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US Attacks In Yemen Sharpen Biden’s Military And Political Dilemmas

US Attacks In Yemen


US and British airstrikes against Iran-backed militants in Yemen represent a significant escalation of the conflict in the Middle East – and come despite weeks of efforts by President Joe Biden to head off a wider war.

All this occurred at a moment of deep political significance as Biden steps up his reelection campaign – amid fierce Republican criticism of his global leadership skills and foreign policy, especially from his most likely GOP opponent in November, ex-President Donald Trump. While the strikes were not a surprise, given intensified US warnings in recent days, they also took place a day after GOP presidential candidates Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley criticized Biden for being too slow to act to protect US forces and assets in the Middle East.

The strikes follow a worsening barrage of drones and missiles from Houthi rebels targeting commercial shipping in the Red Sea, a strategic waterway critical to the global economy. Those attacks are part of a pressure campaign against Israel and the US in the region, orchestrated by Iran through its proxies, in reaction to the war in Gaza. That means the US and UK operations carry an extra layer of risk because they essentially targeted the vital interests of the Islamic Republic.

While the Biden administration is desperate to avoid being sucked into a new Middle East conflict, especially with US troops in the firing line in Iraq and Syria, it had reached a point where action became inevitable. White House demands for a halt to Houthi attacks were being ignored. The credibility of US power in the region was on the line and there was an imperative to reestablish some form of deterrence.

“These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes,” Biden said in a statement. “I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”

The rationale for acting is that re-establishing deterrence could prompt the Houthis, and by extension Iran, to step back – and thus avoid a more perilous escalation on the premise that Tehran wants to avoid a wider conflict just as the US does.

But in such a volatile environment, with pro-Iranian groups stacked through the Middle East within easy range of Israel and US assets, the potential for retaliation and a pan-regional conflict is a realistic and dangerous possibility. And recent history shows the limited capacity of the US to exert its will on the Middle East.

A president’s agonizing choices

Given these stakes, Thursday evening’s action underscored the extreme demands of the presidency – a position that often involves choosing between unfavorable options with potentially grave consequences. At the same time, a failure to act and enforce US red lines and interests might be the worst choice of all – a conundrum that often pushes presidents into using military force.

This lonely presidential balancing act comes with added complications for Biden since it’s taking place just as the 2024 presidential election campaign cranks into a higher gear and as Republicans attack him for a failure to impose his will on the world amid rising challenges to US power.

Just four days before the Iowa caucuses open the GOP nominating race, Trump is conjuring a vision of a globe on the brink of a third world war, as he puts himself forward as the kind of strongman needed to restore order. This is a paradoxical message given the uproar of the former president’s first term and his habit of alienating US allies, but it is one that some voters find attractive. The Republican critique of Biden’s global leadership is tied to the narrative that, at 81, he is incapable of exercising US authority and is therefore unfit to serve a second term.

In another potential area of vulnerability for Biden, he ordered the strikes at a time when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remained in the hospital following complications after surgery for prostate cancer. Austin is at the center of a political storm after it emerged that he had been at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for three days before the White House was informed. The oversight has prompted criticism that he had put national security at risk.

Republicans welcome the strikes but criticize Biden anyway

There was no immediate reaction to the strikes from Republican presidential candidates who typically blast Biden as weak.

But DeSantis and Haley complained in the CNN Debate in Des Moines on Wednesday that the administration needed to more robustly exert power in the region to protect US troops.

“We’re supposed to have their backs. And Biden has been slow. He’s been hiding in a corner and he hasn’t dealt with it,” Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, said. “We need to go and take out every bit of the production that they have that’s allowing them to do those strikes.”

DeSantis said “anyone with half a brain” knew that Iran was behind the instability in the Middle East and he accused Biden of doing too little to protect American forces. “He’s leaving them out to dry, and I think it’s disgraceful for a commander in chief to do that,” the Florida governor said.

The hyper-politicized nature of US foreign policy was evident in the response from key GOP leaders in Congress, who welcomed the strikes but also faulted the president for not acting sooner.

“I am hopeful these operations mark an enduring shift in the Biden Administration’s approach to Iran and its proxies,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. “To restore deterrence and change Iran’s calculus, Iranian leaders themselves must believe that they will pay a meaningful price unless they abandon their worldwide campaign of terror.”

Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said, “This strike was two months overdue, but it is a good first step toward restoring deterrence in the Red Sea.” He added: “It is time to dispense with the hollow talk of ‘joint resolutions’ and ‘maritime task forces.’ This strike should be a warning to the Houthis and other Iranian proxies that they will suffer catastrophic consequences from escalation in the region.”

The alarming developments in the Middle East reflect the extraordinary challenges facing an incumbent running for reelection. While Biden’s would-be opponents have the luxury of lacking official responsibilities, a president must consider the geo-strategic and humanitarian implications of their actions. Sometimes that means acting in the national interest in a way that may harm their political interests. Anytime commanders in chief use force, the reverberations can easily race out of their control. In a world full of increasing challenges to US power – especially from adversaries like China and Russia, who delight in testing and embarrassing US leaders – such risks become more acute with every election cycle.

In another age, a military venture with US troops in harm’s way might promote a rallying-around-the-flag effect that could help a president. But given the fracturing of America’s politics, Biden should not expect any payoff in the 2024 campaign from his decision to strike against the Houthis. And if the strikes work, he’s unlikely to get the credit for stabilizing the situation. If they don’t, a dangerous escalation of the situation could prove ruinous for him politically.

Biden also cannot ignore the possibility that deepening US involvement in the conflict in the Middle East – sparked by the Hamas terror attacks in Israel on October 7 and Israel’s move into Gaza, which has killed thousands of civilians  – could cause him problems within his own party. Many progressive Democrats are already dismayed at Biden’s staunch support for Israel amid the carnage of Palestinian civilians. There are signs that Biden’s electoral coalition is fraying, with hardening criticism of Israel among younger voters across the country and among Arab Americans in the critical swing state of Michigan for instance.

Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib argued Biden was violating Article I of the Constitution by carrying out airstrikes in Yemen without congressional approval. “The American people are tired of endless war,” the progressive Democrat wrote on X. Fellow Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri said the move is “illegal and violates Article I of the Constitution.” She added: “The people do not want more of our taxpayer dollars going to endless war and the killing of civilians.”

But Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, backed Biden – though he expressed concern about the possibility that the situation in the Middle East could continue to worsen. He called on the “Biden administration to continue its diplomatic efforts to avoid escalation to a broader regional war and continue to engage Congress on the details of its strategy and legal basis as required by law.”

The implication of Biden’s statements and indications to CNN from senior US officials was that Thursday’s strikes may not be the end of US operations against the Houthis.

If that’s the case, Biden’s complex weighing of national security and political interests is likely to be a constant companion as he seeks to convince Americans he is the best bet to keep the country safe in a second term.

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This Article was originally published on CNN.

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