Former Mideast commander calls on Biden to respond to Houthi attacks

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie said Iran has taken the lack of a strong U.S. military response as an invitation to continue its aggressive behavior.

Dec 9, 2023 - 09:01
Former Mideast commander calls on Biden to respond to Houthi attacks

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, who commanded all U.S. forces in the Middle East for three years during the Trump and Biden presidencies, believes the current team should respond more forcefully to attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea — even as top administration officials remain wary of provoking Iran.

The former head of U.S. Central Command said Iran has taken the lack of a strong U.S. military response to the recent spike in Tehran-backed Houthi attacks on civilian vessels, which pose a threat to U.S. warships, as an invitation to continue its aggressive behavior.

“Sometimes you’ve got to throw a pitch,” McKenzie said in an interview. “You can't catch eternally, because eventually the law of averages is going to turn against you, and you're going to take a significant escalatory event on a ship, and then you're going to be forced into an even more significant level of response.”

“We’ve given them no reason not to continue [attacking],” he said of the Houthis.

Houthi assaults on commercial shipping have increasingly drawn U.S. Navy warships into the line of fire in recent days. On Sunday, the destroyer USS Carney was involved in an hourslong firefight and shot down three drones after Houthi forces fired missiles and drones at the civilian vessels. Then on Wednesday, the destroyer USS Mason took out yet another drone headed toward the ship.

But top Biden administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have agreed that, for now, retaliating against the Houthis in Yemen is not the right course of action — despite urging from some military officers. The administration has worked to contain the violence in Israel and Gaza, and leaders are concerned about sparking a conflict with Iran, which backs the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

McKenzie said regional escalation does not “inevitably” follow an American military response to the Houthis. Iran does not fully control the Houthis — or Lebanese Hezbollah — and because it fears retaliation from Israel, it does not want to escalate the conflict.

“I think you can respond to the Houthis without feeling that you are attacking Iran because of the divergence in the Iranian and Houthi positions,” McKenzie said. “One of the most interesting things about the current conflict in Gaza has been the dogs that haven't barked: Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah.”

By contrast, McKenzie believes Iran and its proxies will only respect a show of force.

“There's a fine line between avoiding escalation and inviting continued opportunities for Iranian and Houthi attacks, based on a perceived fecklessness on our part,” McKenzie said. “We're struggling to get that line right, right now. I would argue that, again, they respect the use of force and understand it and will respond to it.”

Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh told reporters Thursday that the U.S. does not want to widen the conflict into a regional war.

“We’re not in an armed conflict with the Houthis,” Singh said, noting that Austin sent two carrier strike groups and other weapons to the region after Oct. 7 to deter further violence after the Hamas attack in Israel. “We do not want to see this war or a war widen into a regional conflict, and we will continue to respond, should our commanders of our ships feel the need to in self-defense.”

McKenzie is not the only former senior U.S military official who believes President Joe Biden should strike back more forcefully against Iran-backed proxies. Retired Vice Adm. John Miller, the former commander of U.S. 5th Fleet, told POLITICO last week “we are not taking this seriously.”

“We’re not deterring anybody right now,” said Miller, who oversaw all U.S. naval activities in the Middle East until 2022.

McKenzie’s and Miller’s comments reflect the views of a group of U.S. military officials still at Central Command. Some officers believe the only way to stop the attacks is to hit back at the Houthis, said one U.S. official with knowledge of the debate, who was granted anonymity to speak about internal discussions.

McKenzie pointed to the events of 2019 and 2020, when escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S. over President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal culminated in the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military commander, in an American drone strike.

“We had opportunities to demonstrate to Iran that their behavior would not be tolerated. And we didn't do it, eventually leading to what happened in January of 2020, which I would argue could have been averted,” McKenzie said, urging the Biden time now to take “judicious action in the short-term” to prevent “a larger problem in the long-term.”

McKenzie argued that the approach has worked to a certain extent in recent days in Iraq and Syria, where U.S. ground troops have been under continued attack since October. On Sunday, U.S. forces in Iraq struck a group of militants preparing to launch a drone at their positions, killing five militia members.

After that, the violence slowed for a few days. But on Thursday and Friday there was another uptick, with Iran-backed groups launching four new attacks on American troops in Iraq and Syria, according to two DOD officials who were granted anonymity to speak ahead of an announcement.

In total, Iran-backed proxies have attacked U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria 82 times since Oct. 17, injuring at least 66 service members.

Iranian leaders take notice when the U.S. kills militants — and they also notice when the U.S. deliberately picks targets that are not significant and do not cause casualties, McKenzie said. Biden’s initial response was to send fighter jets to destroy weapons facilities linked to the militia groups, hitting infrastructure but killing no militants.

“Iran respects the use of force — they know and understand it,” McKenzie said. “They have always, always had a very high regard for our capability; they have always doubted our will to employ it.”

While McKenzie said officials at Central Command have undoubtedly provided a number of target options to the commanders, there are some limitations. Typically Iranian military leadership “goes to ground when these escalatory spirals start,” so it’s difficult to find them.

The U.S. is also sensitive about striking targets in Iraq, so as not to “further inflame the internal political environment.” He noted that ultimately, the decision to hit back is made by political leaders, not the combatant commander.

But if the U.S. does not deter the attacks, the Houthis could ramp up the level of violence, McKenzie said, pointing to the possibility of the group planting sea mines as “a new and fresh danger.”

“If they're attacking us, attempting to hurt and kill Americans, then our response should be of the scope and scale that will discourage them from doing that in the future,” he said.

Top Biden administration officials said they are discussing forming a new international maritime task force, under which U.S. and partnered ships could help ensure the safety of commercial ships in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb strait, the passageway between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

This could be an expansion of the International Maritime Security Construct, which was established in 2019 to respond to Iranian aggression in the Strait of Hormuz, another choke point for commercial maritime traffic that connects the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, McKenzie said. Military officials at Central Command already had plans to do so, if it became necessary, when he was in command, he added.

McKenzie said such an expansion would be effective in deterring further attacks in the Red Sea, if paired with a “signal” to the Houthis that “we’re not going to put up with their nonsense anymore,” he said.