On Jan. 11, U.S. and British forces launched their first round of strikes on targets in Yemen operated by Houthi rebels. These strikes came after weeks of attacks by the Houthis on international shipping vessels in and near the Red Sea.
Although the Houthi attacks have caused few casualties since they began in November 2023, they have been enough to divert substantial commercial traffic away from the Suez Canal, forcing it to go around the tip of Africa instead. As such, they represent a direct threat to freedom of navigation — a core U.S. interest. Washington, which has dominated the sea lanes since 1945, will not allow a rebel militia to shut down shipping through one of most important waterways in the world.
The U.S. is not acting alone in attempting to repel the Houthi attacks; a group of countries has joined it in trying to bring security to the Red Sea, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Denmark. The United Nations Security Council also condemned the Houthis for their actions earlier this month.
What the Houthis Want
The Houthis claim to be exclusively attacking vessels with ties to Israel. This is false. They have targeted vessels of various nationalities, even attempting, without success, to damage U.S. naval vessels. The object of their campaign is to place pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration and other Israeli allies to force Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to relent in his attack on Gaza. Their campaign will do little or nothing to help Gaza directly.
In retrospect, the Houthis’ attacks on shipping are no huge surprise. The group’s flag declares its hate for the U.S., Israel, and Jews. They are also allied with Iran, as are Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attacks on shipping lanes may well reflect authentic solidarity with their fellow Arabs in the Palestinian territories, as they claim. But they also represent a desire to please the Houthis’ paymasters in Tehran, raise the group’s international profile, and increase its domestic support.
Will the Strikes Work?
The U.S. strikes mark yet another escalation of violence around the war in Gaza. Will they be successful? Since the first strikes on the Houthis, the rebel group has resumed attacks on shipping. Effort by the U.S. and its allies is thus likely to be a medium-to-long-term campaign aimed at degrading Houthi capabilities, rather than stopping attacks altogether. If the strikes lead to more ships being willing to transit the Red Sea, they will be considered a success; if not, the Biden administration’s policy must be considered a failure.
Biden Sees Harsh Pushback From Progressive Left
Meanwhile, the strikes have prompted pushback from some members of Congress — notably leftist Democrats who have been harshly critical of the president’s staunch support for Israel. Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., have rebuked Biden for not seeking congressional approval for the attacks. A few conservatives, like Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, have chimed in with similar objections.
Criticism from progressive Democrats is clearly in line with the left’s strong disapproval of Biden’s Gaza policy. But it is also part of a longer dispute about who can authorize U.S. military hostilities.
Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the right to declare war, while Article II makes the president commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces. Declarations of war are a thing of the past; Congress last passed one in 1942. The U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam were both fought without formal declarations of war.
The War Powers Act of 1973 attempted to rein in unchecked presidential power to enter conflict. It requires the president to notify Congress when the U.S. has initiated hostilities and then grants the president 90 days to secure a congressional authorization for the use of military force.
On Jan. 12, Biden submitted a letter to congressional leadership announcing that the U.S. had initiated hostilities with the Houthis, presumably triggering the 90-day clock. It should be noted that presidents treat conformity with the War Powers Act as a courtesy, not a legal requirement; for instance, Biden’s Jan. 12 lettersays that he is submitting his report “consistent with,” and not “pursuant to,” the War Powers Act.
Strong Bipartisan Support — For Now
For now, the president has strong bipartisan support for his policies in the Red Sea and in Gaza. Indeed, a number of Republicans have criticized him for being slow to respond to the Houthi attacks on international shipping. But Biden may have future trouble on his left flank, should the bloody war in Gaza linger on or should the U.S. be drawn directly into a broader conflict in the Middle East.
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