Deterrence – the ability to prevent enemies from acting against one’s interests by coercion or threat – has always been a mainstay of defense policy. The Romans used walls, outposts, and raids; the British Empire used its fleet and the threat of blockade; the United States and the Soviet Union used nuclear weapons. A quote from the British ‘invasion literature’ classic, The Invasion of 1910, sums up the idea perfectly: “To be weak is to invite war; to be strong is to prevent it.” Deterrence, however, is only as good as the resolve, consistency, and reputation of the power in question. A nation’s geopolitical status can change in an instant; as such, deterrence requires maintenance to remain credible over time. As is the case in life, it takes decades to cement a reputation, but seconds to lose it.
Over the past few years, the beach of American deterrence has eroded through the waves of foreign crises and the Biden administration’s failure to strengthen the proverbial protective dunes. Every additional crisis, if not responded to appropriately, eats away at America’s deterrent capability. Unfortunately, the White House has repeatedly neglected its responsibilities while further undermining deterrence through its policies and actions. As such, despite the stormy international weather, the ongoing decline of American deterrence is entirely avoidable.
The crux of deterrence is the belief that a nation’s enemies will face profound, disproportionate consequences for any malign action against said nation’s interests. Weak responses to attacks only embolden foes to continue up the escalation ladder, inevitably leading to worse outcomes. This was perhaps most infamously exhibited in the run-up to the Second World War, where Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan were allowed to gobble up territory and dominate their neighbors with nary a reply from the democratic West. By the time a serious effort was made, it was too late to avoid cataclysmic warfare. Proper deterrence requires an aggressive response which stirs fear in the enemy. This approach finds an eloquent expositor in Sean Connery’s character from the 1987 film The Untouchables, who describes the Chicago Way: “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun; he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” Without the threat of truly disastrous defeat, many bad geopolitical actors will take risks to score a potential victory.
As of December 2023, the United States has utterly failed to heed this message. American interests and allies around the world have been directly attacked, earning only lackluster, if any, response. Not only is this not the disproportionate response required for credible deterrence, it is not proportionate. Instead, the White House has taken a path of diplomacy über alles, attempting to make nice with everyone, including inveterate foes. This reduces American deterrence and allows bad actors free rein. Diplomacy, like war, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Statesmen need to accept that their nation will have enemies no matter what; not every bad actor can be placated by kind words and hard cash.
The 21st century is replete with roiling geopolitical conflict. Successfully dealing with such a volatile era requires a strong approach grounded firmly in national interests. One that is realistic about the incentives and interests of other powers – ally and enemy – and refuses to put our interests second to internationalist utopianism. Combine this with the Biden team’s policy of reluctance and you have a recipe for disaster.
We have seen the atrocious results of this decline in deterrence throughout the Biden administration, sparked by the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Since that debacle, things have only gotten worse. Russia was not deterred from invading Ukraine and has not been stopped in its war effort since, partially due to the Biden team’s dithering on key military aid to Kyiv. China has ramped up its aggression in the South China Sea, frequently harassing the maritime vessels of our friends in Asia, notably those of our treaty ally, the Philippines. Closer to home, Venezuela has rewarded the White House’s reduction of sanctions and overtures of amity with a sham referendum and a potential invasion of its neighbor, Guyana.
A lack of deterrence has been a painfully recurring problem in the Middle East. The White House’s appeasement of Iran in search of a renewed nuclear agreement has emboldened the mullahs in their efforts to destabilize the region. A wide variety of Iranian proxy groups have directly attacked Americans dozens of times across the Middle East, but the precious few retaliatory strikes have been inconsequential. Tehran’s Gazan proxy, Hamas, struck our ally Israel, killing over two dozen Americans in the process. And now, American economic and geopolitical interests are under threat by another undeterred Iranian front group: the Houthis.
The Shia Islamist revolutionary movement controlling large swathes of Yemen has ramped up its assaults on maritime trade since the Hamas barbarities. Yemen is situated astride one of the most important shipping corridors on the planet, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait linking the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This eighteen-mile-wide chokepoint controls access to the fastest route between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal, a passage by which 22,000 ships, accounting for twelve percent of global trade, pass annually. The next-fastest sea route to Europe from Asia rounds Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, nearly doubling the mileage compared to the Suez route.
Given an advantageous geographical position and the right weaponry, bad actors can easily disrupt global shipping in this tight waterway. Large modern merchant ships can easily be hijacked by well-armed militants from the sea or air, as well as targeted by land-based batteries. Harming or even credibly threatening these ships would drastically increase insurance rates, forcing a switch to the longer route. This would increase the cost of shipping, impacting the prices of goods and causing shortages – precisely what the Houthis are doing.
During the Biden administration, the Houthis have grown increasingly powerful, aided greatly by American policy. For the past decade, civil war has raged in Yemen, with the Iran-backed Houthis fighting pro-government forces aided by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Before Biden’s inauguration, this Arab coalition had American support, but this changed after January 2021. American support was explicitly withheld in order to punish the Saudis and appease Iran, making the anti-Houthi fight far more challenging. At the same time, the State Department removed them from the list of terrorist organizations, another major coup for Tehran’s regional strategy. Now, after years of uncontested arms transfers from Iran, the Yemeni group is attempting to strike at Israel during the war in Gaza – something only possible because of Iranian weaponry and support.
To counter this malign force attempting to close off global shipping and widen the war against Israel, the United States has moved multiple warships into the region. This force is meant as a deterrent against Iran and its proxies, allowing for rapid American response to any attack. Instead, these vessels have only served as targets for the Houthi terrorists. American destroyers have been doing manful work shooting down drones and missiles launched from Yemen, but there has been minimal retaliation against the attackers. Even when failing to hit their targets, the Houthis are succeeding: each of their projectiles costs a fraction of our missile interceptors, and each requires at least two interceptors to guarantee its destruction. The Houthis, in conjunction with Iran, are imposing significant financial costs on our Navy.
The US recently announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational maritime coalition to protect cargo ships and deter future Houthi attacks. Apparently, other nations have signed on as well, but many wish to remain anonymous – not exactly a sign of optimism. This new effort comes on top of the existing regional anti-piracy coalition, which has entirely botched its mission, allowing Houthi assaults and failing to aid stricken commercial vessels. In the days since the announcement, the Houthis have continued their assault, causing most major global lines to avoid the Red Sea route. Their leader has declared American warships legitimate targets, while missiles continue to be launched at Israel with impunity. None of this merited a response from the Biden administration – until late last week.
This past Friday, the US and UK finally struck back after months of dithering and delay, hitting “over 60 targets at 16 [different] Houthi militant locations.” According to the Pentagon, the sites hit included “radar systems, drone storage and launch sites, missile storage and launch facilities and Houthi command and control nodes.” A mere smattering of Houthi personnel were killed in these strikes, leaving much of the human capital of the revolutionary movement firmly intact. The Houthi response has been one of defiance, with the group’s spokesman vowing to not allow the strikes to “go unanswered or unpunished.” Already there have been further launches from Yemen, showing that the Houthis remain undeterred. These largely symbolic strikes will not degrade the long-term threat from the Yemeni rebels; they are like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. Yet the fear of broader escalation has deterred the Biden administration thus far from acting more powerfully and consistently.
But this is not a death sentence for American deterrent capability in the Middle East or elsewhere – it is a clarion call to action. We must not allow our deterrence to further erode, especially not from our own choices. We cannot afford to repeatedly reward bad actors and then feign surprise when they continue to act badly. We need a sea change in American policy if we are to rebuild a credible deterrent, and the Houthi problem is the perfect place to start.
American concern for free and open maritime commerce goes back to the early Republic and remains critical to the national interest. We live in a globalized world where prices and supplies are inextricably bound in a web of markets and information. Our prosperity and standard of living rely on the ability to access international markets through secure sea lanes, which is why the anti-piracy mission of the US Navy goes back to its foundation. We are faced today with a similar threat; one that requires the reestablishment of deterrence.
To regain this credibility, we need resolve, action, and consistency. Our naval force in the region must respond directly and disproportionately to all Houthi attacks. This means strong, frequent strikes on their bases, intended to eliminate the capacity to launch these assaults. Symbolic strikes should not be the goal; our response must significantly degrade Houthi military infrastructure and threaten their control of coastal Yemen. As with Hamas, the Houthis must not be allowed to remain a serious threat. This should be our explicit goal, and we must follow through on it. In addition, the American government should return to supporting the Arab coalition against the Houthis, allowing it to conduct the war in a manner conducive to achieving our mutual ends. We must also return the Houthis to the terrorism list, overturning a decision that was bad from the start. On top of this, it must be made clear to Iran that it can no longer get away with acting via its proxies without being confronted directly. American military power should be used to hurt Iran’s regional ambitions, striking at its connections with Yemen, including the naval vessels it is using to aid in Houthi piracy and the personnel they share.
The decline of American deterrence must be reversed. Our geopolitical interests in the Middle East – and in theaters far more dangerous – depend on it. Only disproportionate force will stop the escalatory cycle and deter the Houthis and Iran from further aggression. Without such retaliation, our credibility is nullified. The Houthis have sent ours to the hospital; it’s time for us to send theirs to the morgue. That’s the American way.