Two Typhoon fight jets, this type of plane was used by the British to conduct airstrikes on Yemen (Picture: Jerry Gunner on Flickr) US

In Heart of Darkness (1899), his famous novella about European colonialism in Africa, Joseph Conrad describes a French battleship “firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish; a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech —and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.”

Nothing has so reminded me so much of this image as the cruel and futile airstrikes mounted by the United States and Britain against Yemen.

The justifications of these attacks by Joe Biden and David Cameron flaunt the arrogance of Western power. But in fact the operation is a confession of impotence.

The mainstream media endlessly dismisses the Houthi movement that controls much of Yemen as “proxies” of Iran.

But its campaign in solidarity with Palestine to disrupt the flow of shipping through the Red Sea has deep local roots.

Yemen has for decades been a battleground in the struggle among Western imperial and regional powers in the Middle East.

In the 19th century Britain carved out the colony of Aden in southern Yemen to control the communications of its Indian empire.

As its colonial power crumbled in the 1960s, Britain allied with the Saudi royal family to prevent president Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt from spreading militant Arab nationalism to Yemen.

Leftist guerrilla campaigns spread across the Gulf. Britain waged a vicious counter-insurgency war to hang on to Aden. Colonel Colin Mitchell, later a Tory MP, awarded a Robertson’s Jam Gollywog sticker to any of his men who killed an Arab.

Britain was forced out of Aden in November 1967 but was more successful in helping the Sultan of Oman crush a revolt in Dhofar province.

The Houthi movement—inspired by Shia Islam—is the product of a later wave of struggle, sparked by the Arab revolutions of 2011.

With Western backing, the Saudis waged a seven-year campaign to crush it, in which hundreds of thousands were killed by bombing, disease, and hunger.

Despite Saudi conventional military superiority, the Houthis fought them to a standstill. China, now the biggest importer of Middle East energy, recently brokered a resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Riyadh is seeking to turn a cease fire in Yemen into a permanent settlement with the Houthis.

The regional balance of power is shifting against Western imperialism. This is why the Saudis reacted to the US-British airstrikes by warning against “escalation” and Oman said they went “against our advice”.

It is extremely unlikely that the Western military action will end the Yemeni attacks on shipping.

The Washington Post quotes Ibrahim Jalal, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, who “described the Houthis as a nimble militant group hardened by years of guerrilla warfare in Yemen and weathering years of Saudi-led airstrikes.

“They have ‘little in the way of large-scale, permanent military sites’, he said, ‘and instead use mobile launchpads for rockets and drones in addition to networks of tunnels and caves that makes their targeting highly complicated.’ 

“The strikes Friday, Jalal said, were ‘surgical, largely tactical and symbolic’. He doubted they work as a deterrent.

“‘The Houthis have too little to lose,’ he said, and much to gain. The war in Gaza has enabled the group to position itself as the defender of the Palestinian cause in the region, winning public support at home and abroad and distracting from domestic discontent.”

Biden has threatened more military action if the Houthis don’t relent. What does this mean? Bigger airstrikes, killing more civilians?

One of the main lessons of 20th century history is that bombing pushes affected populations towards, not away from their governments. What next? Sending in troops?

The trans-Atlantic right are talking up war with Iran, which they wrongly brand the Houthis’ puppet-master.

But according to one estimate, the US would need 1.8m troops to occupy Iran. The active-duty US armed forces are only 1,335,000.

Conquering Iran is simply beyond US military capabilities. Once again, as in the case of the Iraq War, the Middle East is confronting US imperialism with the limits of its power.

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