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Biden Admin Shifts the Goal Posts on Yemen Strikes

What goal is the Biden administration trying to accomplish with more strikes on the Houthi rebels?

President Biden Meets With Mexican President Obrador In The Oval Office
(Photo by Chris Kelponis-Pool/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the United States executed further attacks on Houthi rebel positions inside Yemen. Per U.S. officials, the strikes destroyed four anti-ship ballistic missiles that the Houthis were purportedly preparing to launch as they continue their campaign of Red Sea commerce disruption.

This is the latest in a series of American strikes against the Houthis, who have been targeting shipping since the outbreak of war between Israel and Gaza. On January 12, the U.S. and the U.K. launched a coordinated strike on Houthi rebel positions, taking aim at more than 60 targets across 16 sites where the Houthis are known to operate in Yemen. Tuesday’s strikes were on a smaller scale than the earlier attack, and U.S. officials told POLITICO the action was not pre-planned, but rather taken quickly to prevent what officials believed to be an imminent attack. The head of U.S. Central Command reportedly gave the order to carry out Tuesday’s preemptive strikes. In response, the Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile at a Maltese-flagged and Greek-owned commercial vessel in the Red Sea. While damaged, the ship did not sink.

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In Washington, some Republicans cheered the continuation of escalatory strikes against the Houthi rebels, currently being used by the war party as a proxy for attacking Iran. How long attacking the Houthis will scratch that itch, only time will tell.

“From day one, the Biden Administration met Iranian aggression with accommodation and squandered the credibility of American deterrence,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted. “It’s time for [President Biden] to explain how exactly he intends to compel Iran and its proxies to change their behavior.”

Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, piled on. “Removing [the Houthis] from the list of terror organizations was a deadly mistake and another failed attempt to appease the Ayatollah,” he said in a statement. “Joe Biden’s weakness and poor judgement [sic] continues to put our security at risk.”

Senator Deb Fischer concurred. “Now, the administration needs to take the next step and formally designate the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” the Nebraska Republican tweeted.

Other Republicans were not so enthusiastic. “It’s in Congress’s constitutional purview to declare war—meaning Biden needs to make the case to this body so we’re not haphazardly drawn into another forever war,” Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona told The American Conservative via email. “Considering this admin’s short but plentiful history of screwing up every foreign policy decision, Congress’s check on this power is even more dire.”

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“I am concerned that U.S. action, like the recent airstrikes on Houthi targets, is starting to blur the line between defense of U.S. forces in the region and unauthorized escalatory offense,” claimed Senator Mike Lee in an email to TAC.

“Eroding this distinction is dangerous for two reasons,” the Utah senator explained. “First, it allows the Biden administration to hide behind the standard lines of ‘defense of forces in the region’ or ‘freedom of navigation’ while at the same time increasing U.S. engagement in the region without specified strategic ends. We’ve been down this road before and we know it costs the U.S. blood and treasure for little gain. Second, justifying the President’s offensive actions under the guise of defensive aims erases any Constitutional check on the Commander-in-Chief’s power. Congress, the only branch of our government empowered to declare war, surrenders a vital enumerated power if it allows any president of any party to proceed like this unchecked.”

As McConnell and company suggested, the administration is working quickly to list the Houthi rebels as “specially designated global terrorists.” In the early days of the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reversed a late-Trump administration decision to list the Houthis as both a foreign terrorist organization and specially designated global terrorists. Choosing to re-list the Houthis as the latter but not the former provides a carve out to parties that provide “material support” to the Houthi rebels and does not impose the same travel bans. Given the Houthi rebel movement is broad, and the administration wants to see a continuation of providing Yemen humanitarian assistance, the administration’s choice to list the Houthis as specifically designated global terrorists is attempting to chart a middle course.

Beyond the wide-ranging nature of the Houthi movement, the Houthi rebel movement’s place in the dynamic Middle East landscape with a bevy of non-state actors isn’t so simple as establishment hawks let on.

“The Houthis do receive military assistance from Iran, but they are not Tehran’s lapdog. They often act independently and have displayed strategic agency,” Arta Moeini, the research director for the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, told TAC. “They are a deeply ideological and revolutionary movement that feel a sense of solidarity with the Palestinians. They are doing what they can to raise the cost of the Gaza war for Israel and the United States.”

As for the Biden administration, the goal posts for what these strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen are meant to accomplish are already shifting. “We did not say when we launched our attacks, they’re gonna end once and for all,” claimed national security adviser Jake Sullivan at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday. 

Yet, according to a statement signed by the U.S., U.K., Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Korea, the intention of the Jan. 12 strikes were to de-escalate the situation in the Red Sea. If proclaimed acts of deterrence don’t deter, then what’s the point?

Sullivan appears to be waking up to that reality. “We have to guard against and be vigilant against the possibility that in fact, rather than heading towards de-escalation, we are on a path of escalation that we have to manage,” Sullivan said in his Davos remarks.

“Using the past two years as evidence, any foreign action the Biden admin engages in endangers the U.S. in some way or another. What should have been a clean withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into a massive windfall for the Taliban and a stain on America,” Crane told TAC. “Could our national security benefit from strikes on Houthis in Yemen? Sure. Is it likely this administration will execute these strikes in a manner that strengthens the U.S. and keeps us out of another forever war? I’m pretty doubtful.”

“It is highly doubtful that these strikes will change Houthi behavior or establish deterrence,” Moeini told TAC prior to Tuesday’s tit-for-tat. “The attacks were meant to establish US credibility and deterrence, but they risk further entangling the US in the middle east and fueling a regional war, endangering American military personnel to protect foreign ships moving foreign goods and peoples in distant waters.”

What that entanglement looks like is frightening: “The United States and its handful of allies are now party to a war in Yemen whose real causes lie in the Israeli-palestinian conflict,” Moeini explained. “If Biden doubles down and commits more forces to fight the Houthis, then it will be open season on thousands of US troops stretched across the Middle East from Bahrain to Iraq to Syria.”