America's role as guarantor of global freedom of navigation and defender of "Law of the Sea" treaties is taking a hit. The Biden administration continues to dither rather than to act decisively in liquidating the capability of Iran's proxy, the Yemeni Houthis, who have been effectively blocking passage of commercial ships in and out of the Red Sea, decimating traffic through the Suez Canal. The December 31 counterattack by US naval helicopter gunships, which sank three Houthi attack boats, was a good start but did not solve the problem.
Houthi terrorists claim that they are only targeting vessels with goods bound for Israel or ships suspected of Israeli ownership, but the the US military's Central Command reported that, since November 19, the Houthis have attacked 23 ships. The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Houthis' patron, closed out 2023 by launching its seventh drone attack on December 24 on a Japanese-owned freighter in the Indian Ocean. This Iran-backed assault has caused several of the world's largest shipping companies to suspend voyages through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, a route that normally enables the passage of 30% of the world's container traffic, 9.2 million barrels of oil a day, and 4% of the shipping of natural gas.
The shipping giants that are pausing normal operations as a result of Houthi attacks may also be illustrating serious failing confidence in US pledges to protect freedom of navigation in the region. Ships are being forced to haul cargo in a detour around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, a route that lengthens their voyage by about 6,000 nautical miles.
Bluntly put, the nations of the Free World have allowed global commerce to be held hostage by the revolutionary group of theocrat terrorists in Iran and their tribal terrorist tool in Yemen.
The US has been, until now, the ultimate guarantor freedom of commercial sea transport through the world's maritime choke-points. You can be sure that Communist China's leaders are closely evaluating the inadequate US responses to more than 100 attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq -- just since October. The US excuse for not taking more aggressive action against the Iran-directed Houthi terrorists -- the fear of igniting a wider war in the Middle East beyond the Israeli-Hamas conflict -- is not likely to encourage global economic growth or to placate adversaries. China's war planners are also not likely impressed by US naval and air assets' interception of Houthi drones and missiles or even sinking a few Houthi vessels.
The primary problem seems to be that so far at least, there has been no attempt to hold the ringleader, Iran, accountable economically, militarily, hold-on-power or any way. This, incidentally, is the same Iranian regime that has lately escalated its enrichment of uranium to near-nuclear weapons capability, and has now moved a warship to the Red Sea.
Recent US military activities in and around the Red Sea have been defensive. The US has not yet targeted Houthi missile- and drone-launching sites or other military positions, let alone even a training base inside Iran. That is why the Iranian regime has proxies: so that they will do the dirty work and take the hits -- while the Iranians tuck into dinner. This US hesitancy can only influence Chinese leader Xi Jinping's calculus on the strength of US resolve to defend Taiwan, should he decide to invade it.
Chinese military expert Yun Hua commented on December 17 that "in way, the Houthis have done us, China, a big favor," for striking a blow against US "hegemony" by helping China's long-range objective to reorient much of the world's trade from maritime passage to rapid and safe rail traffic across the Eurasian landmass.
It might be instructive that Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping just appointed Navy Admiral Dong Jun as China's new Defense Minister. Dong, the former commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy, has had experience interacting with China's Southeast Asian neighbors, particularly over disputed maritime claims. He was the Deputy Commander of China's Southern Military Command while directing Chinese maritime operations in the South China Sea. That alone might account for the significance that Xi Jinping attaches to any future plans to unite Taiwan with the motherland.
The US would be wise, at the very least, to ramp up its anti-Houthi game plan in the Red Sea, in order not to tempt Xi into assuming that US passivity against the Houthis will be repeated in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on December 19 the formation of "Operation Protect Prosperity," in which over 20 countries agreed to participate, to safeguard international shipping in the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether this multilateral alliance establishes a substantive record of response. Perhaps Austin should acquaint himself with President Thomas Jefferson's decision in 1803 to retaliate against the Barbary pirates who attacked US ships from North African ports: "Our trade... is annihilated unless we do something decisive." Yes, our trade -- and much else.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.