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Iran and the Houthis have defeated the US military

In Europe
May 15, 2024

Americans are taught at a young age to not only love their country but to marvel at its power. Whether it’s on the stump, during speeches or at a press event, politicians and policymakers on both ends of the political spectrum are quick to marvel at just how impactful the United States is around the world. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s contention that the US is “the indispensable nation” is still a central part of the American vocabulary. As President Biden told the nation last October, “America is a beacon to the world…We are, as my friend Madeleine Albright said, the indispensable nation.”

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to this line of argument. The US, after all, holds a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product. The US military is second to none, with the US spending more on defense than the next nine countries combined. The US has extensive influence in international commerce; 58 per cent of global currency reserves are in US dollars, Washington holds significant influence in international economic institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and America’s system of alliances is unrivaled by any other major power.

Yet what US policymakers frequently fail to grasp is that power doesn’t necessarily equate to unlimited influence. The architects of US foreign policy all too often assume the US is all powerful, that it can will events out of whole cloth and coerce friends and adversaries alike to adapt their policies to Washington’s liking.

This assumption is almost universal yet has been disproven time and time again, particularly in the Middle East. Take Yemen. The Houthis, the de-facto government in the country, has been treating the Red Sea as its own personal firing range since November. The Iran-backed militia has attacked civilian vessels and US Navy ships transiting the waterway more than 100 times over that time-span, ostensibly in support of the Palestinians. Houthi leaders have been abundantly clear throughout: the attacks in the Red Sea will continue as long as Israel continues fighting in Gaza.

The Biden administration, in cooperation with the United Kingdom, has attempted to change the Houthis’ strategic calculus by taking military action against their assets on the ground. The US and UK have conducted four rounds of comprehensive airstrikes against Houthi military facilities across Yemen, the latest occurring in February. US Air Force and Navy jets have shot down Houthi drones and missiles multiple times a week, in addition to striking Houthi ground locations. Yet the mere fact that the US is taking military action every week is proof that US policy isn’t impacting the Houthis decision-making whatsoever. The Houthi missiles keep on coming.

Iran is yet another example, and perhaps the most prevalent. During the Trump administration, Iran was public enemy number one. Trump, prodded by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear agreement and reimposed the economic sanctions previously lifted under the deal. The maximum pressure strategy was designed to bring the Iranian economy to a point where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would have no choice but to beg for forgiveness and sign a new deal on America’s terms.

Iran’s economy plummeted, no doubt. Iran’s crude oil exports plunged from 1.8 million barrels a day in 2017 to about 445,000 barrels a day in 2020 – a 76 per cent decrease. Yet the economic pain didn’t produce any positive policy results on the nuclear file. If anything, the Iranian nuclear problem got even worse. Tehran, free from any nuclear constraints, started installing more centrifuges, using centrifuges of higher quality, brought enrichment to a higher level and downgraded the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access. Iran is now as close to nuclear-bomb fuel as it’s ever been.

None of this isn’t to suggest the US isn’t a powerful state. Rather, the point is that the US often inflates its power, underestimates the power of other states to resist US dictates and is overly confident that whatever challenges exist along the way can be easily brushed aside. The reality is far more complex – it’s about time US officials acknowledged it.

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