Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 31 January 2024


Biden’s Middle East Muddle


Seth Cropsey

Jan. 30, 2024 1:01 pm ET

A Greek-owned bulk carrier at the Suez Shipyard Co. in Ismailia, Egypt, Jan. 22. Photo: suez canal authority office/hand/Shutterstock

Sunday’s attack on U.S. forces in Jordan, which killed three soldiers, is the predictable result of months of escalation avoidance. Armed with only knock-off Chinese and Russian missiles, the Houthis and other Iran-backed proxies have put the U.S. in a precarious strategic position in the Middle East. The failure of America’s allies to step up and help counter the threat highlights the Biden administration’s lack of credibility in the region, one that finally led to a major attack on U.S. assets, three dead soldiers, and another two dozen plus wounded. A resurrection of American power—naval power especially—is the only way to restore that credibility, along with an air-naval campaign that actually degrades Iranian combat capacity.

Washington was full of tough talk in the days after Oct. 7. That rhetoric gave way almost immediately to public statements meant to mollify the Democratic Party’s left wing and soothe the wounded sensibilities of anti-Israel Obama holdovers in the administration. Soon the president and his team were speaking openly of reining in Israel. Today, with a string of leaks and off-the-record statements painting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a warmonger, the administration is trying to restrain Israel through political manipulation.

President Biden’s Gaza policy is an inconsistent mess that persistently gets the strategic equation backward, sapping his credibility in the eyes of allies. The administration thinks everything in the Middle East is only loosely related. This misunderstanding allows the U.S. to insist that the Palestinian question is central to Middle Eastern strategic stability. It leads the U.S. to try to restrain Israel from taking action against Iranian proxies in the Levant, which have, in the White House’s public view, little to do with the current violence in Gaza. The Houthis are considered bizarre and troublesome, but ultimately a sideshow.

A realistic reading of the region tells a different story. Iran is directing the Axis of Resistance—Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and various Iraqi militias—to pressure the U.S. and Israel. The Houthis and Hamas are two parts of an Iranian strategy to undermine Israeli power and eject the U.S. from the Middle East. Hamas’s job is to drive a wedge between Israel and the U.S., while the Houthis spoil global commerce and harass U.S. forces.

After weeks of Houthi provocation, the U.S. finally responded by assembling Operation Prosperity Guardian, a coalition to escort Red Sea shipping. American fighters, with token U.K. support, attacked Houthi targets on Jan. 11. The Red Sea harassment continued, so the U.S. hit them again on Jan. 23.

This approach was going to keep a lid on things only until Iran retaliated. The Jordan attack may be followed by a large salvo of antiship cruise missiles fired at U.S. and allied warships, or a ballistic-missile attack on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Neither country has joined Prosperity Guardian, nor has any other Arab power besides Bahrain.

The Arab states clearly don’t want a regional war that would cause enormous refugee flows, choke global energy markets, and potentially damage their own societies and infrastructure. But the U.S. could easily and quickly degrade the Houthis’ military capacity, especially if it placed another aircraft carrier in the region. The U.S. could also rapidly deploy air defense assets to Saudi Arabia and fly in American crews to operate the Saudi army’s Patriot systems. If Iran were to respond elsewhere, the U.S. could simply expand its campaign, hitting targets in Syria or striking Iranian naval targets, an action that ended Iranian predations in the Persian Gulf in 1988.

A more assertive policy wouldn’t lead immediately to de-escalation, but curtailing Iran’s primary offensive capabilities would force it to shift its strategic timeline. This would allow the U.S. to reconsolidate its regional position on firm ground. More critically, meaningful, demonstrated U.S. commitment to regional security might induce fence-sitting allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to make a choice. Unfortunately, the current president has no interest in assertiveness, and America’s ostensible allies are sitting the conflict out. The fruits of escalation management are now on full display—absent a response, there will be more attacks.

The Biden administration’s inability to shut down Houthi attacks on shipping is an embarrassment, one that has already led to escalation. It sends a signal of American weakness to bad actors around the world. Targeting Iranian assets in Syria, using U.S. air-naval forces already deployed to the Middle East, would punish directly those proxies that have attacked U.S. assets and relieve pressure in the western Levant.

A much bigger military to deter multiple contingencies is necessary at this point. The U.S. needs a military buildup akin to that of the interwar period, including large-scale investments in shipbuilding and munitions production, life-extension programs for elements of the fleet, and the creation of new, smaller warships suitable for lower-tier missions such as escorting convoys in the Red Sea. A bigger Navy wouldn’t remedy Mr. Biden’s escalation-avoidance policy. But it would provide future presidents with the tools necessary for the U.S. to remain the world’s dominant military power.

Mr. Cropsey is the president of the Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is author of “Mayday” and “Seablindness.”

Wonder Land: If you were an adversary looking at a U.S. uncertainty about its global leadership, what would you do? Answer: Up the ante—which is exactly what Iran, Russia and others are doing. Images: AP/AFP/Getty Images/Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the January 31, 2024, print edition.

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