John R. Bolton was national security adviser under President Donald Trump and is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” which will soon be published in paperback with a new foreword.
President Biden’s justifiable focus on the Hamas-Israel conflict is perilously diverting his attention from acts of war by other Iranian proxies against American targets in the Middle East. We must answer Iran’s belligerence with more than words, thus demonstrating plainly that these acts must cease.
For two months, hostile acts have accumulated. Since Oct. 17, when the attacks began, Shiite militias have struck U.S. military and civilian targets in Syria and Iraq more than 100 times, most recently rocketing our Baghdad embassy for the first time in over a year. Thus far, there have been at least 66 casualties. Yemen-based Houthi terrorists have made numerous attacks against commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea. A U.S. destroyer recently shot down a suspected Houthi drone headed its way during one such attack on a commercial vessel.
Only the credulous doubt that Iran’s regional surrogates are acting in concert in the current crisis. Iran’s surrogates explicitly see these disparate attacks as retaliation for Israel’s efforts to eliminate Hamas in Gaza. Senior Biden administration officials have unambiguously stated that Iran is not only financially supporting but also directing and helping plan Houthi attacks. And Iran’s foreign minister was even more blunt, recently telling the New York Times that “if the U.S. continues its military, political and financial support of Israel and helps manage Israel’s military attacks on Palestinian civilians, then it must face its consequences.”
To date, Biden’s responses have been minimal and inadequate. Infrequent, pinprick attacks against Shiite militia positions in Iraq signal weakness, not resolve. They have failed to reduce militia attacks. While it’s true that these Iranian attacks have yet to produce mass casualties among our armed forces, it’s not for lack of Iran trying. “They are aiming to kill,” one defense official recently remarked. “We have just been lucky.” And as former Central Command head Frank McKenzie put it recently, “we’ve given them no reason not to continue” attacking.
The Biden administration is not only failing to establish even minimal deterrence; it seems incapable of thinking strategically about U.S. interests in the region, dismaying friends and allies alike.
Protecting freedom of navigation has always been a core U.S. security priority. Ships transiting the Red Sea, from the Suez Canal to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, have proved to be convenient targets for the Houthis. Roughly 12 percent of global trade, amounting to as much as 30 percent of global container traffic, sails this route. The 2021 blockage of the Suez Canal by a ship that ran aground severely disrupted global markets.
The persistent attacks have already spiked maritime insurance rates. Four of the world’s largest shippers, after direct hits or near misses on their vessels, have “paused” entries into the Red Sea. Oil giant BP has followed suit with its fleet of tankers. Smaller shipping companies won’t be far behind. Ships will be sent around Africa, adding costs and delays to a still fragile international supply chain. Oil prices are already rising because of the uncertainty.
The Biden administration has sought to set up a multinational force to escort commercial traffic. But this is a purely defensive measure and therefore insufficient. Like the pinprick attacks against Shiite militias, it will not deter the land-based, mobile Houthis or their Iranian weapons suppliers. The administration has asked Houthis to stop their attacks and imposed limited sanctions. That, too, will not do much.
Biden delisted the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization within a month of taking office in 2021. For starters, he should immediately redesignate them as such. And he should overcome any compunction within his team about striking the Houthis directly.
But he should also think more broadly. Iran is incontrovertibly behind all these escalations, and it needs to receive a strong signal that its behavior is unacceptable. Washington must establish clear deterrence, including through using force. By imposing costs on Iran now, it will lessen the odds of more extensive escalation later.
Iranian military assets in the Red Sea or naval bases along the Persian Gulf are logical deterrence-establishing targets. Even attacks against Iranian territorial air defenses or Quds Force bases in Iran would signal resolve but not regime-threatening intentions. Let Iran worry for now whether its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs are also at risk.
Iran is not looking for ways to live with America in the Middle East. Tehran wants us out, particularly from our gulf military bases. Tehran also wants Israel further isolated and ultimately eliminated. None of this should be acceptable to the United States.
To the mullahs, U.S. restraint shows not good faith but civilizational decline. We never strike Iran, and the mullahs draw the appropriate conclusions. Powerful retaliatory strikes against Iran’s surrogates alone might establish deterrence, but Washington is not even trying that.
Deterrence is based not on rhetoric but on power and performance. Time is running out for Biden to get the point.
This article was first published in The Washington Post on December 20, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.