by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Preserving the free and open navigation of the seas for the commercial traffic from which Americans benefit is literally the reason the U.S. Navy was launched. A series of attacks on American shipping interests compelled Congress to consent in 1794 to the commissioning of six frigates tasked with putting an end to the Barbary pirates’ marauding. The U.S. Navy assumed responsibility for the preservation of the maritime-trade regime from the British at the end of the Second World War, and it has done a commanding job of maintaining that lynchpin of the global economy. Until now.
Since the October 7 massacre, the Iran-backed Houthi militia group in Yemen has engaged in a reckless campaign of militarism with utter impunity. Missiles and drones originating from Houthi-controlled Yemeni territory began sailing “potentially towards targets in Israel,” according to the Pentagon, within a little over a week after Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians. They haven’t stopped since.
Houthi militants have reportedly fired ordnance in the “general direction” of U.S. naval ships in the Red Sea. They have targeted commercial-shipping vessels with high explosives. They attempted to seize container ships in raids from the sea using fast boats and from air via helicopter. They took down an American MQ-9 Reaper drone valued at over $30 million. The minimal consequences the Houthis experienced as a result of this campaign are sufficient to explain why it has only grown more brazen.
The White House’s failure to contain the Houthi threat has allowed it to metastasize into a global crisis. Over the weekend, two container vessels were hit by Houthi rockets and set ablaze. The unacceptable threat to their assets compelled multinational shipping giants such as MSC, Maersk, and British Petroleum to reroute their ships away from the Houthis’ reach. But avoiding the Bab el-Mandeb Strait — a narrow waterway between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that leads into the Red Sea and, eventually, the Suez Canal — is no minor inconvenience.