After already launching multiple missile strikes on Yemen, without waiting to see if the action had sufficient deterrent effect, and despite 24 hours of near total inactivity by the Houthi, the United States launched a second round of strikes the following day.
After launching strikes from air, sea and submarine on January 11, the United States said they don’t want war or a conflict of any kind with Yemen, and then dropped missiles on them for a second straight day. It requires little imagination and historical knowledge to know whether the U.S. would consider two days of bombardment from air, sea, and submarine of its soil an act of war.
The United States and United Kingdom fired more than 150 missiles at more than 70 targets in Yemen.
There are layers of hypocrisy to the American bombing of Yemen. Perhaps the most important is that, though the U.S. is surely right when they say the Houthi attacks on ships are illegal, the American attacks on Yemen are no less illegal.
To be legal, a military attack on a country requires Security Council authorization or needs to be required for self defence. The United States has claimed it is exercising “its right to self-defence.” But, Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild, told me, “The use of military force in self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter can only respond to an armed attack by a state against another state…The Houthis do not constitute a state, nor did the state of Yemen condone the Houthi attacks. Thus, the Houthis did not mount an ‘armed attack’ on commercial or U.S. warships which would trigger the right to Article 51 self-defense.”
The only other way to legitimize such an attack under international law is Security Council authorization. But, Cohn points out, “The Council did not approve the military strikes on Yemen by the U.S. and the U.K.”
These military strikes are not only illegal under international law, they may be illegal under domestic U.S. law, though the case is complicated. Article I of the Constitution states that only Congress has the power to declare war.
There are many more layers to U.S. hypocrisy. The Houthi have explained that they were “performing their religious, moral and humanitarian duty in support and aid of those who have been wronged in Palestine and Gaza.” They promise to continue their operations in the Red Sea “until adequate supplies of food and medicine are allowed into Gaza.” The Houthi say they are targeting Israeli ships or ships that are delivering cargo to or from Israel. The United States is supporting one embargo by punishing another embargo.
This condemnation of an embargo when it is detrimental to you or your partners but tolerance of an embargo when it benefits you or your partners is an example of the invocation of the rules-based order that so infuriates countries that are not part of the U.S.-led political West.
The essence of international law, which is grounded in the charter system and the United Nations, is that it is applied universally. If embargoes and sanctions not approved by the Security Council are wrong, then they are wrong for all parties, not just particularly the Houthi. The United States is appealing, not to international law, but to the rules-based order, whose laws are unwritten, lack consent, and seem to only be invoked when they benefit the U.S. and its partners. The military attack on the Houthi for their embargo in support of another embargo seems to much of the world to be hypocritical.
There may be an even more personally and painfully felt hypocrisy for the people of Yemen. While the United States bombs Yemen for its illegal blockade, it did or said little to stop the Saudi-led coalition’s naval and air blockade of Yemen that began in 2015. Instead, Washington supported Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. The blockade “severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law.” The UN estimates that almost 60% of Yemen’s 370,000 deaths from the war have been from “indirect causes such as lack of food, water, and health services.” International law needs to be applied universally. There is a cruel hypocrisy to the United States’ selective application of the rules-based order in its military condemnation of a Houthi blockade that is illegal under international law.
And finally, there is hypocrisy in the United States’ objection to the Houthi attacking and boarding commercial ships at sea. In September 2023, the U.S. seized a commercial ship that was carrying Iranian oil in defiance of U.S. sanctions against Iran. 980,000 tons of Iranian oil were unloaded by the United States, and Iran never received compensation for that oil.
International law requires the universal application of the law. The United States has demonstrated hypocrisy in responding to the Houthi’s illegal actions with military action that is itself illegal under international law. It has demonstrated hypocrisy in its selective condemnation of blockades. And it has hypocritically condemned attacks on commercial ships when it has itself seized a commercial ship and confiscated its cargo.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.