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Is the global policeman back?

The recent US-UK strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen have received uneven support from EU countries, reviving memories of transatlantic divisions

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The military action also raised the question of whether Washington was returning to its long-standing and controversial role of global policeman, which the US appeared to have abandoned since President Barack Obama.
The military action also raised the question of whether Washington was returning to its long-standing and controversial role of global policeman, which the US appeared to have abandoned since President Barack Obama.

by Georgi Gotev

The recent US-UK strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen have received uneven support from EU countries, reviving memories of transatlantic divisions that were presumably a thing of the past.

The military action also raised the question of whether Washington was returning to its long-standing and controversial role of global policeman, which the US appeared to have abandoned since President Barack Obama.

The Afghanistan withdrawal debacle of August 2021 shamed the West, in the words of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But it also seemed to signal that the US would no longer decide single-handedly before intervening militarily far away from its borders.

Moreover, the US was trying to avoid a spillover of the Gaza war, with State Secretary Anthony Blinken in a race to beat Henry Kissinger regarding frenetic Middle East travel.

This is why it was a bit of a surprise when the US and Britain launched strikes from the air and sea against Houthi military targets in Yemen in response to the movement’s attacks on ships in the Red Sea, endangering a vital international naval route.

The Iran-backed Houthis, who control the capital, Sanaa and much of the west and north of Yemen, say their attacks on shipping routes in the Red Sea are a show of support for the Palestinians and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.

Disturbing maritime traffic is not a small thing, and it’s interesting to note that China, whose relations with the US in other contexts are nothing less than tense, stayed put following the US strikes. Even Saudi Arabia, which had previously bombed the Houthis, called for de-escalation.

Saudi Arabia has led an anti-Houthi coalition since 2015 — launching air strikes of its own against the Iran-backed rebels over the years — but is now angling for a ceasefire and military exit to be able to concentrate on its domestic agenda.

Iran’s leaders too are concentrating on its domestic agenda, more precisely, they fear that if they provoke US military action, their regime may crumble.

EU countries have reacted to the challenge posed by the Houthis by mulling a potential new naval operation that would aim to re-establish security and freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. This, of course, is very different from striking Houthi positions on the mainland.

This is why the EU was quite divided. Reportedly, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, and Bahrain provided logistical and intelligence support to the US-UK strikes, while Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, and South Korea signed a joint statement defending the attacks and warning of further action.

More importantly, Italy, Spain, and France chose not to sign or participate, fearing a wider escalation.

This, of course, recalls the divisions sowed by the neocons when George W. Bush was in the White House, in the context of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq as part of its ‘War on Terror’. It also reminds us of divisions that existed inside NATO during the 1999 US-led air strikes against the former Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War.

For example, France prevented the US from bombing the Belgrade bridges, an action that had little military interest but could have even more devastating consequences in terms of resentment of the population against NATO.

As a journalist, I witnessed the Belgrade air attacks, whose main result today appears to be that Serbia remains staunchly anti-NATO and largely pro-Russian and anti-Western.

From the European perspective, the US is often heavy-handed when it strikes and irresponsible when it disengages, leaving others to manage the aftermath.

Hopefully, the US-UK strikes in Yemen will not lead to a major spillover of the Gaza war. Gaza is very far from the US, but a fire is burning next to Europe, and the US would be advised not to add fuel to it.

Moreover, the report that Defence Minister Lloyd Austin ordered the strikes from the hospital where he is being treated for complications following a prostate cancer operation is disturbing.

If the US decided to put on the costume of the global policeman at the insistence of Israel, that would not be surprising, but it would be disappointing if they did so without obtaining a clear idea of how to ensure a ceasefire in Gaza.

*first published in: Euractiv.com

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