By now you have probably learned that the up close and personal relationship the United States once had with the mid-eastern country of Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula has dissipated, since Yemen has been taken over by violent extremists who just happen to be Muslims with close connections to the Al Qaeda terrorist syndicate, as well as ISIS.
Maybe you're saying "so what," and feeling more than a little agitated about all this terrorist nonsense taking up broadcast and print space that could just as easily be devoted to the most recent entertainment awards show or political disputes. "What," you may be asking, "does any of this have to do with me?"
Well, welcome to the Gateway of Tears. What is the Gateway of Tears? It is a narrow waterway between Yemen and the east African country of Djibouti, which sits very uneasily between Ethiopia and Somalia.
This small body of water – 80 miles long by only about 20 miles wide at its widest point – is officially known as the Bab-el-Mandeb or the Mandeb Strait, and informally as the Gateway of Tears or the Gateway of Anguish. It connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, or, in reverse order it connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea which further connects to the Gulf of Suez, the Suez Canal and ultimately to the Mediterranean Sea.
Why does this matter? Oil, ladies and gentlemen, oil.
You see, while 90 percent of all international trade moves by ship – at least according to the US Navy – and the oceans of the world are vast and wide, there are less than a dozen or so chokepoints around the globe through which the vast majority of international shipping must move. To circumvent these chokepoints means thousands of extra miles per trip, per ship, and billions in extra annual costs.
Mideastern oil moving to international markets has two outlets from the Indian Ocean which is the preeminent body of water in that part of the globe.
Oil moving to European and American markets travels out of the Persian Gulf, through the Straits of Hormuz (chokepoint number one) and into the Arabian Sea which merges into the Indian Ocean. Traveling west the ships go to the Gulf of Aden, through the Mandeb Strait (chokepoint number two) to the Red Sea, Suez Canal (chokepoint number three) and onward. (If that ship passes out of the Mediterranean to Atlantic markets it must navigation the Straits of Gibraltar, chokepoint number four.)
To get to the Pacific markets ships must move through the Straits of Hormuz (chokepoint number one) and into the Arabian Sea which merges into the Indian Ocean, and from there through the Malacca Strait, (chokepoint number two for that trip) into the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. You may recall that recently an Air Asia jetliner disappeared in that area and the Malacca Strait gained international notoriety.
Control even two of those chokepoints and you control international oil transport. The freedom of movement through those chokepoints has been pretty much guaranteed for the past four decades, but now that is no longer certain. It is true that Iran regularly threatens to close down the Straits of Hormuz, but it also is true that the rest of the world regularly ignores the Iranian threats.
Now, however, we are facing another challenge. Djibouti is not a truly stable country, despite more than a decade of one-party rule. It has a small armed force and certainly could be seen as a viable target for manipulation to exert control over the Mandeb Strait, in collaboration with the new regime in Yemen. If it doesn't agree to do so peacefully, it could be coerced by threat of force.
So what are we going to do? Send drones over to teach them a lesson? Disarm the rest of our armed forces the way the State Department ordered the disarmament of the Marine embassy guards when the embassy in Yemen was abandoned? Engage in heartfelt discussions in which we try to see things from the terrorists' point of view?
Send out a sternly worded letter?
We need a plan; or expect to see oil prices skyrocket once again. Needlessly. Any ideas?