January 12, 2024 - 9:42am

Finally, we’ve found the kind of Middle Eastern war we should be fighting. Still, that doesn’t mean we’ll win.

Let’s start with the first proposition: that this is the right war. Strip away everything else and what do we have? A cheaply-armed, Iranian backed militia in control of one half of a very poor country imposing itself into our domestic affairs. By targeting container ships travelling through the Red Sea en route to the Suez Canal and Europe, the Houthis are destabilising Western economies at a time they can least afford it. As one senior Western figure put it to me: “We’ve got to stop the plucky little fuckers.”

There is, then, a refreshing simplicity to this military action. At heart we are asserting our power. We, the West, remain powerful and our interests are being affected by those with less power. And so we act. This is not naive neoconservatism, it’s hard-edged paleoconservatism — and the better for it. Lord Salisbury could be overseeing the policy.

For most of this century, Western foreign policy has been devoid of such clear, understandable logic, gripped by dreams of enlightened hegemony. We spent billions toppling regimes and trying to build new states and cultures in their place. And we failed. Then came the years of austerity, where we convinced ourselves that we could maintain global order on the cheap through the magic of development spending. In Britain, the apotheosis of this fallacious foreign policy was David Cameron’s austerity-era Strategic Defence and Security Review.

In hindsight, the first two decades of this century — bookended by President Putin’s rise to power on December 31, 1999, and Joe Biden’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 — mark a catastrophic failure. Two military defeats, the destabilisation of whole regions, the rise of Isis, the slashing of our military capacity. In its place a new but much older doctrine has arrived: do not spend billions of pounds we haven’t got nation-building in places where we have little material interest; do stand up to threats to international shipping and oil prices which affect our people at home.

But now let’s turn to the second proposition: it might not work. This is the reality we need to wrestle with, now. The Houthis might be plucky little fuckers, but that’s also the point — they have proved remarkably resilient. They have been fighting a civil war since 2014 against the assembled forces of the world’s richest powers: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the West. And they have won. Today, they control more than half of the population of Yemen and now run a de facto country of their own. We should not assume that we can easily succeed where the far more ruthless Mohammed bin Salman failed.

If anyone should know the difficulty of projecting power in this part of the world, it’s Britain. It was in Yemen — or part of what is today’s Yemen — where British forces had to be withdrawn in 1967 following a sustained campaign by local guerrillas. Some things never change.

And, then as now, one central facet of this war is that our power and wealth is not necessarily the advantage we assume it is. The Houthis are armed with cheap drones which we seem only capable of fighting with extraordinarily expensive missiles. They might be poor, but their war is less expensive than ours. But it’s also simpler. They want chaos; we demand order. And if there is anything we have learned over the past quarter of a century, it is that order is hard and expensive.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.