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.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.