Washington Reacts to Biden’s Misguided Strikes on the Houthis

Washington Reacts to Biden’s Misguided Strikes on the Houthis

Why did the Biden administration strike the Houthis, and under what authority?

(ApostolisBril/Shutterstock)

It’s never a good sign when the Gray Lady assumes its readers do not know the group targeted in the latest American attack in the Middle East. “Who Are the Houthis and Why Is the U.S. Attacking Them?” read one Friday morning headline from the New York Times. You may not have known they were your enemies; Washington promises they are. If you ask, “Can America have enemies without attacking them,” Washington promises you can’t.

On Thursday, the White House announced that American and British forces carried out strikes on more than 60 targets spread across 16 sites in Yemen where the Houthis are known to operate. President Joe Biden claimed in a written statement that the strikes were to show the Houthis, and the Iranians who back the Houthis to a certain degree—per usual, it is much more complicated than the neocons make it seem—that the U.S. and allies “will not tolerate” the Houthis’ increased attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

“I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary,” Biden added.

CENTCOM’s Joint & Combined Air Component Command claimed the targets in Yemen were “command-and-control nodes, munitions depots, launching systems, production facilities and air defense radar systems.” The strikes included fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles launched from warships and submarines. The Houthis claimed Friday the strikes killed five and wounded six others.

Since the beginning of the war in Israel, the Houthis have engaged in attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, typically employing cheap drones that do minimal damage to their intended targets, though the psychological impact of the attacks seems to have been felt strongly in the Anglosphere. On rare occasions, the Houthis have employed relatively less-advanced missiles to carry out the strikes. The joint attack on Houthi positions Thursday came two days after the Houthi launched their largest attack on Red Sea targets. American and British military assets in the region scrambled to shoot down several of the Houthi drones and missiles.

After the Houthi attack Tuesday, Biden reportedly convened senior members of his administration and military officials to decide how the U.S. would respond. After he was presented with the military options, the president directed Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense who had gone missing for three days after being hospitalized in the ICU, to carry out the order from his hospital bed—the very day Austin made the administration aware of his cancer diagnosis for the first time.

The many unknowns surrounding Austin’s health episode and capacity to carry out his duties is “concerning,” John Allen Gay, the executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society, told The American Conservative by email. “The decision ultimately belongs with Biden, but it’s not clear how much the man below him in the chain of command was operating at peak performance as this took shape.”

What authority was the Biden administration operating under to attack the Houthis for the sake of the free flow of commercial goods?

“Presidents like to interpret Article II very broadly, and it appears Congress is going to do nothing in response to this assault on its power to declare war—a power specifically enumerated in Article I, Section 8,” Gay wrote. “Congress has been in session all week and was in session Friday after the strikes, so there’s no excuse for Biden failing to seek Congressional approval or for Congress failing to defend its prerogatives.”

“The administration looks like it’s claiming international law, particularly self defense, and the argument that’s been made before, especially by the Obama administration, that these strikes aren’t war in the sense that it implicates the need for Congress congressional authorization,” Will Ruger, president of the American Institute for Economic Research, told TAC via phone. 

Yet Ruger doesn’t think the administration’s line holds much water.

“Clearly, this is an act of warfare,” Ruger continued. “It should have been done by going to Congress, not only to maintain the constitutional principles at stake but also because having Congress involved allows for there to be greater deliberation that might improve the policy approach.”

The time that elapsed between the Houthis’ attack Tuesday and the U.S. and U.K. response could prove important. “It’s hard to call that immediate self defense,” Gay told TAC.

Bipartisan criticism of the president’s decision to strike the Houthis was swift.

“The President needs to come to Congress before launching a strike against the Houthis in Yemen and involving us in another Middle East conflict,” tweeted Rep. Ro Khanna of California. “That is Article I of the Constitution. I will stand up for that regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House.”

Khanna’s tweet merited quote tweets from Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah. “Ro is absolutely correct on this,” said Gaetz. “I totally agree,” Lee’s tweet read. “The Constitution matters, regardless of party affiliation.”

In a statement to TAC, Lee wrote, “Freedom of navigation activities are meant to act as a deterrent, not as a means to insert the United States into direct hostilities. U.S. offensive strikes against Houthi targets not only risk regional escalation, but were executed absent any authorization from Congress. Not even the most charitable reading of the 2001 AUMF would suggest Congress has authorized the use of military force against Iran or Iran’s proxies. It is time to seriously debate the 2001 AUMF.”

“We did not declare war,” Rep. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida tweeted. “Biden needs to address Congress!”

Rep. Bob Good of Virginia told TAC, “It is the Constitutional duty of Congress to be a check on the President and insure he is not unilaterally sending America into war.”

The new Freedom Caucus Chair continued, “While I believe striking the Houthi rebel areas in Yemen may have been warranted, President Biden is clearly violating the standards he articulated as necessary for informing Congress and the American people when President Trump completed strikes against Iran in 2020.“

The U.K.’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the British military’s actions were “limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defense…to degrade Houthi military capabilities and protect global shipping.”

Following the strike, the U.S. and U.K. were joined by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Korea in a statement claiming their intention is to de-escalate the situation in the Red Sea. France, however, abstained from signing on to the statement.

Despite the stated goal to de-escalate the situation and deter further Houthi attacks, a number of experts have claimed that, rather than the Houthis backing down, more attacks should be expected. Furthermore, American allies in the region, namely Qatar and Oman, warned the U.S. before the attack that this would not deter further strikes, but deepen Houthi resolve.

So, while the strikes have been given a veneer of deterrence rhetoric, any serious intent for the strikes to actually act as a future deterrent is doubtful. David Cameron, Britain’s foreign secretary and former prime minister, said the quiet part out loud in an interview with NBC: “If warnings aren’t heeded, consequences follow.”

“I think it sends a very clear message to the Houthis. But also to Iran as well,” he added later.

“This so-called restoration of deterrence will fail if the desired outcome doesn’t conform to what actually ends up happening. So if there’s an expectation already that, in fact, this will not lead to the preferred behavior, then so-called deterrence has failed,” Ruger told TAC. “But it’s not really deterrence that we’re talking about. Deterrence is when you signal that you’re going to do X, if the other actor does Y. Instead, this is a form of compellance. It’s aiming to compel the adversary to do something that you want it to do.”

“The language of deterrence is misleading,” Ruger concluded. “We’re trying to compel behaviors right now. Now whether it is good or bad policy to do so is another question. But I doubt it will be successful on its own.”

Chalk Biden’s strikes on the Houthis as one for the latter category, says Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona. “Pretty astonishing that we’re now bombing a group that President Biden delisted as a foreign terrorist organization just two years ago. Just more proof that Biden has botched every single major foreign policy decision. This administration has embodied the opposite of peace through strength,” Crane told TAC in a written statement.

“Nobody seems to expect this to actually stop Houthi attacks on shipping, so we’re likely to witness a continuing cycle of violence,” Gay told TAC.

As the situation escalates, it also becomes much more complex.

“If the Houthis manage to hit a U.S. ship, Biden will face pressure to act more decisively,” Gay explained. “U.S. forces in Djibouti are also very close to the Houthi-held part of Yemen. In theory the Houthis could also take shots at U.S. forces based around the Persian Gulf, but that would risk renewing the Yemeni civil war since those bases are in places like the UAE.” 

Then, of course, there is always the fear that a strike from the U.S. could bring America more squarely into conflict with Iran. “Some hawks are calling for us to take this fight straight to Tehran,” Gay claimed, but “that would not solve the Houthi issue.”

“If the Islamic Republic collapsed tomorrow, the Houthis would still be kicking around—they’d not be as capable but their power is not rooted in Iran,” he observed. “Remember, they captured a big chunk of Yemen and its former military. Yemen has had many wars—there’s a lot of military gear and knowledge floating around. Iran amplifies the Houthi problem. It didn’t create it.”

“Regardless of the extent of involvement of Iran with their own partners or proxies, the United States should be doing what it can to avoid, at this moment in time, sinking further and deeper into Middle Eastern disputes,” Ruger told TAC. The last 20 years should have at least taught American policy makers that much.

An unexpected party is calling for de-escalation: the Saudis. The kingdom’s foreign ministry called for “avoiding escalation” and emphasized “the importance of maintaining the security and stability of the Red Sea region, as the freedom of navigation in it is an international demand.” Furthermore, continued U.S. and U.K. involvement could endanger the U.N. negotiated ceasefire and the renewal of the Yemeni Crisis. 

“It’s notable that the Saudis have been wary of U.S. military action against the Houthis. It would be a great tragedy for Yemen if that war reopens,” Gay told TAC. “It also wouldn’t be good for the Saudis, who clearly want a period of regional quiet to enable MbS’s Vision 2030 to come to fruition. They want people to think of Saudi Arabia as a place of cool architectural wonders, historical sites like AlUla, and major cultural and sporting events. They don’t want people to think they’re going to be dodging Houthi drones.”

One last word, from Khanna: “If you had told me on Jan 20, 2021 that Biden would be ordering military strikes on the Houthis without Congressional approval while the Saudis would be calling for restraint and de-escalation in Yemen, I would never have believed it.”

The post Washington Reacts to Biden’s Misguided Strikes on the Houthis appeared first on The American Conservative.

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