Yemen is none of our business

Dec 20, 2023
Gulf of Aden area, political map. Deepwater gulf between Yemen, Djibouti, the Guardafui Channel, Socotra and Somalia, connecting the Arabian Sea through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait with the Red Sea.

US presidents are losing their authority as the world’s policemen. Russia fights to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Israel fights in Gaza to wipe out the Palestinians. China and the Global South advance their national interests without fighting at all. All can and do ignore President Biden’s wishes.

Then the current, soon-retiring, US policeman wants another task force for another war, against Yemen, a small state on the Red Sea south of Saudi Arabia. So why should Australia think of joining them?

Few Australians have followed events in Yemen, and the rise of the Houthis since the 1990s. Houthis are followers of Zaydism, a branch of Shia Islam, which earns them the backing of Iran’s Shia government. They rebelled against the Salafist government of President Ali Abdulla Saleh in 2004, and took over the northern capital, Sanaa, forcing the government into exile. They control most of the north of the country.

Now, the Houthis have waded into the Israel-Hamas conflict, whose effects have spread around the Middle East since 7 October. In a show of support for Palestinians, they are attacking vessels passing through the strategic waterway, and firing drones and missiles. The Houthis have declared that all ships heading for Israel will be targeted, regardless of their nationality.
The last time comparable attacks on shipping occurred was in 2019 when the UK seized an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar and Iran, in return, impounded a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. A series of earlier attacks on oil shipping were blamed on Iran, which was retaliating in turn against US sanctions on Iranian oil exports, imposed after President Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, negotiated by his predecessor.

The US and UK hastened to send warships to the Gulf, while European countries did not. The Morrison government agreed to dispatch some 200 ADF personnel from all three services, a warship, and surveillance aircraft. Their task was said to be to protect vital shipping lanes. At the time, Richard Marles as Acting Opposition Leader and Labor defence spokesman, said the response was appropriate, telling reporters, ‘Australia has a particular interest in freedom of navigation – we’re an island trading nation’. Marles described sea traffic as ‘a piece of international architecture which is as essential to our national interests as any’.

Now it is Marles as Minister who will decide if it’s in Australia’s interests to get involved in potential hostilities with the Houthis in Yemen. He will be pressed to do so by the US and Israel on one hand, and may face resistance from Penny Wong and her like-minded colleagues on the other. He has acknowledged that the government’s focus is on this part of the world, not the Middle East. Whatever Marles’ decision, the real reasons for it are unlikely to be explained to the Parliament or the Australian public.

Marles’ assistant minister, Matt Thistlethwaite, has stated the obvious, that Australia’s defence chiefs will consider providing a RAN ship, adding cautiously that ‘all decisions will be made in Australia’s interests’. Such an assurance is needed for those who might suspect they may be in America’s interests. Trying again, he recalled Australia’s ‘tradition of being involved in allied operations where we’re upholding international laws and trying to secure peace and stability, particularly related to ongoing commerce’. Why tradition should rule, whatever the case, and how peace can be ensured by war, he didn’t explain. Nor did he say which international laws Australia is upholding in defending Israel. As a further effort to justify the unannounced deployment, however, he noted that Australia has already had ‘a presence in the Middle East’. He didn’t account for their lack of success so far.

The Greens anticipate Marles deciding that Australia will join the US Navy in the Red Sea, as reciprocity for AUKUS. So the nuclear-powered submarines, Senator David Shoebridge suggests, are already a millstone around the government’s neck. Marles, he told the ABC, ‘needs to play nice with the US to keep the AUKUS deal alive’. So much for Australia’s sovereignty, which is one of Marles’ favourite themes.

Another conviction Marles holds is that how Australia does to war – the ‘War Powers’ –should not change. They should continue to be decided by the Executive Government – the Prime Minister and a handful of appointed ministers. Australians and most of their elected representatives are not consulted, and will not be in this event.

A survey of 2710 people conducted by former submariner and Senator Rex Patrick in mid-December found that 88.7% opposed Australia sending a warship to the Red Sea and 11.3% supported it. If Australia joins an allied naval intervention in the Red Sea that develops into war against Yemen, Syria, and Iran – nations the US has never taken off its to-defeat list – it could be nasty, brutish and long.

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