There is a clear legal and moral case for destroying the Houthi missile and drone bases which are disrupting international shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is far less clear why it should be the Americans and British leading these attacks. It is also likely that our and the Americans' prominent involvement is counter-productive.

The case for trying to destroy the Houthi bases is easily established. The wide range of international ships so far attacked or threatened have a right to self-defence, already being delivered by the loose multi-national naval force gathered there for the purpose. It is a reasonable additional step to go from destroying drones and missiles in the air to destroying their firing points and launch strip.

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Very many countries are seriously affected: China, with its big merchant fleet and vast involvement in maritime trade; the EU, along with Britain, Turkey - and Russia, which has had an oil cargo attacked - on this side of Suez and the countries of the Far East, South Asia and the Arabian Gulf on the other, with their massive trade in goods and fuel; India, which besides getting and sending cargo on a large scale provides, with the Philippines, many of the crew members at risk; and Norway, Greece and others, which own large number of trading ships.

Many of these countries have strong navies. Many of them already have ships in the area taking part in defensive operations. Even if the structures of the UN and IMO found it difficult to put together a formally mandated UN-sponsored force, it should not have been hard to gather a broad grouping to carry out more offensive operations against the Houthi, if they thought that useful and feasible.

Proportionate offensive operations, with care to prevent civilian casualties, and reasonable chances of success would probably be covered by the broad wording of UN Security Council Resolution 2723. The US/UK attacks are justifiable. But why us? Is our all-too-familiar pairing the most politically astute version of a multinational force that could be put together? And is the combined effect, militarily and politically, likely to be as good as alternatives?

The US and UK can put together powerful forces quickly. We have had years of working together. We have the equipment (though getting stretched on the UK side) and logistic capability. But, given the apparent ineffectiveness of years of bombing of Houthi by expensively equipped Saudi air and missile forces, will the American-British air aids achieve much in military terms? The signs from the first rounds are unconvincing. Attacks by a broader-based coalition, perhaps lower-tech and later, would not necessarily have been less effective militarily.

The Herald: Iranian demonstrators burn representations of British, U.S. and Israeli flags during a protest against the U.S. and British military strike against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, in front of the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi).Iranian demonstrators burn representations of British, U.S. and Israeli flags during a protest against the U.S. and British military strike against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, in front of the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi). (Image: free)

The countries with a genuine, sometimes urgent need to keep the sea route open include many with real naval capabilities: for instance, India, with at least one warship involved in protective duties, which has already shown itself effective in action, has two aircraft carriers. French naval ships have also shot down drones. Djibouti, on the opposite side of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait from Houthi-held Yemen at the southern end of the Red Sea hosts military bases of French, US, Japanese, Italian and Chinese forces. It might have taken longer but, if an offensive force was needed against the Houthis’ launch strips, other less allergy-inducing coalitions were available.

What about the political effect? If even just the nominal co-ordinators of the attacks had been, say, India and Turkey, it would have been clearer to the world that this was an international response to an unacceptable assault on world trade and innocent seafarers. For the Houthis’ PR department, if they have one, it must have been a welcome break to discover that they were suddenly at war with the familiar, unpopular US/UK coalition. They now present themselves as fighting on behalf of alienated Arabs in a way they never could while backed just by Shi’a Iran.

So why have we done it? Joe Biden is under pressure in an election year to be seen to get things done. In the Middle East, his own diplomatic stance and that of the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has been sophisticated and even, within its excruciating limitations, partly successful. But America’s clout has looked thin, with Russian intervention recently decisive in Syria and Israel openly ignoring US appeals and demands. In this context, “degrading” Houthis “kinetically” can have a crude appeal to a domestic audience.

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And why Britain? Rishi Sunak, similarly, faces elections and wants to look assertive internationally while things are difficult at home, a common reflex for heads of government. Additionally, successive administrations in recent years have made much of their global interests and capabilities. The raids may well have been seen as an opportunity to demonstrate this. Beyond that, it is always hard for a British Government to say No to direct US requests. The Prime Minister will also have been tempted by an enthusiastic Defence Staff, who also find it difficult to turn down the Americans. “Come on, you guys can do it. You’re the only ones we can count on and who have the capacity and know-how” is a pitch British generals and admirals find flattering, understandably, and awkward to reject.

For both countries, the action seems to be more important than the effect: “comfort bombing” in the distinctly uncomfortable words last week of Dr Afzal Ashrif of Loughborough University.

We should not be shy about taking action when it is useful and we can. But this time, there is no obvious reason why, other than from old habit, we should be more prominent in the operation than our French, Spanish, Norwegian, Greek or Turkish NATO allies. And, in this region above all, there are good strategic reasons for not presenting ourselves again in the old favourite villain combo of the Americans and UK.

George Fergusson is a retired senior diplomat who was Head of the Foreign Policy Team in the Cabinet Secretariat, 2003-06.