The left’s Houthi apologism
The ‘pro-Palestine’ types supporting this vicious Islamist movement have lost the plot.
Many on the Western left were already warming to Yemen’s Houthis before last week’s US-led attacks on Houthi military sites. In December, news of the Islamist group’s numerous attacks in support of Hamas on supposedly Israel-linked container ships in the Red Sea had slowly but surely been exciting ‘pro-Palestine’ types in the West. The Houthis were emerging as Hamas’s hot new rival in the affections of bourgeois leftists. There have been puff pieces in leftist mags, presenting the Houthis as noble anti-imperial rebels. On New Year’s Eve, anti-Israel protesters pierced the New York City air with a new pro-Houthi chant: ‘Yemen, Yemen, make us proud! Turn another ship around!’
Now, after the US and UK launched more than 100 strikes against Houthi positions across western Yemen in the early hours of Friday and Saturday, decadent Western leftists have really fallen hard for the Houthis. They are presenting the US-led strike as the latest act in a long line of neo-imperial aggression in the Middle East and beyond. And they’re simultaneously conjuring the Houthis up as some sort of valiant resistance movement – as a brave, principled force supporting Palestinian freedom while delivering valuable blows against Western capitalism.
These sentiments were on full display at the latest ‘pro-Palestine’ march in London on Saturday. The Stop the War Coalition, veterans of the anti-Iraq War protests two decades ago, draped a ‘Stop bombing Yemen’ banner across the Trafalgar Square balcony and re-issued the anti-imperialist ‘Hands Off Yemen’ slogan on flyers and placards. And throughout Saturday’s protest that new pro-piracy chant – ‘Yemen, Yemen, make us proud! Turn another ship around!’ – could be heard loud and clear.
If the US and the UK really were seeking to get their hands on Yemen with these strikes, then that would be one thing. We at spiked have long opposed Western military interventions, from Iraq in 2003 to Libya in 2011. These self-aggrandising, virtue-signalling ventures were carried out by disoriented Western elites eager to demonstrate moral and political purpose at home rather than achieve any strategic objectives abroad. They were domestic PR exercises masquerading as military operations, with barbaric consequences. These regime-changing missions destroyed existing states and unleashed brutalising civil wars in their wake. And they often created the ideal conditions for Islamist movements and militias, not unlike the Houthis, to flourish.
But in scale and intent, these US-led attacks on Houthi military positions are nothing like the Western military interventions that dominated much of the post-Cold War era. They are not an attempt by Western powers to get their hands on Yemen. And they’re not an attempt to bomb this benighted nation towards liberal democracy and into submission. To present the Western attacks as such, which is what many on the decadent left are now doing, is absurd.
The strikes against the Houthis on Friday and Saturday are a delayed reaction, an almost reluctant response, to months of Houthi provocation in the Red Sea. Nearly 30 vessels have been attacked in that time, choking a waterway that handles about a third of the world’s container traffic. During that time, the US and its allies have repeatedly warned the Houthis that unless they cease the attacks, the US and its allies will act to protect freedom of navigation. The Houthis wilfully ignored these warnings – they even struck a US warship and two British shipping vessels in December. And so, as US Central Command put it, the US and the UK acted last week ‘to degrade the Houthis’ ability to attack maritime vessels, including commercial vessels’.
This was not a regime-changing mission. It was an anti-piracy operation. White House spokesperson John Kirby has said Washington has no interest in a war with Yemen. And these strikes were not accompanied by any of the regime-changing posturing that provided the grim soundtrack to other, earlier Western interventions. These strikes were intended to be strictly limited to the objective of protecting one of the world’s most vital maritime routes. And they came in direct – and delayed – response to flagrant Houthi aggression.
We can certainly debate the effectiveness and wisdom of this operation. For the moment, it doesn’t seem to have deterred the Houthis, as their attempted missile attack on another US warship on Sunday suggests. The impact of these US-led strikes, which allowed the Houthis plenty of time to conceal their weapons, is likely to have been limited.
But those self-styled progressives marching in Western capitals, chanting their support for attacks on ships, aren’t concerned about what’s actually happening in the Red Sea and in Yemen. Instead, they’re projecting on to these skirmishes their simple-minded anti-Western worldview. They might doll up their politics as anti-imperialist, but beneath the leftwing-ish jargon, there lurks little more than a loathing of the West. And it’s this reflexive anti-Westernism that has led them to automatically portray the US and its allies as evil imperial aggressors and, even more incredibly, to see the Houthis as a noble resistance force.
This, after all, is the Houthis we’re talking about. This is a militia that has played its own not insignificant role in the humanitarian catastrophe that has engulfed Yemen since 2015; it’s a brutal Islamist movement that has crushed dissent, deprived women of their rights and persecuted homosexuals throughout its northern Yemen strongholds; an anti-Semitic insurgency whose motto is ‘Death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews’. The Houthis have even been known to perform the Nazi salute during marches. Yet so morally and politically lobotomised are large swathes of today’s left, that they are willing to throw their support behind this, one of the nastiest and most reactionary forces in the world right now. Yemen, Yemen, make us proud…
We should all hope that the conflict in the Middle East does not broaden or escalate. But it seems that too many on what passes for the left today clearly don’t share that hope. At every stage of the Israel-Hamas war, they have shown themselves only too willing to champion the most divisive and brutal Islamist forces in the region. They claim to be anti-war, but it sure as hell doesn’t look like it.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
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