Picture credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

What is Britain getting into in Yemen?

We have seen too many disastrous interventions to be confident now

So, here we go again — intervention in the Middle East.

Perhaps that sounds like too much of an automatic reflex. To be sure, there are bad arguments against British and American attacks on Houthi military positions. No, it is not “brutal aggression”, as Yemen claims, when the Houthis have attacked British and American ships (among others). This is an attempt to play the bold hero and the beleaguered victim simultaneously.

Nor is it the case — as I’ve seen some people claim online — that the British and Americans are attacking people while the Houthis are attacking ships. One might as well claim that the British and Americans are attacking bricks.

I’ll also accept that the debate around Britain’s involvement is a bit of a sideshow. If Keir Starmer had told Rishi Sunak that he would oppose British participation, and Sunak had reported that to his US peers, would the Yanks have cancelled their plans? “Sorry, Mr President, the Leader of the Opposition is against it.”

Still, I have an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. What are we getting into here? No, as Shashank Joshi writes, this isn’t the invasion of Iraq. But jumping out a first floor window isn’t jumping out of a third floor window. That doesn’t make it a good idea. Yes, I realise that one could have concerns about the potential scale of any conflict. Some, like Operation Shader, are just worth the risk. But that doesn’t mean that such concerns are meritless. Such concerns, indeed, been validated more times than they have been assuaged.

Perhaps the British and American strikes will pretty much begin and end here. That makes them fairly pointless — a sort of military flex, like the 2017 attacks on Syria — but also fairly unobjectionable. 

But what if they don’t? After all, if Rishi Sunak wants to “degrade Houthi military capabilities and protect global shipping”, as he has claimed, this week’s strikes will have made little difference. The Houthis are no amateurs. They took on Saudi Arabia, which has one of the best equipped armies in the world, and held their own. Contra Sunak, it will take more than a few missile strikes to make them wilt.

So, if attacks continue, what then?

Well, perhaps there will be a ceasefire in Israel. Don’t get me wrong — the Houthis are not pure-hearted humanitarians, desperate for an end to hostilities and a two state solution. One of their slogans, according to the New Arab, is “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam”. Charming. But I doubt that their attacks on shipping would have taken place without the war in Gaza and if there is a ceasefire I suspect they will stop — not forever, of course (I refer you to that slogan again), but long enough for them to bask in the undeserved acclaim of the ummah.

Perhaps the US and the UK will deliver a series of precise, devastating strikes which will cripple the Houthis’ ability to project power at sea while deterring their supporters from joining in on their behalf. I’m no expert in military matters but if the Houthis attacks have depended on Iranian weapons and intelligence — as the Biden administration claims, and as seems quite plausible — a short, sharp assault might be enough to convince the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to scoot home again and out of harm’s way.

But what if it doesn’t? Does the recent history of British and American military engagements fill you with confidence? Hell — does the recent history of British and American politics in general encourage you with regards to the foresight and planning of our politicians? 

The least we deserve is for the scale of the mission to be delineated

The least we deserve is for the scale of the mission to be delineated — and for some sense (not a detailed sense, perhaps, but some sense) of how its goals are meant to be accomplished. A genteel handshake between Sunak and Starmer on its value is not going to cut it. How are Houthi capabilities going to be diminished? How are we going to avoid direct conflict with Hezbollah and Iran? I’m not saying there are no answers to these questions. But they should be answered.

Importantly, we deserve assurance that the British and the Americans are acting primarily in British and American interests. Of course, there is some extent to which unimpeded shipping is in the interests of all nations that benefit from global trade. But it must be clear that we are not intervening on Israel’s behalf. To be sure, the Houthis cannot claim to have been only affecting Israel given, for example, their attack on a Norwegian ship headed for Italy. But it would not take comical presumptuousness to suspect that Israel’s biggest ally and one of its bigger allies attacking one of its most active enemies has something to do with defending Israel. It must be clear — if it is indeed the case — that Britain is not going to participate in the Israel-Gaza War. That would be unethical and against our interests.

Again, I appreciate that one could raise similar objections to pretty much any military engagement, of any kind. But I’ll keep raising them until a serious, substantive case has been advanced. You can’t blame anyone for doubting your entrepreneurial ambitions if you haven’t even published a business plan. The same applies — with far more gravity — to war.

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