I can’t believe I need to explain why the Houthis aren’t heroes

16 January 2024, 0900 EST

International relations discourse tends to be a bit wonkier than domestic American political debates. While this leads to the frequent lament, from voices like Dan Drezner, that American voters don’t care about international relations, it also insulates us from the more frustrating aspects of American politics. IR scholars don’t usually have to deal with knee-jerk activisty hot takes.

Well, we do now.

Apparently leftists think the Houthis–a militant group based in Yemen–are admirable anti-imperialist activists. This is because they’ve been attacking international shipping in protest of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. I guess it’s something like “we don’t like Israel, these guys don’t like Israel, so they must be good!”

And I guess I need to explain why they’re so wrong.

The leftists who love the Houthis

I saw conservatives complaining about progressives praising the Houthis and thought it was just a straw man hypothetical. I.e., “they’re so unreasonable on Israel I bet they’ll even support the Houthis.” But no, that’s really happening.

Helen Lackner in Jacobin claimed the Houthis Red Sea attacks are an authentic expression of the Yemeni people’s support for Palestinians. To be fair, the article included good historical context on Yemen’s orientation towards the Palestinian cause. And the argument was rather subtle, suggesting the Houthis’ attacks were meant to maintain support from their followers. It’s a bit of a leap, however, to claim that the only way they can support the Palestinians is to attack shipping unrelated to Israel. And Jacobin tagged it under “war/imperialism,” indicating how it views this argument.

Much US concern about the Houthis has to do with the ties to Iran, and fears that they will serve–or already serve–as an Iranian proxy force. But there are problems with the group itself.

Less subtle arguments come from US activists. During a December protest in Manhattan, the “Party for Socialism and Liberation” chanted “Yemen, Yemen make up proud; turn another ship around.”

I am staying off Twitter, but there are other examples there explicitly framing support for the Houthis as part of a broader anti-imperialist cause (and this was before recent US bombings).

Why support for the Houthis is so dumb

Again, I can’t believe I have to say this, but the Houthis are not a force worthy of admiration.

The Houthis are properly known as Ansar Allah, with their popular name coming from a leader, Hussain al-Houthi. They are part of Yemen’s Zaidi population, a sect of Islam related to Shi’ism. They organized into an insurgency in 2004, when the Yemeni government (at that time also led by a Zaidi) tried to arrest al-Houthi; he was killed later that year.

The conflict continued until the outbreak of the Arab Uprisings. The Houthis were part of the uprising against the Yemeni government. They made significant territorial claims, and took over the capital in 2015. This prompted a Saudi-led military intervention, which included air strikes and a naval blockade. The intervention exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian problems, creating a massive crisis.

The United States should not get involved in a conflict in Yemen. But that does not mean the group we would be fighting are heroes.

Much US concern about the Houthis has to do with the ties to Iran, and fears that they will serve–or already serve–as an Iranian proxy force. But there are problems with the group itself.

Let’s start with their slogan: “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.” Al-Houthi expanded on the inclusion of Jewish people as an enemy in a few speeches. In one, he said Jewish people were the enemy because “they are the ones who move this world, who spread corruption” in it. In another he said Muslims “will not be delivered from the evil” of Jewish people “except by their eradication.”

There are other issues besides antisemitism. The Houthis have set up camps to “indoctrinate” the population under their control into their ideology. They have persecuted religious minorities, including Bahais and Christians. And they have imposed draconian restrictions on women, such as forcing them to always have a male guardian when travelling (particularly ironic given the progressive views of Western Houthi fans).

The Houthis also torture and repress those under their control. There have been reports of widespread abduction and torture of women in Houthi-controlled areas. And they arbitrarily detain and torture political opponents, according to Human Rights Watch.

And let’s talk about the attacks themselves. They aren’t petitioning the United Nations on the Palestinian’s behalf. They aren’t smuggling in humanitarian supplies. They aren’t even sending fighters against Israel. They are firing missiles at cargo ships sailing by their country. This is the equivalent of the climate change protesters who throw soup at paintings; it’s performative, and counterproductive. One can argue it’s an attempt to gain attention to their cause, but even their fans view their actions solely in the context of Israel so that isn’t working.

Complex thinking should be possible on international relations

Here’s the thing: I am not a hawk on Yemen. I first raised concerns about US military action in Yemen in 2010. I continued this with a series of posts after the Arab Uprisings. And I cheered Bernie Sanders’ efforts to end US support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen.

But I am capable of holding two thoughts in my head at the same time. The United States should not get involved in a conflict in Yemen, especially if that means bombing a country already experiencing a humanitarian crisis. But that does not mean the group we would be fighting–the Houthis–are heroes.

I don’t really think it’s that hard to understand. But maybe it is.

Some of this is the classic “tankie” phenomenon. This was a pejorative term for American Communists who actively defended authoritarian Communist actions, such as the Soviet Union sending tanks to crush anti-Soviet protests in Eastern Europe. Since the Cold War it’s morphed into a more anti-imperialist position. America, they argue, is an imperialist power, which is bad; so anyone that opposes America must be good. They tend to include Israel in this, as either an imperialist power of its own or a tool of American imperialism.

But I think a lot of it is a lack of information on international relations. Going back to Drezner’s lament, most American don’t pay attention to foreign policy. The lefty activists protesting Israel had never heard of the Houthis before they started attacking Red Sea shipping. They assume that any group “standing up” for Palestinians must be on the side of progressive causes, so they cheer them. And people like me, who are wary of the Houthis, must be hawks or, even worse, neoliberals.

I wish this post wasn’t necessary, but apparently it was.