“It was very thought out,” said a senior administration official, like others granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal thinking.
But that also means it took weeks to execute. The Biden administration’s critics have long said the U.S. needed to retaliate against the Houthis earlier. Only bombings would let militants and their Iranian backers know the U.S. was serious about putting an end to the missile attacks on transiting vessels. After
POLITICO reported in December that Biden and his team were weighing strikes, the chattering class’ unanimous reaction was to stop deliberating and act already. There’s also fear that Thursday night’s attack won’t stop the Houthis.
“It will unlikely deter future Houthis attacks, and we already saw them launch further attacks again today,” said Mick Mulroy, a top Pentagon official for the Middle East during the Trump administration.
Deliberation was baked in from the start.
For example, a Feb. 2021 rocket attack on U.S.-coalition forces in Iraq by Iranian proxies led to days of discussion before launching a retaliation 10 days later. “
You own the clock,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin advised Biden. The administration has followed that instinct ever since, often repeating “we will respond at a time and place of our choosing” whenever the U.S. considers a military action.
That dovetailed nicely with the instincts of the president, who for decades has been known as a deliberative decision-maker, one who demands scores of review from aides and expert consultations before eventually signing off on even relatively modest matters. And the potential ramifications of this strike, with the Middle East smoldering, were far from modest.
The U.S. waited for a while before hitting
more than 60 targets at 16 locations in Yemen, even as Houthi attacks escalated. Senior U.S. officials often warned the militants to stop in public sessions, stating that the Houthis would bear the consequences of continuing to attack the global shipping trade. The Houthis’
26th attack, launched this week, was foiled by U.S. and British ships in the region. That was enough for Biden, and he chose an option presented to him by aides to fight back.
The administration contends it used all that time well, however. It allowed for diplomatic means to curb an escalation. The creation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a coalition of more than 20 countries to safeguard Red Sea transit, also served as a diplomatic message to the Iran-backed Houthis: The world is against your missile launches.
In the meantime, the U.S. built a legal case and legitimacy for action by rallying allies. The
U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution Wednesday condemning the militant group’s attacks. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the measure underscores the Council’s support for navigational rights and freedoms of vessels of all states in the Red Sea in accordance with international law.”
Biden administration officials also used the diplomatic period to coordinate what an attack might look like with other countries. They wanted to understand the legal basis for the strikes,
a senior Pentagon official told POLITICO yesterday, along with precisely what the U.S. was asking them to contribute.
Ultimately, they each understood the assignment, paving the way for
five countries to take part in last night’s strikes.
The administration now has to deal with the fallout.
Rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans insist that Biden needed to seek congressional authorization for bombing the Houthis, though leading lawmakers —
including Speaker Mike Johnson — supported the strikes.
The U.S. and nine other countries argue the retaliatory attacks were allowed due to the “inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, consistent with the U.N. Charter.”
The president’s methodical approach was consistent with his well-known desire to exhaust diplomatic options and avoid dragging the United States into another Middle East war.
Biden’s eight years as vice president were consumed by American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and made a campaign pledge to remove troops from the latter after taking office. The August 2021 military withdrawal was chaotic and, at times, violent, sending the president’s poll numbers tumbling. But he held firm in his decision.
October strikes on an Iran-backed militant group in Syria came only after attacks on U.S. forces in the region exceeded the norm. The U.S. plan was calibrated to hit two facilities, including an ammunition storage area, to male a point but keep a lid on spiking tensions.
It’s unclear if that’ll work this time, though, as the
Houthis have already vowed to exact revenge. Reports have already surfaced of a fresh attack on a ship in the Red Sea.
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