Jan 16, 2024

Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, and the U.S. response

Images of Houthi rebels hijacking a cargo ship. Screengrab: Trey Yingst
Images of Houthi rebels hijacking a cargo ship. Screengrab: Trey Yingst

The U.S. responds to the Houthi rebels and a special note from Isaac.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 15 minutes.

The U.S.-led response to the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea. Plus a special note from Isaac.

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A note from Isaac.

One of my favorite pieces of advice I've ever gotten is this: If you are struggling to make a decision about whether to do something or not, consider which decision would make the best story. Then, do that thing.

This advice doesn't apply all the time — it might make a "better" story to run the red light than not to, but you still shouldn't. Yet it has guided me at various times when I felt torn. And it helped guide me last month, when I made a decision that leads me to the following announcement:

As you read this, I am currently on a motorcycle trip through Bolivia.

The short version of the story is that I was visiting my family on the border in Texas recently, as I do for a couple months every year, and a few of my cousins were sitting around talking about their upcoming "motorcycle trip to Bolivia." Dusty paths. Mountain passes. The Death Road. History, food, culture, 650cc dual-sport bikes. They kept pressuring me to come, dangling the tantalizing prospect that I was missing out on a truly once-in-a-lifetime family trip in exchange for not solving a few days of work.

So I had a choice: Decide there was no way to join them because of my schedule, return to my office in Philadelphia and miss out on the trip, likely regretting it forever, or think of a way to make the trip work after a wedding in Mexico, not cut any corners with Tangle readers, and do the thing that would create the much better story.

I chose the latter.

Obviously, I can't take 14 days away from Tangle fresh off of our two-week holiday vacation. Instead, after nearly canceling all my plans due to an illness, I got down to Bolivia yesterday for a six-day portion of the trip, and then will break off early and head back to the states this weekend. If you are reading this on Tuesday, I am (hopefully) beginning my climb through the mountains toward La Paz. 

As far as Tangle goes, I am supposed to have access to the internet each night, so I’ll be doing some work in the evenings and checking in with the team. Tomorrow, we’ll be substituting "my take" with a "staff analysis" section put together by the rest of our team (which I'm reviewing but won't be writing), and then publishing a reader mailbag edition on Thursday. Then on Friday, we're going to send a normal subscribers-only Friday edition to the whole mailing list. So: I get to go to Bolivia, from which you guys will get some fresh content, Tangle continues uninterrupted, and everyone wins.

One more thing: I had some apprehension about making this decision. Not just because of the inherent absurdity of "hey, I'm starting the year by heading to Bolivia to ride motorcycles across the country for a week," but also because I'm sure there are some readers out there who'll question my priorities. Yet, much like my favorite piece of advice, I'm also guided by the retrospectives of so many of my elders, who almost all seem to look back on life wishing they’d spent more time with family, more time traveling, more time living, and less time glued to their work.

With them in mind, I hope you'll understand my decision, too. And, of course, there is the simple truth that traveling like this — seeing other countries, meeting new people, learning about the world outside my U.S. bubble — is good for me, my writing, and ultimately my work here. My trips abroad have been some of the most informative and eye-opening of my life. So I'm looking forward to taking everything in through the lens of an American politics reporter and reporting back to you about the experience.

For now, I hope you enjoy this week’s coverage. Thank you for reading, and a huge thank you to the Tangle team for picking up some slack while I’m gone.

As I recently learned they say in Bolivia,


Quick hits.

  1. Former president Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses with 51% of the vote. Ron DeSantis finished second with 21%, and Nikki Haley was third with 19%. (The results) Vivek Ramaswamy finished fourth, then suspended his campaign and endorsed Trump. (The endorsement)
  2. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps took responsibility for a series of ballistic missile strikes near the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, Iraq, on Monday, saying it was targeting the "headquarters of spies.” Four people were killed and six injured in the attack; no U.S. forces were killed or wounded. (The strikes)
  3. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was released from the hospital after a two-week stay for complications from prostate cancer surgery. (The release) Additionally, President Biden called Austin’s failure to communicate his hospitalization to the White House a “lapse in judgment” but maintained that he has no plans to fire him. (The comments)
  4. Lai Ching-te won Taiwan’s presidential election after a campaign centered on future relations with China. Lai is currently Taiwan’s vice president and will be inaugurated on May 20. (The election)
  5. Large swaths of the U.S. are experiencing frigid temperatures and icy conditions. The wind chill is below -30 degrees Fahrenheit in many parts of the Rockies, Great Plains, and Midwest. (The weather) Separately, New York City experienced its first “significant snowfall” in 701 days. (The streak)

Today's topic.

The Houthi attacks. On Thursday, the United States and Britain — with support from Canada, the Netherlands, and Bahrain — bombed more than a dozen Houthi rebel sites across Yemen in retaliation for a series of attacks on commercial ships crossing the Red Sea. On Saturday morning, the U.S. hit an additional site in Yemen it said was putting ships at risk. The Iran-backed Houthis had disregarded weeks of warnings and continued to attack merchant ships passing through the Red Sea, leading to the strikes.

President Joe Biden said the strikes were intended as a demonstration that the U.S. and its allies would not tolerate attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea. The decision to attack the sites in Yemen marked a notable escalation in tensions across the region, and came after weeks of pressure on the U.S. from its allies to do more to protect merchant ships in the region. Roughly 12% of the world’s oil, 8% of its grain, and 8% of liquefied natural gas passes through the Red Sea on merchant ships, along with other commodities.

The Houthis have attacked approximately 30 vessels in the Red Sea over the last few months. In one of its most brazen attacks, on November 19, Houthi gunmen hijacked a vessel being crewed mainly by Filipinos and took it to a Yemeni port. Ships tied to more than 40 countries have been impacted by the raids.

The Houthis say their attacks are in retaliation for Israel's aerial bombardment and invasion of Gaza. Ali al-Qahoum, a high-ranking Houthi official, vowed there would be retaliation for the U.S.-led strikes. “The battle will be bigger... and beyond the imagination and expectation of the Americans and the British,” he said in a post on X.

The Houthis appeared to respond on Sunday when they fired a cruise missile toward a U.S. destroyer. Then on Monday, the Houthis struck a U.S. merchant ship off the coast of Aden.

Reminder: In the Arab world, one of the major conflicts is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Houthis are Iran-backed Shiite (Shia Muslim) rebels who have been fighting Yemen's government for nearly 20 years. In 2014, the Houthis seized Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, and now control the capital and northwest region of the country. Saudi Arabia and a coalition of international nations then intervened to try to restore the internationally recognized government to power, which has led to years of fighting between proxies from Saudi Arabia (a Sunni coalition) and Iran (a Shia coalition). Under the past three administrations, the United States has provided funding to Saudi Arabia in the conflict.

The Yemeni civil war has been one of the world's most devastating humanitarian disasters, leading to roughly 377,000 deaths, 60% of which the U.N. estimates are the result of indirect causes like hunger and disease. 4.5 million people have been displaced, and Yemen remains one of the poorest nations on earth. In 2023, talks between Saudi Arabia and Yemen raised hope for a peace deal, but those talks have ceased.

Since Israel's invasion of Gaza, the Houthis — along with Hezbollah, another Shiite group that is based in Lebanon — announced their support for Hamas and began launching missile and drone attacks on Israel. Houthi leaders have said they will not stop bombarding Israel or attacking and raiding merchant ships until Israel's incursion into Gaza stops, though Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea predate the latest conflict.

Today, we're going to explore some commentary from the right and left about the U.S. decision to strike the Houthis, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left is split on the decision to carry out the strikes with many worrying that it could lead to a wider war in the Middle East.
  • Some say the Houthi attacks on commercial ships left Biden no choice and think a strong response was justified.
  • Others suggest that the U.S. is playing into Iran’s hands by choosing to escalate the conflict. 

In The Guardian, Mohamad Bazzi said “by bombing Yemen, the west risks repeating its own mistakes.”

Western leaders “insist that they want to reduce the risk of the war in Gaza spreading to other parts of the Middle East. But the US-led air and naval strikes on Yemen are the most significant expansion of the conflict since Israel launched its devastating assault on Gaza after the 7 October attacks by Hamas. Instead of avoiding a wider war, the US and its allies are escalating regional tensions and adding fuel to a conflict that has already spilled over to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Red Sea,” Bazzi wrote. 

“The US and its allies are resisting the clearest path for de-escalation across the region: putting pressure on Israel to end its invasion and accept a ceasefire. A truce would remove the Houthis’ rationale for their aggression against commercial shipping in the Red Sea — and the movement’s leaders have said they will cease disrupting global trade once Israel stops bombing Gaza,” Bazzi said. Saudi Arabia’s war with the Houthis should be a “cautionary tale” for the U.S. and Britain: “the regional power they supported spent years trying to destroy the Houthis, only to be ground down and forced to negotiate a settlement.”

The Washington Post editorial board called the strikes “strong, proportionate — and overdue.”

“Some regional analysts are already warning that the action plays into the Houthis’ hands, and risks igniting a wider Middle East conflagration, without much chance of having their intended effect: to deter further Houthi attacks on international shipping,” the board wrote. “Precisely the opposite is true. The Houthis already escalated the regional conflict, by using the pretext of Israel’s war with Hamas to launch unprovoked attacks against commercial ships traversing the Red Sea. The United States and its coalition allies — Britain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and Bahrain — had little choice but to mount a strong response. And this coalition employed just the right amount of proportionate firepower.”

“The Houthis launched dozens of drone and missile attacks against commercial vessels in one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes. Remember, these are not warships — they are container vessels ferrying food, oil, natural gas, automotive supplies, toys, furniture and household appliances between Asia and Europe,” the board said. “We have no illusion that these airstrikes mark an end to the conflict… but the United States, with wide support, open or tacit from other countries, has sent a strong message.”

In Bloomberg, Marc Champion said “Iran wins with US airstrikes on Houthis.”

 “There are at least two views you can take on the US decision, joined by Britain, to strike Houthi targets in Yemen early Friday. Although they are entirely contradictory, both would be correct,” Champion wrote. “The first is that this was inevitable. Both politically and to retain credible deterrence against further hostile actions by Iran and its proxies, doing nothing was simply not an option for President Joe Biden. The second view, and doubtless the reason he had first hesitated, is that there is little likelihood of success and a measurable risk of escalation.”

“One can’t help but feel that the US, like Israel after Oct. 7, is dancing to a tune that was scripted for it by a rogue militia in a failed quasi-state that has little to lose,” Champion said. “Hamas, Iran and their allies are looking to inflame distrust and hatred of Israel and the US across the Middle East, to the point where any connection with them becomes so toxic that leaders from Saudi Arabia to Egypt are forced to distance themselves… The kind of economic and security rapprochement that had been underway before Oct. 7 would become politically impossible.”

What the right is saying.

  • The right is also mixed on the strikes with some saying they were appropriate but improperly carried out in the absence of Congressional approval.
  • Supporters of the response say it was a necessary act of deterrence against Iran and its proxies, but likely not strong enough.
  • Others criticize Biden for mixed messaging on his Middle East policy and suggest he still misunderstands the threat posed by Iran.

In The American Conservative, Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) argued that “Biden is violating the Constitution” with the strikes. 

“Congress, the one body empowered by Article I of the U.S. Constitution to authorize military force and declare war, has still not heard from the White House. For over a month, President Biden consulted multiple foreign nations to plan these strikes on Houthi military targets, but never once felt obliged to garner approval for them, as mandated by law,” Davidson said. “This must not be conflated with a defensive military action, which the president may conduct if ‘imminent danger’ exists to our nation and its people. Since this was not the case, President Biden is constrained in his war-making abilities through the check and balance of congressional authority.”

“It is entirely by design that the legislative branch holds the power to authorize combat,” Davidson said. “Yet Congress has abdicated from this job to avoid political risk, and instead forces others to risk their lives in endless wars… While I personally think the response was long overdue and support a strike to defend critical maritime vessels in the Red Sea, I will never ignore the U.S. Constitution by condoning the White House’s premeditated offensive action when it failed to receive, or even seek, proper Congressional authorization.”

National Review’s editors endorsed the “long overdue” strikes. 

“Previously, the White House’s passivity was attributed to the Biden administration’s concerns that striking Houthi targets risked triggering a wider conflict in the region, but that, too, is unsatisfying. The wider conflict in the region has been a fact of life since early October of last year. The administration’s actions on Thursday night merely constitute an acknowledgment of the ongoing conflict’s existence,” the editors said. “The costs these strikes impose on the Houthis in no way are proportionate to — much less do they exceed — the benefits Iran has enjoyed as a result of its regional campaign of terror.”

“But we will know soon enough whether Iran and its proxies are deterred. Whether it’s Hezbollah withdrawing assets from the Israeli border in response to Jerusalem’s recent strike on Hamas commanders in Beirut or Tehran’s calibrated volley of missiles into Iraq to protest the 2020 strike that neutralized Qasem Soleimani, the Iranians know how to communicate de-escalatory intention in ways Americans recognize. If deterrence is not restored, Iran’s region-wide campaign of terrorism and piracy will continue apace.”

In The New York Post, Michael Goodwin wrote “Biden’s handling of the Middle East crisis is just downright dangerous.”

“The commander in chief either hasn’t connected the dots or is refusing to see the links to Iran. How else to explain his determination to focus on the symptoms and ignore the cause of a potential global conflict?,” Goodwin said. “All the terror groups are Tehran’s proxies, and the sequential activation of them is coordinated by the mullahs. They aim to destroy Israel, and are making moves to see how far they can go before the United States stops them. Or, more accurately, whether this president will stop them.”

The initial U.S. strikes “made noise and got attention, but [were] not designed to achieve a military objective. The too-limited assault came gift-wrapped with assurances the US is not looking for a wider war,” Goodwin added. “Unless Biden responds in ways that actually deter Iran, he will be forced deeper into a hole of his own making… Biden’s efforts at placating Iran, the Arab ‘street’ and his domestic critics are not just doomed to fail. They are also directly contributing to the risk of a larger war, one where America gets sucked in by Biden’s refusal to be clear and consistent about enforcing his red lines.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • Starting with the obvious: the Houthis aren’t “the good guys,” and what they’re doing isn’t moral.
  • We can criticize acting without Congress, but I think Biden was right to respond.
  • The regional conflict is already here but the U.S. and its allies should tread carefully.

Let me get something off my chest to start because I feel like I am losing my mind: The Houthis are not "the good guys."

I was shocked — indeed, a bit appalled — to see so many Tangle followers on Instagram and random leftists on X/Twitter not just conflating Yemen and Houthis, but expressing support for the Houthis for their "brave" or "clever" actions to disrupt Red Sea shipping, purportedly in an effort to stop all the violence against Palestinians. One prominent liberal pundit (whose account I am not going to link to because I've given her too much attention already) actually described them as "non-violent" while they literally shoot rockets at civilian ships. No, the Houthis have not killed anyone in their attacks on merchant vessels — but if you were stopped in traffic and someone shot at you and took your car, that wouldn’t be “non-violent” simply because you got away alive.

Newsflash: The Houthis are not doing this because they care about the Palestinian cause. They are not bent out of shape about civilian deaths, as evidenced by their (and Saudi Arabia's) total disregard for civilian casualties in Yemen, where their own people are dying by the hundreds of thousands. Nor is this all new: Long before the latest incursion into Gaza, Houthi rebels were attacking and hijacking ships in the Red Sea.

They are doing this because they are literally pirates — Islamic extremists who want money, power, and death to the infidels. Their slogan is a call for death to America, Israel and Jews, and victory for Islam. They are working hard to bring back slavery in Yemen. They are not the Yemeni government and shouldn't be conflated as such. Attacking foreign ships that are not part of the conflict in Gaza as they try to transport goods through the Red Sea is also not an effective way to wage a war against Israel.

None of this is to absolve Israel for the mass civilian deaths in Gaza or the U.S. for its funding of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen or the Saudis for inflicting so much horror in Yemen over the last 10 years. But it is to say the Houthis are not fighting some moral battle, nor have they demonstrated they care at all about the deaths of Palestinians or Yemenis.

Given all that, it's hard to blame Biden for his actions. He warned them over and over this would happen, and at some point, when you're the president and you draw a red line, you have to enforce it. It's worth noting that these strikes reportedly killed five Houthi fighters, zero civilians, and destroyed a whole lot of Houthi infrastructure being used in attacks like the one on the Filipino-run merchant ship. I actually think that is a pretty good response.

Of course, the most concerning aspect of this situation comes into focus when you take stock of the full picture, especially after the Houthis resumed their attacks on commercial ships yesterday.

Many pundits keep warning about the potential of a "wider regional conflict," but it sure seems that conflict is already here. U.S. forces are bombing targets in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Israel is bombing Gaza and Lebanon. Houthis in Yemen are going after anything in the Red Sea while Hezbollah is firing on Israel from Lebanon, and Hamas continues to pledge more violence. Iran is now directly involved after the strikes near the U.S. consulate in Iraq yesterday, and their proxies remain plenty active. If this isn't a regional conflict, I don't really know what is. 

Biden needs to tread carefully. For starters, the question of his authority to launch these strikes without Congress is murky at best (though there is a good argument that this move was within his power as president). More to the point, the message was sent. The U.S., and its allies, have drawn a red line. Now, they need to focus their considerable resources and influence on ending the violence in Gaza and turning the temperature down across the region. Sometimes shows of force (like this one) can do that, but more often than not it just starts a new cycle. All signs here point to the latter, which is everything the White House needs to know to pursue a different path.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping the reader question today to give our main story and Isaac's note some extra space. Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

A new federal food assistance program was recently passed by Congress and is set to begin this summer, which allocates $120 per child to eligible families to purchase food while school is not in session and is projected to help provide food for 21 million children. The $2.5 billion initiative comes as food insecurity in U.S. households rose from 10.2% to 12.8% from 2021 to 2022. 15 states, however, have opted not to sign up for the program, citing “concerns about the program’s mechanics and administrative costs,” as well as “ideological objections and a lack of faith in the federal government.” As a result of their states’ decisions not to participate, an estimated eight million children will be shut out of the program. The New York Times has more on which states opted out and why. (paywall)


  • 60. The number of Houthi-controlled targets hit by U.S. and British airstrikes last week,  according to the U.S. Air Force’s Mideast command.
  • 150. The number of bombs and missiles fired by the U.S. and British forces as part of the initial strikes, according to the Pentagon.
  • 23%. The percentage of people across 16 Arab countries who said the United States is the biggest threat to regional security and stability in the Middle East in 2020, according to a January 2024 poll from the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. 
  • 51%. The percentage of people across 16 Arab countries who said the United States is the biggest threat to regional security and stability in the Middle East.
  • 41%. The percentage of people across 16 Arab countries who said Israel is the biggest threat to regional security and stability in the Middle East in 2020.
  • 26%. The percentage of people across 16 Arab countries who said Israel is the biggest threat to regional security and stability in the Middle East in 2024.
  • 2%. The percentage of Americans who said Iran is the United States' greatest enemy in a 2023 Gallup poll. 
  • 50%. The percentage of Americans who said China is the United States' greatest enemy in the same Gallup poll. 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we published our 2022 lookback edition.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was the list of the best and worst states to raise a family in.
  • Gotta tell your boss: 1,157 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking what repercussions Lloyd Austin should face for his undisclosed absence due to his hospitalization with 81% saying he should be fired. 10% said he should be publicly reprimanded, 6% said he should be privately reprimanded, and 1% said he should face no formal consequences. "It’s just too important of a role to not be transparent, open and honest. His boss doesn’t need the details, but he does need to know if he’s going to be out or not," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Elton John's Emmy win last night made him the 19th person to attain the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony).
  • Take the poll. What do you think of the response to the attacks by the Houthis in the Red Sea? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Cambodia’s archaeological sites suffered widespread looting during civil conflicts in the latter half of the 20th century, and its government has spent years pursuing the return of antiquities, some of which it says are on display in American museums. Now, much of that artwork is making its way back to Cambodia. The family of late American billionaire George Lindemann has agreed to return 33 looted artifacts to Cambodia, according to the US Attorney’s Office. Meanwhile, 13 stolen works are being returned to Cambodia in concert with an investigation from the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York and Homeland Security. The repatriation is part of a wider trend of works of art returning to Cambodia. In 2021, the United States repatriated 27 smuggled antiquities to the Southeastern Asian nation, including statues valued at $3.8 million, and last year returned 30 more. NPR has the story on the Met, and CNN has the story on the Lindemann family.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.