The Struggle for the Gate of Tears

Afonso de Albuquerque, First Duke of Goa (1457-1515), was an immensely talented admiral, administrator, and strategist. In the final decade of his life, he laid the foundations of a century-long period of Portuguese hegemony over the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Albuquerque was the first European to bring a major fleet into the Red Sea and the first to establish control of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. He did more than any other man to turn a small Iberian country into the first global empire in history. By capturing Malacca in 1511, he turned the Indian Ocean into a Lusitanian mare clausum.

Just over half a millennium after his death, the focal zone of Albuquerque’s operations is back in the news. The Bab-el-Mandeb—the “Gate of Tears” in Arabic—is a 70-mile-long strait that separates the Horn of Africa from the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. As its name implies, it is a treacherous waterway characterized by dangerous currents, reefs, and shoals. It became very important after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Countless ships have come to grief there over the centuries, but it is currently hitting the headlines because of man-made risks, which are both unexpected and potentially conductive to a new crisis in the Middle East.

Last November, the Houthis—a Shiite armed group supported by Iran that has effectively won the decade-old civil war in Yemen—announced that they would attack Israeli-connected or allied ships in the Bab-el-Mandeb to express their support for Hamas and the Palestinian civilians in Gaza. To that end, they have used rather basic means: drones, simple missiles, and lightly armed speedboats. Although the damage from some two dozen such attacks has been light, they have forced some of the world’s largest shipping and oil companies to suspend transit through the Red Sea and direct their ships to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. This detour adds more than 3,000 miles and up to 10 days to the journey, increasing shipping costs from the Far East to Europe by at least 15 percent.

The attacks prompted the United States to organize “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” a 10-country ad-hoc naval coalition that initially included the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Spain. France, Italy, and Spain later declined to participate in the Jan. 12 U.S. and British airstrikes against the Houthis, however, and declined to sign a coalition statement justifying the attacks. The sense of urgency was heightened on Nov. 19, when the Houthis hijacked the Galaxy Leader, a huge vehicle carrier registered in the Bahamas but partly owned by an Israeli businessman. On Dec. 31, 2023, four Houthi speedboats tried to board another cargo ship when U.S. Navy helicopters intervened, sinking three of them and killing 10 attackers. Consequently, on Jan. 5 this year, Danish shipping giant Maersk announced that its ships would avoid the Red Sea route “for the foreseeable future.”

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. global strategy has focused on two imperatives. The first is maintaining open-ended dominance over international maritime routes by controlling the main oceanic chokepoints; the second is preventing any rival power from dominating its own continent. These two audacious objectives are currently implemented in the form of 11 carrier-centered battle groups and in the global network of some 750 bases in at least 80 countries all over the world, designed to prevent potential rivals from seeking to undermine U.S. primacy. The maintenance of permanent global primacy has never been rationally justified by its creators outside the ideological straitjacket of the claims of American exceptionalism and the maintenance of a “rules-based international order.”

Maintaining control over trade routes connecting Europe with Asia—especially the one from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean—is a conditio sine qua non of continued U.S. global hegemony. This is not unusual: There never existed a power capable of being globally dominant which did not impose its primacy on Eurasia first. This was most notably the case with the British Empire between the outbreak of the Crimean War and the aftermath of World War II. 

The reality of global dominance entails maintaining the power to guarantee or deny at will the navigability of the straits through which nine-tenths of the goods traded in the world still pass today. There are three in the Middle East of fundamental importance: Suez, Bab-el-Mandeb, and Hormuz. From the vantage point of the global hegemonists who run the U.S. government, disputing their control over any one of them is simply intolerable.

Far from heeding Western calls to exert pressure on the Houthis to stop their attacks in the Red Sea, however, on Jan. 1, Iran announced that one of its warships had crossed the Bab-el-Mandeb to supervise naval missions in the region. This is a bold and seemingly reckless move. To a casual observer, it makes a confrontation between Tehran and Washington more likely than at any time since President Trump replaced his hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, in September 2019.

On the other hand, Iran has been careful to stay out of the mayhem in and around Gaza. Its Lebanese protégés, the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, have refrained from opening the “northern front” against Israel even at the height of the IDF operations, which have cost thousands of Palestinian civilians their lives. Therefore, its decision to up the ante in the Red Sea deserves some attention. Whatever one thinks of the Iranian regime, it is not known for making irrational decisions on the global scene.

Not all Iranian “proxies” are equally dependent on the government in Tehran or willing to follow its orders to the same extent. The Houthis are likely motivated, at least in part, by the need to regain popularity among their political base in Yemen. That popularity has suffered since the peace talks to end the civil war started in October 2022. On the other hand, attacking Israeli targets is extremely popular, as witnessed by the influx of young volunteers since the beginning of attacks on shipping. The ability of the U.S. and its naval partners—let alone Israel—to seriously degrade Houthi targets inside Yemen is limited.

Then again, Iran is unwilling to give its detractors in Washington and Israel too many arguments to start advocating, yet again, a preemptive U.S. attack. A single, superannuated destroyer passing through Bab-el-Mandeb may look great on Iranian television, but it is irrelevant in the broader strategic picture. Both Iran and its detractors know that in the event of an American attack, they can close the Strait of Hormuz, which would be sure to cause oil prices to skyrocket. That would be an all-around minus-sum game.

In the long term, just like in Ukraine, China would likely be the only benefactor. For the time being, Iran will take note of the fact that in the U.S.-led task force to safeguard navigation in the Red Sea there are warships from eight NATO member countries but none from two major Asian powers—China and India—which have the biggest stake in keeping open the sea lanes between themselves and the markets in Europe and the Americas.

Therefore, the U.S. initiative should not be seen only as an exercise in managing freedom of navigation on behalf of “global commons” or only as a move to contain Iran. It is likely also meant to be a warning to BRICS, which welcomed new members on Jan. 1, that the U.S. Navy still manages world trade.

But does it? The point is that China has worked to neutralize U.S. technological advantages in world trade. Beijing has developed tactics that dramatically increase the costs of projecting U.S. force overseas, most notably in naval matters. Carriers are expensive (the USS Gerald R. Ford cost $14 billion), not to mention their costly planes and huge crews, but they are also unsafe in coastal waters and inland seas. In the event of war in the Pacific, a vast no-man’s-sea would be created between the Chinese coast and Guam, which would favor Beijing’s attack on Taiwan. 

The U.S. government, in general, and the Pentagon, in particular, form a gigantic and unreformable bureaucracy. The rivals are identified and the theaters are as well, but operational concepts are missing. Planning is generic and abstract, focused on spatial dimensions such as sea and air rather than on adversaries. Training is tailored to yesterday’s enemies. Technological supremacy is less attainable than before. The Pentagon’s mission is no longer to maintain a technological advantage but to keep pace.

The U.S. Defense Department’s political masters in the White House and the State Department can no longer cobble together even a pretense of a “coalition.” The much-heralded Operation Prosperity Guardian has become an embarrassing fiasco, with virtually zero contribution from all nominally participating U.S. allies, save Britain, with a single destroyer. The Jan. 12 strikes on Houthi targets were a theatrical operation devoid of strategic substance, restrained by political considerations vis-à-vis the Arab world, and rendered meaningless by the terrain of Yemen and the dispersed matrix of the adversary.

The geopolitical lesson for friend and foe alike was that the U.S. Navy is simply not up to the formidable, self-imposed task of controlling all key sea lanes and choke points. Its already tenuous position in the South China Sea may become critical in a year or two: a major crisis may be only a matter of time after the victory of Lai Ching-te, a supporter of Taiwan’s independence, in the Jan. 13 presidential election.

Finally, the unsolvable quandary of the U.S. policymaking cabal is that it cannot continue to pretend to be a benevolent defender of the “rules-based international order” while remaining, at the same time, an adamant and inflexible supporter of the current Israeli government. This “special relationship” is not good for America and it is certainly bad for Israel, which is seriously isolated for the first time in its history and devoid of ideas to manage its long-term security challenges.

America would be well advised to support an outcome in Yemen that promises regional stability and uninterrupted trade flows. Whose flag flies over Aden is immaterial, of course. To that end, it is in the American interest to offer Iran a new nuclear deal, one that is not much different from the old Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the Trump administration withdrew in May 2018. In return, Tehran would rein in the Houthis, effectively and permanently this time.   ◆

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.