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Crossing the Red Sea
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Crossing the Red Sea

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis attack commercial vessels and Western interests.

Happy Tuesday! Paging all Gen Z TMD readers—there are some elder millennials at The Dispatch—to say nothing of the Gen Xers—who desperately need someone to explain Oxford University Press’ word of the year, “rizz.” No cap.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) advanced further into southern Gaza on Monday, moving “house to house, tunnel to tunnel,” according to IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari, in an effort to remove Hamas from the Strip. Nearly 200 targets in Gaza were hit by Israeli airstrikes overnight on Sunday, the IDF reported, including Hamas commander Wissam Farhat, who Israeli officials believe plotted the massacre of civilians at the Nahal Oz kibbutz on October 7. U.S. officials have warned Israeli military leaders to limit the number of civilian casualties incurred in the expanded fighting. Meanwhile, Gazan terrorist groups have continued to launch indiscriminate rocket barrages at southern and central Israel, though the frequency of such attacks has slowed as Israeli forces take ground and target terrorist infrastructure across the enclave.
  • The White House sent a letter to congressional leaders on Monday warning that, in the absence of another funding package from Congress, the U.S. will be out of money to help fund Ukraine’s efforts on the battlefield by the end of the year. “There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young wrote. “We are out of money—and nearly out of time.” Additional aid is currently stalled in Congress, with a large faction of congressional Republicans making support for continued security assistance to the war-torn nation contingent on the adoption of stricter immigration policies at the southern border, which many Democrats have balked at. “The Biden Administration has failed to substantively address any of my conference’s legitimate concerns about the lack of a clear strategy in Ukraine, a path to resolving the conflict, or a plan for adequately ensuring accountability for aid provided by American taxpayers,” House Speaker Mike Johnson tweeted Monday in response to the White House’s letter.
  • In another blow to Europe’s counterterrorism efforts in Africa, Niger’s ruling junta—which took power in July—ended the country’s participation in two security pacts with the European Union. The announcement coincided with a rare visit from Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defense Yunus-bek Yevkurov, who arrived in Niamey—Niger’s capital city—on Sunday for meetings with top military officials. 
  • House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer released subpoenaed bank records on Monday showing payments made to President Joe Biden by his son Hunter in September, October, and November of 2018—after Biden’s term as vice president and before his presidential bid. Comer claimed the payments—described as recurring, though the published document showed just one $1,380 deposit—from Hunter Biden’s company, Owasco PC, were evidence of Biden benefiting from his son’s alleged influence-peddling. “This wasn’t a payment from Hunter Biden’s personal account but an account for his corporation that received payments from China and other shady corners of the world,” Comer said in a video accompanying the release of the documents. Reporting from the New York Post in April 2022 and the Washington Post on Monday suggested those transfers may have been payments for a truck Biden bought his son when the younger Biden was at the height of his addiction, and Abbe Lowell—Hunter’s attorney—accused Comer of “reheating what is old as new to try to revive his sham of an investigation.”
  • The Justice Department on Monday indicted Victor Manuel Rocha—who served as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002 and on the National Security Council from 1994 to 1995—for acting as an agent of the government of Cuba. Prosecutors alleged that Rocha worked for Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence as a covert agent from 1981 to the present, and that Rocha admitted to his work on behalf of the Cuban government to an undercover U.S. law enforcement officer in a series of conversations in 2022 and 2023. “Throughout the meetings, Rocha behaved as a Cuban agent, consistently referring to the United States as ‘the enemy,’ and using the term ‘we’ to describe himself and Cuba,” the DOJ said in a statement. He faces charges of “conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the Attorney General; acting as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the Attorney General; and with using a passport obtained by false statement.”
  • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on Monday announced the suspension of his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Burgum, who failed to qualify for November’s Republican primary debate in Miami as well as this week’s upcoming debate in Alabama, criticized the Republican National Committee’s debate qualification rules as an “unhealthy” effort to “nationalize the primary system.” 

Escalation by Any Other Name

A picture taken during an organized tour by Yemen's Houthi rebels on November 22, 2023 shows the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by Houthi fighters two days earlier, at a port on the Red Sea in Yemen's province of Hodeida. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
A picture taken during an organized tour by Yemen's Houthi rebels on November 22, 2023 shows the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by Houthi fighters two days earlier, at a port on the Red Sea in Yemen's province of Hodeida. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

In the wake of Hamas’ devastating October 7 attack on Israel, President Joe Biden deployed two U.S. carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in a show of force and deterrence, metaphorically wielding a big ship as he spoke softly. “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t,” he said in announcing the measure. “Don’t.”

Several Iranian proxy groups seem to have missed the message.

In the latest escalation in the Middle East, three commercial ships in the Red Sea were attacked on Sunday by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, responded to distress calls and shot down three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as the Houthis continued to fire missiles at the cargo vessels. These Houthi-led attacks in international waters are part of a growing trend of aggression—one the U.S. has squarely blamed on Iran as part of the Islamic Republic’s plan to destabilize the region. Despite being clear-eyed about assigning blame, however, the U.S. has so far issued a tempered response, resulting in further attacks on Western ships and interests by Iran’s regional proxies. 

The Iranian-backed militants have launched drones and missiles at Israel from Yemen (many of which have been shot down by the Carney) since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, and have recently ramped up attacks on international shipping vessels. In November, Houthi militants seized a cargo ship (which they said had Israeli ties, though Israel reported the ship as British-owned and Japanese-operated) in the Red Sea, and attacked a separate container ship—this one owned by an Israeli billionaire—in the Indian Ocean.

But Sunday’s attacks represented the most significant escalation of Houthi-led naval aggression since the start of the war in Gaza. While on patrol in the Red Sea, the USS Carney detected a ballistic missile launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen around 9 a.m. local time, heading toward the Unity Explorer, a commercial cargo vessel owned and operated by the United Kingdom and flagged by the Bahamas. Around noon, the Carney identified and destroyed a UAV headed in its direction launched from Yemen over international waters, and continued toward the Unity Explorer, which issued a distress signal after being struck by a Houthi missile. While assessing the damage, the Carney shot down yet another inbound UAV.

Later that afternoon, according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the Panamanian-flagged, Bermuda- and U.K.-owned and operated M/V Number 9 was struck by a Houthi missile. An hour later, the Carney responded to a distress signal from the Panamanian-flagged M/V Sophie II, which was also struck by a missile—and while en route to the scene, the Carney shot down yet another UAV.

The U.S. military was quick to condemn the aggression and identify the culprit. “These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security. They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world,” read a CENTCOM statement released on Sunday. “We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran. The United States will consider all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners.”

The Houthi military claimed responsibility for the attacks, tying their actions to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. “The Yemeni armed forces continue to prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea (and Gulf of Aden) until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops,” said Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Sareem, though he made no mention of U.S. involvement in responding to and repelling Sunday’s attacks. CENTCOM stated that it could not assess at the time whether the Carney was a target of the UAVs.

For some regional experts, the idea of several Houthi UAVs coincidentally ending up in the path of a U.S. destroyer is simply too far-fetched. “[CENTCOM] gave this tick-tock of events that starts at like 9 a.m. and goes till almost 5 p.m. where the Carney is moving around the Red Sea into different locations, in different hours, and continues to have to intercept drones being sent towards the Carney,” Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told TMD. “That to me sounds a lot like the Houthis targeting USS Carney.”

Following a Biden administration reversal in February 2021, the Houthis—unlike Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon—are no longer designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization, and their origins are more tribal than political. The Zaydi Shiite movement has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004, and captured the capital city of Sana’a in 2014, leading to war with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who fought to prevent the Houthis from consolidating control. Hezbollah and Iran have become trusted Houthi allies, providing military training and access to cheap oil. “Iran never lets a good opportunity go to waste,” Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told TMD. “The Houthi rebellion wasn’t created by Iran. In many ways, it was a reaction to Saudi Arabia overplaying its hand. But once Iran saw the opportunity, they jumped in.”

The Houthis now control the western portion of Yemen, which includes stretches of the Saudi Arabian border and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea—a crucial chokepoint for shipping and oil. As they gained more power in Yemen, their ties to Iran deepened. “The Houthis, over the last several years, evolved into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Goldberg added. “If Iran tells the Houthis to send a ballistic missile towards Israel, they’ll send a ballistic missile towards Israel. And if Iran tells the Houthis to take out an Israeli-linked merchant vessel, they’ll follow that order.” 

Amid the Hamas-Israel war, which threatens to escalate throughout the region, the Houthis fit right into Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance. “This is a multi-front war, and the Iranians use these groups like the Houthis, like Hezbollah, like Hamas, in order to have plausible deniability,” Rubin said. “They’re perfectly willing to fight the West and Israel until the last Palestinian life and the last Yemeni life, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” In these attacks, the goal of the Houthi militia is to further Iranian strategic objectives—diminish Israel and U.S. influence—and grow their own regional influence.

Despite its rhetoric blaming Iran for supporting attacks on American and Israeli assets, the Biden administration has been slow to offer a strong retaliation. “On one level, there’s two carrier strike groups in the region,” said Goldberg, referring to the USS Gerald R. Ford strike group and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower strike group. “But the Iranians, I think, believe that they’re watching a glorified military parade, rather than a true threat of military force against Iran.”

The Biden administration has been careful to avoid inflaming an already tense situation—particularly as fighting in Gaza and Israel resumed Friday after the expiration of a week-long ceasefire agreement. Iran-based proxy groups have attacked U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria 76 times since October 17, provocations to which the U.S. has responded with a handful of precision strikes in Syria.

The third such strike reportedly killed a handful of proxy fighters, but Rubin believes the Biden administration’s response thus far hasn’t sufficiently dealt with the true threat. “If you’re fighting an octopus,” he told TMD, “eventually you’re going to have to go after the head rather than fight every tentacle individually,” especially while the octopus—Iran—is controlling access to the Red Sea. 

“[The Biden administration] believe[s] that the Houthis can be contained, and they may not be wrong,” Rubin continued. “The danger, of course, is the percentage of the world’s shipping that goes through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which is now under threat. And it’s not simply ‘could this ship get hit by a missile?’ It’s also the price of insurance on all these ships, which will impact the Western economy.”

The New York Times reported Monday that the U.S. and its allies have discussed establishing a naval task force to protect ships traveling through the Red Sea, but the U.S. has thus far not announced a direct response to the Houthi attacks over the weekend—despite the clear threat facing U.S. naval forces in the area. Should any retaliation come, it will likely be proportional and designed not avoid escalating tensions.

At this point, though, the surest way to curb Houthi aggression might be to encourage an end to the Israel-Gaza war—one that eradicates Hamas and sends a clear message to Iran and its proxies. “I think we are at that point where the Houthis are going to continue to attack and harass until the conflict ends between Israel and Gaza,” said Rubin. “What’s important, however, it’s not the ceasefire that matters. It’s how the ceasefire is achieved. If the ceasefire preserves Hamas as an entity, that is only going to encourage groups like the Houthis to fight harder.”

Worth Your Time

  • If you’ve casually followed baseball over the past few years (or have simply read a few editions of TMD published during the baseball months), you probably know that we’re on the precipice of learning where two-time MVP and current free agent Shohei Ohtani, who will command the richest contract in North American sports history, will play next year. It could be a spectacle on par with LeBron James’ “The Decision” a decade ago, but the superstar has opted for secrecy and clandestine meetings instead. “Ohtani’s free agency presents a chance for the league to cross over into the mainstream sports conversation and grab attention from casual fans for a stretch during the offseason,” Jorge Castillo wrote for the Los Angeles Times. “MLB, a league fading from the national consciousness, understands the game. Ohtani and his camp, however, do not. MLB is an entertainment product. It is competing not only with other sports leagues, but with Netflix, TikTok, etc., for attention and for dollars. The hot stove is a part of the entertainment package—just as free-agency frenzies and trade speculation are for the NFL and NBA. The goal is to reside in the minds of as many people for as many days as possible. The stove should be turned all the way up this week. Ohtani is a transcendent, unparalleled two-way, two-time MVP on the cusp of signing the richest contract in North American sports history. He is the most marketable talent in the sport. His decision could shift the league’s landscape. But nobody on the outside—not even the teams trying to lure him—has a clue where Ohtani is signing. Nobody knows, for sure, what Ohtani’s demands or priorities are. Nobody knows, for sure, which teams interest Ohtani. Nobody knows which clubs, if any, have met with Ohtani yet.”

Presented Without Comment

Washington Post: Pro-DeSantis Super PAC Fires CEO Amid Turmoil

“A super PAC that has overseen much of Ron DeSantis’s presidential operation has fired its CEO less than two weeks after the previous chief executive resigned.”

Also Presented Without Comment

Democratic Sen. John Fetterman, on pro-Palestinian protesters chanting about Israeli “genocide” outside a Jewish-owned restaurant in Philadelphia:

“They could be protesting Hamas. They could be protesting Hamas’ systematic rape of Israeli women and girls or demanding the remaining hostages be immediately released. Instead, they targeted a Jewish restaurant. It’s pathetic and rank antisemitism.”

Also Presented Without Comment

Associated Press: [Kim Jong Un] Calls for Women to Have More Children to Halt a Fall in the Birthrate

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Kevin argued (🔒) George Santos was the archetypal example of a “novelty con,” the Dispatch Politics crew reported on Nikki Haley donors’ push for Chris Christie to drop out, and Nick chimed in (🔒) with what he described as a pre-mortem for the Ron DeSantis campaign. 
  • On the podcasts: Judge Kevin Newsom of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals joins Sarah and David on Advisory Opinions to reminisce and nerd out
  • On the site: Mike Watson argues Biden should take some lessons in foreign policy from Henry Kissinger, Adam White digs into last week’s oral arguments in SEC v. Jarkesy, and Chris wonders if Wednesday night’s GOP debate in Tuscaloosa will be the last of the entire presidential cycle.

Let Us Know

What do you think would constitute an appropriate and proportional U.S. response to Houthi aggression in the Red Sea?

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.