It’s not yet widely understood just how close the United States and North Korea came to war in the spring of 2018. Kim Jong Un’s provocative nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2017 represented genuine threats, yet Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” temperament is poorly suited to crafting and implementing measured responses. John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Trump is not—and to political appointees such as me reading daily intelligence reports and hearing of contingency plans, a second Korean War seemed not just possible but likely.
At the time I was a Department of Homeland Security official finishing a rotation leading an interagency group focused on transnational organized crime and sought a follow-on assignment pertinent to the looming Korean conflict. I interviewed for the vacant post of general counsel of the Department of the Navy with that service secretary and the Pentagon chief of staff, but I was blocked from the nomination by the White House personnel office for being insufficiently loyal to Trump—a charge to which I plead guilty.
As a reserve military intelligence officer fortunate to be assigned to a special operations unit, I then asked if I could alternatively do something useful in uniform. This appealed to the romantic in me: My boyhood heroes Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill resigned far bigger political appointments than mine to serve, respectively, in Cuba with the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry—the famous Rough Riders—during the Spanish-American War, and on the Western Front with the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers during World War I. To aid with the Korean contingency, the military agreed to my request, and sent me to Yemen.
A brilliant, hard-bitten admiral leading special operations in the Middle East explained why.
The U.S. would need to bring most of our Navy to any war in Korea, or especially Taiwan: The Pacific Fleet isn’t big enough to defeat China’s navy on its own, so adequate warning and time for reinforcement is of the essence. The quickest way to build the necessary naval force is for America’s Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets to sail east through the Suez Canal, Red Sea, Bab el-Mandab Strait, Indian Ocean, and Strait of Malacca into the western Pacific, rather than sail south and around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, or west through the Panama Canal.
But Yemen, which abuts the Bab el-Mandab Strait, is a failed state and vast wasteland riven by civil war, famine and plague. One of our liaison partners’ commanders kept a chained, one-eyed jungle cat as a pet, which seemed somehow appropriate under the circumstances. In fact, legend has it that a portal to Hell is located in Yemen—the Well of Barhout in al-Mahara. However mythical that tale might be, it’s also true that various terrorist outfits, including the Houthis, Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are active in the country.
To prevent the Houthis, a tribal Iranian proxy force then accurately designated as a foreign terrorist organization, from closing the Bab el-Mandab Strait (which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden) with its anti-ship missiles during any Pacific contingency, the U.S. placed two very small special operations and interagency task forces in Yemen. One task force had the mission of killing terrorists from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These nasty fellows brought us the underwear bomber of Christmas 2009 (who is in turn responsible for the classic New York Post headline “Great Balls of Fire”), the attempt to kill the Saudi interior minister with a bomb hidden somewhere even more sensitive than the assassin’s BVDs, and the Fort Hood massacre.
But the main effort at the time, as I understood it, was an economy-of-force, covert action program to work with indigenous forces to help preserve freedom of navigation. With the assistance of a few Air Force fighters in nearby Djibouti, and two Navy destroyers based further out in Bahrain, we needed to be prepared to keep the Bab el-Mandab open. While I served there, the Houthis launched some primitive attack drones—I thought they should be called “buzz bombs,” just like Hitler’s V1 rockets—north and east at airports and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which caused some economic problems, for example to ARAMCO’s planned initial public offering of stock. Yet the Houthis prudently refrained from attacks on shipping to the west and south.
As such, it mystifies me why the Biden administration is now repeatedly tolerating the Houthis striking friendly merchant vessels, firing at U.S. warships, and launching missiles at our embattled ally Israel, as well as allowing other Iranian proxies to shoot at and wound American servicemembers in Iraq. Last weekend, the Navy was finally allowed to shoot back, with helicopters from the USS Gravely and Eisenhower sinking three small boats of Houthis whose crews sought to seize the Singapore-flagged MV Maersk Hangzhou in the Red Sea. Out of caution, Danish merchant shipper Maersk paused its ships from sailing through the Red Sea for 48 hours after the Houthi attack.
A simple strategy, one that likely poses little risk of civilian casualties, would be to use airstrikes or cruise missiles to eliminate the Houthis’ gunboats, drones, missiles and—more important—their crews. President Joe Biden has unquestioned power under the Constitution, even absent specific congressional authorization, to order the Navy to defend American ships on the high seas; conventional ground troops are not needed. Even better, allow our naval special warfare operators to seize the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Forces (IRGC-QF) ship that, as press reports recently revealed, we observed resupply the Houthis with drones and missiles as regularly and predictably as Acela trains arrive at Washington’s Union Station. Or simply order a U.S. submarine to sink that enemy ship: As the ayatollahs were reminded when IRGC-QF leader Qassem Suleimani was eliminated on Baghdad’s airport road in 2020, sometimes bad things happen to bad people.
Instead, this administration is inexplicably allowing the Houthis and other Iranian proxies to take more than 100 potshots (and counting) at American barracks, embassies, and ships in the region, blithely confident that U.S. air defenses will intercept all incoming fire. With great respect to the competence of our air defenders (or “duck hunters” as we sometimes called them in the Army), that policy is a triumph of hope over experience. I’m no athlete, but if a major league pitcher threw me an endless number of pitches, it’s mathematically likely that even my clumsily held bat would eventually make contact with a ball. The same is true for air defense. President Biden understandably does not want any wider war in the Middle East than is already taking place in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. But he and his staff are not adequately weighing the consequences of an unlucky enemy hit on a U.S. target, especially on a warship tightly packed with a large crew.
On March 19, 1945, two Japanese 550-pound dumb bombs hit the USS Franklin, killing 807 and wounding 487. Biden and his Cabinet ought to ask themselves how they would explain a similar human loss to the American people—one that was predictable—and the domestic political implications of such an avoidable catastrophe in an election year, especially after their humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan and surrender to the Taliban in 2021.
Bill Clinton lost 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole to an al-Qaeda attack in the port of Aden in 2000, after an unsuccessful attack earlier there that year on USS The Sullivans. The next three U.S. presidents each then took lethal action in Yemen, including the targeted killings of U.S. citizens Abu Ali al-Harithi by George Bush in 2002 and Anwar al-Awlaki by Barack Obama in 2011, and a failed raid to capture or kill AQAP leader Qasim al-Raymi in the opening days of the Trump administration in 2017. Hostile acts against American ships and their crews were considered causus belli in 1798, 1801, 1812, 1815, 1898, 1917, 1941, 1964, 1975, 1981, and 1988 against France, the Barbary pirates, Britain, Spain, Germany, Japan, North Vietnam, Libya, and Iran by presidents from John Adams to Ronald Reagan, for the very good reason that the U.S. is a seafaring and commercial nation. Biden should follow his predecessors’ examples and respond firmly right now to protect American vital interests in the region.
Biden’s continued failure to do so is read, accurately, as a sign of weakness not only by Iran but also by North Korea and China, precisely because of Yemen’s strategic position athwart sea lanes vital to the U.S. naval response to any Pacific crisis. Indeed, Iran has already threatened to seal off the eastern Mediterranean in retaliation for U.S. support for Israel in its war against Hamas, and even deployed its navy’s destroyer Alborz into the Red Sea this week.
The president ought to deter the Iranians from further mischief by destroying the Houthis’ military capabilities and striking their collocated personnel in Yemen. Leaving this task to regional allies such as the Saudis or Emiratis is a bad idea likely to lead to unnecessary civilian casualties: When I was in Yemen, an ill-advised and unprofessional Saudi airstrike, based on poor intelligence, hit a school bus and killed 29 Yemeni children. Self-respecting great powers ought to do the important things themselves.
I enjoyed a good short tour in Yemen. It was my last chance to deploy, one final boyish adventure, albeit mostly clad in shorts and flip-flops. There was, thank goodness, no war with North Korea. Surrounded by Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Special Forces, Marine Raiders, and Air Force combat controllers, my only job in an emergency was to destroy our top secret computers with an ax. The only alarm I experienced was when a clueless member of a partner force played with a toy quadcopter, and our tiny base’s counter-drone system briefly identified it as an incoming threat, leading to a few minutes of tension followed by a good laugh.
Our servicemembers deployed in that region now clearly face far graver dangers. Biden should act decisively and promptly in accordance with his responsibilities as commander in chief to protect them as well as America’s traditional national interest in the freedom of the seas.