As a U.S.-led coalition steps up airstrikes to suppress Houthi attacks on international shipping, progressives are accusing President Biden of going back on his promise to keep America out of “forever wars” in the Middle East.
It’s a bum rap that confuses cause and effect. What’s the greater evil, an outbreak of maritime terrorism or the United States using force to stop it? On the left, the habit of blaming America first dies hard.
Biden is walking a tightrope between a U.S. public leery of being dragged back into the region’s endemic violence by the Israel-Hamas war, and Houthi attacks that are disrupting routes where about 12 percent of global trade passes through.
Americans don’t relish open-ended military engagements anywhere, but our enemies get a vote, too. Today’s Middle East landscape is littered with Iran-backed jihadist groups who see themselves as waging a Holy War to erase Israel from the map. They know they can’t do that without driving the United States from the region.
There’s no time limit on their apocalyptic vision, and fighting is what they do for a living. They also are showing greater sophistication in couching their jihadist project in an “anti-colonialist” narrative, with videos that go viral on TikTok.
The Iran-centered “axis of resistance” confronts U.S. policymakers with two realities that the progressive activists would prefer not to think about.
First, as long as America remains committed to Israel’s survival, U.S. leaders can’t plausibly promise to disengage militarily from the Middle East.
Second, even if Israel were to declare a ceasefire, crack down on lawless settlers and start negotiating a two-state solution, Hamas, Iran and their terrorist allies wouldn’t stop plotting Israel’s extinction.
Do left-wing activists and students chanting jihadist slogans (“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”) understand this, or are they simply naïve? Either way, it makes you wonder what they learn in college.
The Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite tribe, have been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-dominated government since 2004. Armed and funded by their sectarian allies in Tehran, they’ve also picked fights with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sparking a proxy war that has taken a ferocious toll on Yemeni civilians.
Now the Houthis are assaulting oil tankers and container ships passing through the Suez Canal and Red Sea. They say it’s their way of showing solidarity with Hamas and Gaza civilians killed by Israel.
But the Houthis also seek to elevate their status in the axis of resistance, which in addition to Hamas and Islamic Jihad includes Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shia militias in Syria and Iraq. Houthi leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi calls it “a great honor and blessing to be confronting America directly.”
Just as global supply chains are returning to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Houthi attacks are forcing shipping lines to divert traffic around the Horn of Africa. That detour adds 7-9 days to the passage and jacks up cargo prices.
The United States traditionally has deemed protecting free navigation in global sea lanes a core national interest. Biden’s decision to join other countries in upholding that principle nonetheless has drawn knee-jerk opposition from many progressives.
While some invoke the “endless war” cliché, their chief complaint is that Biden acted without congressional authority. The Constitution vests Congress with the power to declare war and designates the president as commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces. How to balance those constitutional duties is a perennially thorny legal question.
But the Houthis are yet another Islamist terror group, and Biden gets the authority he needs to use military force against them from the 2001 law Congress passed after 9/11 to deal specifically with episodic outbreaks of terrorism. For all their slick videos on social media, the Houthi slogan makes their real motives clear: “God is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.”
Western intelligence agencies report that the Houthis are asking Iran for more weapons to replace those lost in coalition airstrikes and ship seizures. And regardless of what happens in Gaza, they will keep fighting to take over Yemen and add it to Iran’s rejectionist axis.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Shia proxies have upped the tempo of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, and Biden struck back at them this week. Iran, says Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is “trying to create a cycle of violence that leads to the eviction of U.S. forces from the region, beginning with Iraq.”
Civilian deaths in Gaza are falling as Israel begins a tactical shift from mass bombardment to lower-intensity counterterrorism. The debate on whether that should have happened sooner is valid and doubtless will rage on.
But let’s keep cause and effect straight. It’s not Israel that keeps plunging the Middle East into round after round of depraved violence, it’s Iran and its network of affiliated terrorists.
Hamas is still raining missiles on Israel, which also just lost 21 troops in the fighting in Gaza. If its armed forces fail to destroy or severely degrade Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure, it won’t be long before Hamas resumes its bloodthirsty attacks on Israeli civilians. And Palestinians can expect Hamas to use them as human shields again, knowing that world opinion will demand that Israel put a higher value on civilian lives than Hamas does.
Israeli forces are also bracing for large-scale operations against Hezbollah, whose rocket attacks have forced the evacuation of northern Israel. Surrounded on all sides by terrorists equipped and sanctified by religious fanatics in Tehran, Israel is fighting for its life.
Its enemies loathe America too, and they are testing our resolve and stamina to stand by our beleaguered friend and ally, despite its present government’s grievous shortcomings. Unlike his critics, President Biden is passing that test.
Will Marshall is the founder and president of the Progressive Policy Institute.
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