s US bombing of Yemen, the war-ravaged country that Washington already spent seven years helping eviscerate by supplying and facilitating Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ brutal war against it. The seventy-three strikes hit sixty targets across five of the country’s regions, killing five and wounding six. After running for president and winning by vowing to end the shameful US support for the Saudi war, Biden has not only broken that promise, but seemingly decided to cut out the middleman and start a US war with Yemen directly.

Biden’s bombing — done in concert with loyal lapdog Great Britain, and with the verbal support of (some) other countries that the president couldn’t get to join in — is ostensibly meant to end the attacks from Yemen’s ruling Houthi government on commercial ships in the Red Sea headed to or from Israeli ports. The attacks had caused some of the world’s biggest shipping firms to suspend shipping in the Red Sea entirely, leading the White House to threaten, and eventually carry out, its own strikes to protect “the free flow of international commerce” and to not allow “hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation.”

The irony was not lost on anyone that Biden was willing to bomb and kill to protect the rights of shipping containers, but has been just fine with 250 human beings slaughtered and more than ten children losing legs each day in Gaza. “This is war. . . . Innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward,” as national security spokesperson John Kirby memorably said. After having justified wars by invoking the “responsibility to protect” civilians from exactly the kinds of massacres the US government is now facilitating in Gaza, US officials are now talking about the “responsibility to protect the flow of international commerce.”

Nor has it escaped notice that Washington isn’t exactly a consistent defender of the freedom of navigation: under its illegal sanctions on Iran, US forces have repeatedly intercepted Iranian vessels and seized the oil they were carrying (before shamelessly selling the stolen goods for a profit). Likewise, Washington said nothing when Israeli forces killed nine people in 2010, including a US citizen, on a Turkish flotilla traveling to Gaza with humanitarian goods, in order to enforce Israel’s own illegal blockade on Gaza.

In any case, it’s hard to take seriously that the Biden administration’s show of force is going to achieve what it’s meant to achieve. For seven years, the people of Yemen endured a merciless blockade and indiscriminate bombing campaign that triggered widespread starvation, an explosion of disease, and the deaths of at least 377,000 people. While dozens of air strikes and five deaths is nothing to sneeze at, it doesn’t compare to this unfathomable level of suffering. In fact, Yemenis have already reacted with defiance, with Houthi officials warning that the US strikes would “not go unanswered and unpunished” and that they were “ready to deter and respond,” and tens of thousands of Yemenis rallying angrily across the country.

No, as all this suggests, the most likely thing that will come of Biden’s actions is a counter-response from the Houthis, a cycle of escalation, and the miserable killing in Gaza coming closer to exploding into yet another disastrous, US-fought war in the Middle East. Even the Saudi government — the Saudi government! — that spent years pitilessly brutalizing Yemen was alarmed by Biden’s decision, calling for restraint and “avoiding escalation” in response to the US strikes.

That Israel’s actions might set off a wider regional war that pulls in the United States has been a live, but somewhat dormant, concern since the start of its destruction of Gaza in October. The US military has already bombed targets in Iraq and Syria numerous times, while US bases in the two countries have been attacked 127 times in the past three months thanks to Biden’s support for what Israel’s doing.

But recently, a regional war has become an alarming and increasingly likely possibility, with US officials now drawing up contingency plans to fight one. The US bombing of Yemen came shortly after the Israeli government, which has been behaving in an increasingly rogue fashion, decided to carry out a drone strike on a Hamas official in Beirut (killing six other people), and then quickly followed it up with the killing of a Hezbollah commander in the country’s south. The Biden administration has reportedly already had to persuade Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon.

These strikes — carried out amid rising US concerns about a wider war, and as the Biden administration has been feeding information to reporters about its behind-the-scenes efforts to contain one — have raised suspicions that Israel might actually be deliberately trying to provoke a bigger conflict and possibly drag the United States into it, whether to give a shot in the arm to a faltering war effort or as a way to save Netanyahu from being rolled as leader, or even going to jail. According to a recent Huffington Post report, multiple US war games have Israeli-Lebanese fighting “escalat[ing] into something terrible,” in the words of a US official, while Politico reports on US assessments of a heightened risk that Hezbollah will attack Americans in the Middle East — or even within US borders.

The absurd thing is that US intelligence itself acknowledges that none of these groups actually want to fight a war, and that they’re all interested in the same thing: an end to the killing in Gaza. The Houthi government has made very clear that their attacks on shipping are a response to Israel’s “ongoing horrific massacres, genocide, and siege against Palestinians in Gaza,” and that their intention is to pressure the United States and Israel to support a cease-fire. Preventing events from continuing to spin out of control could not be simpler — yet still Biden buries his head in the sand, despite all signs pointing to it putting his reelection chances in peril.

Running for president, Biden endlessly repeated that he would end the era of “forever wars,” that he wouldn’t embroil the country in yet another Middle Eastern war, and celebrated that “for the first time in 20 years, the United States is not at war,” after his chaotic but ultimately correct withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now he’s heedlessly barreling towards that very thing. It wouldn’t be too late for him to turn back and choose peace. More alarming is the possibility that his attacks on Yemen indicate he’s already made up his mind.