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The Red Sea attacks highlight the erosion of US leadership in the region

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Six months into the Biden administration's Operation Prosperity Guardian, aimed at ensuring freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the primary challenge has not been the Houthi threat but the failure to garner robust international support. 

Although US forces have successfully intercepted projectiles from Yemen with minimal physical and economic impact, the international response remains fragmented and fraught with diplomatic tensions.

European and Gulf Discontent

European allies have expressed skepticism about US strategy, particularly due to disagreements over Washington's support for Israel's operations in Gaza and the strategic objectives of Operation Prosperity Guardian. This led to the EU's launch of its own maritime security operation, Aspides, on February 19. The creation of Aspides has caused friction between US and European officials, with the latter criticizing it as a sign of NATO disunity without providing a robust military alternative. The European operation faces significant challenges, including limited naval and air-defense capabilities, which raises questions about its sustainability and effectiveness.

The response from Gulf partners has also been tepid. Out of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, only Bahrain joined the US-led operation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, frustrated with Washington's inconsistent support regarding the Yemen conflict, have refrained from participating. The Gulf states view the current US campaign as insufficient and potentially counterproductive, fearing it might provoke Houthi retaliation and derail ongoing peace talks in Yemen.

Asian Powers' Stance

India, despite suffering from Houthi attacks on its shipping, has chosen not to join Operation Prosperity Guardian. This decision aligns with India's tradition of nonalignment and its desire to maintain operational autonomy. China, heavily reliant on the Red Sea for its economy, has also dismissed US cooperation offers. Beijing reached a nonaggression agreement with the Houthis, which was soon jeopardized by an attack on a Chinese-owned tanker, highlighting the risks of such diplomatic gambles.

Implications for US Middle East Policy

The inability of the US to unite its partners around Operation Prosperity Guardian underscores the erosion of American leadership in the region. However, no single power has stepped in to fill the void. European ambitions in maritime security are hampered by inadequate naval capabilities, while Gulf states have yet to provide a viable governance solution for the Red Sea, constrained by their limited naval reach and diplomatic inertia.

India and China continue to navigate their foreign policies by balancing cooperation with Western forces and avoiding deep entanglement in local conflicts. This strategic fragmentation exacerbates regional instability and hinders the formation of a cohesive security framework, not just in the Red Sea but across the Gulf and the broader Middle East.


Operation Prosperity Guardian highlights significant challenges for US foreign policy, illustrating a growing difficulty in mobilizing international support and shaping the security architecture in the Middle East. The divergent strategies and limited capabilities of European, Gulf, and Asian stakeholders further complicate efforts to ensure maritime security, leading to a politically fragmented and strategically precarious situation in the Red Sea region.

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Source: Atlantic Council