Some US officials are criticizing the Biden administration for deliberately downplaying the threat from Yemen’s Houthis on US naval forces, Politico reported Tuesday. The criticism follows an attack on Sunday on several commercial vessels in the Red Sea, which forced a US Navy warship to scramble to respond.
The Yemeni resistance movement launched missiles and drones against three separate commercial vessels. The USS Carney fired back, taking down three unmanned aerial drones. It is unclear whether the US Navy ship was also a target of the attack or was simply coming to the aid of the commercial vessels.
Defense Department and Biden administration officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have said the US "cannot assess" whether the USS Carney was the target of the attacks.
After previous Houthi drone and missile attacks on commercial shipping vessels, the Pentagon said officials did not believe the group was targeting the warships.
But four other officials with knowledge of the discussions said in interviews with Politico that Biden administration officials are playing down the threat to avoid an escalation amid Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.
The Houthis have made clear it is targeting commercial ships with ties to Israel, and has launched missiles toward the Israeli port city of Eilat in support of the Palestinians.
"If our ships see something is coming near them or toward them, they are going to assess it as a threat and shoot it down," said one Pentagon official. "You’d be hard-pressed to find another time" US ships have been this challenged in the region.
A separate US official argued that not only Israeli, but also US ships are indeed threatened. "People are thinking this is an Israel thing, and because they are heavy-handed in Gaza no one is saying anything," the official said. "The world should be condemning this."
A second US official acknowledged that the US has deliberately avoided acknowledging its warships are a target because they are "trying to avoid unnecessary escalation." But the official also pointed out that the administration has not said definitively that its warship was not targeted. "We are not hesitating to take action against forces or militia groups that could be a threat to our forces," the official said.
Some Pentagon officials argue that attacks on commercial shipping already constitute an escalation. Admiral Christopher Grady, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated the attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea are "a big deal," while blaming them on Iran, which supports the Houthis.
"There’s undoubtedly an Iranian hand in this. So this looks a little bit like horizontal escalation," he claimed.
Hizbullah’s Al-Manar TV Reports from Onboard the Hijacked Galaxy Leader – A Commercial Ship Seized by Yemeni-Houthis: Any Israeli Ship Sailing in the Red Sea Will Be Hauled to the Yemeni Shore #Hizbullah #Houthis #Israel pic.twitter.com/6TywoMemX1— MEMRI (@MEMRIReports) November 28, 2023
National Security Advisor Sullivan also blamed Iran, stating "We have every reason to believe these attacks, while they were launched by [Ansarallah] in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran."
Some current US officials did not rule out the possibility that the administration will respond to the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, while some former US officials are calling specifically for it. "If we make the assessment or feel the need to respond, we will always make that decision at a time or place of our choosing. That is a decision that the [defense secretary] will also make in conjunction with the president," said a second Pentagon official.
"Near to immediate term, where are the strikes on [Houthi] targets?" wrote Marc Polymeropoulos, former CIA official, on X. "Need to see this ASAP." Retired Vice Adm. John Miller, the former commander of US 5th Fleet, said that "We are not taking this seriously." Miller said, "We’re not deterring anybody right now."