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  1. International
23 January 2024

The West’s magical thinking is sinking in the Red Sea

The US and its allies cannot change reality with air strikes.

By Malcom Kyeyune

This is the last of a three-part series of essays on the end of “the new American century”. Part one can be read here. Part two can be read here.

The fallout from the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October is both widening in scope and intensifying in violence. From the shores of Gaza to the villages of Balochistan in Pakistan and down to Gulf of Aden – the scene across the Middle East has all the trappings of a regional crisis. Joe Biden’s administration initially hoped that the outrage over Israeli shelling of the Gaza strip from neighbouring countries could be contained by a sufficient show of American force. Washington dispatched several squadrons of aircraft, as well as two aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, while stating that it would prevent anyone from intervening against Israel in its war on Hamas. 

This strategy unravelled. Hezbollah ignored American threats as it launched missile strikes on Israel’s northern border. Inside Iraq and Syria, various armed groups began waging their own campaigns against the US presence in the region

The Ansar Allah movement of Yemen (commonly referred to in the west as “the Houthis”) is now enforcing a blockade against commercial ships headed to or from Israel, while maritime traffic through the Red Sea has been diverted away from the region and redirected around Africa. Just a few days ago, Qatar announced it was temporarily pausing LNG shipments through the Suez channel. If this situation continues, the impact on Europe’s economies could be disastrous.

Amidst rapidly increasing anti-Israeli and anti-American pressure in the region, the Houthi blockade proved too much for Washington. On the night between 12 and 13 of this month, the US – with minor assistance from the UK – launched a large strike on Yemen, simultaneously striking several cities with submarine- and ship-launched tomahawk missiles, backed up by British Typhoons and US F-18 aircraft. Eight US strikes have happened so far in January, two of them supported by the UK/

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The attack was meant to demonstrate the West’s resolve, and that the blockade of the Red Sea was intolerable to its commercial interests. But in practical terms, the result was to restrict access to the Red Sea even further, as war risk insurance premiums soared. Apart from this counterproductive result, however, the air strikes have revealed a fundamental rot that has spread through both western militaries and, more dangerously, the western psyche itself.

At the heart of the unfolding Middle Eastern disaster is a delusion that has corrupted – and subverted – western thinking during the last two decades: the delusion of deterrence. It was this delusion that led to the West launching the strike on Yemen, and it was the same delusion that guaranteed it would only make the situation worse.

As a concept, “deterrence” it’s not hard to understand; the yellow and black coloration of a yellowjacket wasp is meant to deter other animals by signalling that it is dangerous. The animal kingdom is rife with various forms of displays meant to scare off opponents, and much the same applies in human affairs. But the concept of deterrence in the west has gone from an idea and a useful tactic to something far more pathological.

In 2003, when the US wanted to remake the Middle East, it invaded Iraq with over 160,000 troops, including some 45,000 British troops. Twenty years later, neither country has the strength to launch equivalent military expeditions. The British army has shrunk from 110,000 regulars in 2000 to around 75,000 today, and it is dogged by shortages in ammunition and materiel. Every branch of service in the US armed forces is suffering a critical personnel crisis, and the country is simply tired of war. 

The last 20 years has seen a massive reduction in western military power, both in absolute terms – which is bad enough on its own – but also in relative terms, as various other countries (Russia, Iran, China) have grown stronger. This has put increasing real-world limits on what sort of action western countries can take. Simple demographics also illustrates the outer limits of Western supremacy: Iraq in 2003 had a population of 27 million against America’s nearly 300 million. Iran today has a population of nearly 90 million, against America’s 335 million. Given that the US military is smaller today than it was then, and Iran’s military is far larger than the Iraqi military, the age of “easy wars” is clearly over.

The upshot of this worsening situation has not been a re-examination of western strategic ambition; on the contrary, it has produced a flight into the world of metaphysics. The pursuit of “deterrence” has gone from medicine to poison. The unstated assumption today concerning Iran, or the Houthis, or China, is that the US and its allies cannot win an actual high intensity conflict anymore, because of a combination of lack of political will and material resources. 

To cope with this stark reality, western thinkers now imagine warfare as a form of psycho-drama; the point is not to conquer and hold ground but to manipulate the psychology of the enemy into surrendering, mostly through the use (or threat) of airpower and precision missiles. 

The irony is that this search for “deterrence” is completely uninterested in the actual psychology of the specific opponent that is meant to be deterred. Would bombing a country that has already been bombed continuously by American-made weaponry for the last ten years actually make the Houthis stop what they’re doing? The obvious conclusion is “no”. So why do it?

The answer is that “deterrence” is now interpreted almost as a form of ritual magic; shoot the tomahawk here, sortie the B-2 spirit there, and, like a native American rain dance, the universe is simply compelled to act according to your will. It doesn’t matter if the Houthis are incapable of backing down from a military challenge; once the West decides to perform the proper rituals of technological black magic, the spell itself will simply compel them to obey.

When the Houthis know, from simply reading reports in the British press, can read  that the UK cannot dispatch HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Red Sea even if it wanted to, because it no longer has enough sailors to man the vessel, why should they feel “deterred”? Having won against a Saudi invasion force – ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ – in 2015 that was actually larger than that which invaded Iraq, why should they fear American military intervention, given that the Americans are openly conceding that they are unwilling and unable to put any boots on the ground in Yemen? 

The rhetoric against Iran is even more revealing. US politicians like Donald Trump or politician-pundits like John Bolton, talk constantly about “striking Iran” as a solution to every problem in the region, but the material realities of the strike itself (what do you attack? What weapons do you use? where do you attack from?) are never explored. At most, people might venture a few Iranian oil refineries as potential targets, but the physical reality of the “strike” is clearly secondary to the metaphysical reality. Even if you only struck a couple of airfields, even if the Iranians have more missiles in the region than you, the mere act of “striking” is assumed to carry some sort of mental compulsion. What the Iranians think is irrelevant; what they know about how many missiles the US possesses or how short its ships are of sailors is equally irrelevant. 

“Deterrence” is no longer about the fear of actual capability, it is a narrative, a psychodrama in which the west talks to itself. Because we are no longer the undisputed masters of the earth, we turn to fantasy. Just as Russia decisively lost the war in Ukraine in 2022, so too did the Houthis lose and run away scared the moment those American tomahawk missiles started blowing up decrepit hangars that the Saudis destroyed years ago.

The Russians or the Houthis may, of course, disagree with this reality-by-decree the west seeks to impose on them, but who cares about what they think? Since the start of this regional crisis, the Western world has been on an unceasing quest to restore deterrence, to get the various enemies of the global order to realise that fighting is hopeless and that it is hopeless to resist. At each and every point, these attempts to impose deterrence have failed. Deterrence is no longer a real military or political strategy; it is a psychological escape mechanism. As reality turns against us, the United States and its allies flee into fantasy and ritual.

[See also: The slipperiness of ceasefire]

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