The Decatur Option

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Written By Pinang Driod

Months after the first salvos of missiles from Yemen’s Houthi militias, the United States and its allies have thrown back at them some 150 warheads, hitting dozens of targets. With the self-satisfaction that tends to characterize such nearly bloodless strikes came a great deal of approving talk from the Biden administration and commentators alike about “sending a message,” “restoring deterrence,” “avoiding escalation,” and, above all, “proportionality.”

It was all utterly un-strategic.

Those terms, coined and polished in political-science-seminar rooms during the Cold War, had some relevance to a world in which two nuclear-armed superpowers faced off in various corners of the world. Over more than half a century, they have turned into a kind of pixie dust that puzzled officials sprinkle over seemingly intractable problems. They play to America’s penchant for therapeutic bombing in lieu of truly effective uses of military power. They are intentionally antiseptic words, to replace the realities of fear and death. They are in some ways absurd. For example, the truly proportional response to the Houthis would be to fire some missiles at their oil tankers (they have none) that could be shot down at considerable expense by their advanced warships (of which they also have none).

The strikes on Yemen no doubt took out some radar sites, diminishing Houthi warning times for another round of bombing, and a few missile launchers and storage sites. They seem to have been designed not to kill people, even though it is human beings who make war, not things. They gave the wild-eyed Houthi leadership the opportunity to strut at having taken a punch from a declining superpower and, one may expect, to continue undeterred, firing more missiles at merchant vessels or trying to take some from speed boats. The strikes were avowedly a one-off, perhaps the first move in a game of tit-for-tat headed nowhere in particular. Better, therefore, to think through the problem properly.

The first strategic question, the French marshal Ferdinand Foch once said, is De quoi s’agit-il, or, roughly, “What is it all about?” What kind of conflict is this?

One possibility is that it is a war with a pirate state, one that seeks not plunder so much as prestige, fame, and regional influence. The United States has been there before—twice, in fact. In the first Barbary War, waged from 1801 to 1805, the United States Navy achieved some remarkable feats, including a bombardment of Tripoli and a desert march that gave the Marine Corps both a phrase for its hymn and a distinctive sword for its fancy dress, but little else. After careful diplomacy and the discreet payment of tribute disguised as ransom, some American prisoners were released. But the problem did not go away. As they had for many years, the North African states, including Algiers, continued to prey on American commerce.

And so, only days after ratifying the peace of Ghent that terminated the War of 1812, President James Madison and Congress declared war again, but acted in a very different mode than had Thomas Jefferson. They dispatched virtually the entire U.S. Navy, including its first ship of the line, USS Independence, to Algiers. Stephen Decatur, one of the finest naval officers of his generation, captured a large Algerian warship, blockaded Algiers, and demanded the abolition of all forms of tribute and the release of European as well as American hostages. The alternative, he informed the dey of Algiers, would be blockade, the destruction of his navy, and the bombardment of the city itself. And, Decatur insisted, negotiations would take place on his flagship, while the blockading force continued to take Algerine vessels entering or exiting the port.

In the face of effective force effectively employed, the dey of Algiers caved. John Quincy Adams, America’s foremost diplomat (in the 21st century mistakenly celebrated as a “restrainer” in American foreign policy), wrote to a colleague, congratulating the government for having “taken the Algerines in hand in the only proper manner.” He continued:

I hope they have secured to our country the honor of breaking up the whole of that nest of pirates on the shore of Africa, which have so long been the annoyance and disgrace of the maritime powers of Europe.

The Red Sea and adjacent waters are no less important to maritime commerce today than the Mediterranean was in 1815, so point taken. If the analogy holds, an updated strategy might suggest a more sustained pounding that targets not just inanimate objects but also the leaders of the Houthis—keeping them on the move the way al-Qaeda’s leaders have been, and with similar results in terms of their life span. A promise to leave them alone when they stop attacking ships and America’s friends and allies would be the sole benefit they should derive from a similarly one-way negotiation, perhaps held on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier.

But an alternative reading of the situation is the more accurate one. The Houthis are a band of fanatics ruling an impoverished part of an impoverished country. They did not build those missiles and radars on their own. They have been supplied, trained, and guided—if not directed to the last detail—by Iran, for whom they act as proxies. In that case, better to think of them as one tentacle of an octopus sitting in Tehran. Other tentacles include Hezbollah, of course, but also the Shia militias that have bombarded American camps and injured American personnel in Syria and Iraq.

In that case, a different strategy is in order. The weakness of the Houthis is their lack of any economic base to speak of; the weakness of Iran is its fear of direct conflict with the United States. We have a history here, and this is where the abstractions of the social-scientized argot of strategic thought get in the way.

Iran has repeatedly pulled back from confrontation with the United States, despite periodic fears expressed in Washington of retaliation by the Islamic Republic when we respond to its misdeeds. Iran put its nuclear program temporarily on ice after the invasion of Iraq. When the U.S.-guided missile cruiser Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger aircraft in 1988, the response was not violence directed against the U.S. but rather an acceleration of a cease-fire with Iraq. When, in 2007, after years of tolerating Iranian-supported attacks on American forces in Iraq, the United States nabbed five Iranians in Irbil—the U.S. says the men, operating as diplomats, were actually members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—Iran pulled operatives out of the country. And when, in 2020, the U.S. had the gumption to kill Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, the covert-warfare arm of the IRGC, the response was … nil.

If the United States wishes to bring the Houthi attacks to an end, then for every bomb and missile that falls on the Houthis, another should fall on their Iranian advisers in Yemen, or on the planes and ships that are delivering their supplies, or on the facilities and vessels that help them target ships off Yemen. People are harder to replace than things, and instilling fear is more effective than dreaming of deterrence.

No doubt for White House officials perplexed by war in Ukraine and Gaza, a Taiwan under increasing threat, and other challenges besides, this will seem terribly risky. What they should understand is that temporizing with such threats—and particularly when these take the form of direct attacks on American and allied vessels and personnel—is far more dangerous and will eventually breed far more violence. Contenting oneself with swatting at incoming missiles is, as the Israelis have discovered, a mug’s game, and an expensive one at that. Recreational bombing, as we keep on learning (and then forgetting), is mere self-soothing. If the U.S. wants to deal with the problem of the Houthis satisfactorily, it will have to turn to what John Quincy Adams understood as “the only proper manner.” In that respect, not much has changed in the past two centuries.

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