Join our crew and become one of the 107,047 members that receive our newsletter.

Biden Pushed Operation Prosperity Guardian Despite Strong Objections

U.S. President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak deliver remarks on the Australia - United Kingdom - U.S. (AUKUS) partnership, after a trilateral meeting, at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California U.S. March 13, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Biden Pushed Operation Prosperity Guardian Despite Strong Objections

Total Views: 5321
January 13, 2024

By Peter Martin (Bloomberg) President Joe Biden was vacationing in St. Croix on the morning of Jan. 1 when he convened a meeting of his national security team. Pressure had been building for weeks for military action against Iran-backed Houthi militants for their persistent attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

Just a day earlier, the Yemen-based Houthis had fired on US Navy helicopters responding to a distress call from a container ship. The Navy fired back, sinking three small boats and killing their crews. Amid the near-daily Houthi attacks on container ships and tankers over six weeks, shipping costs were rising and critics of Biden’s leadership were warning that American credibility was on the line. 

A constant throughout the discussions: The difficulty in finding an off-ramp once hostilities began. 

The meeting set in motion twelve days of diplomacy and military planning that culminated in the airstrikes on 70 Houthi targets — all while trying to avert a wider Mideast war. The pre-dawn strikes Friday followed by a follow-up strike on a radar installation a day later, were by far the most wide-ranging military action undertaken by the US since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel ignited its operation to eliminate militants in Gaza. Biden said the military action sent a “clear message.”

This is how those plans unfolded, according to US and British officials who provided details on condition of anonymity. 

Also Read: A Navy In Crisis: It’s Time For The Conference Of Admirals

During the conference on New Year’s Day, Biden directed his team to accelerate efforts to condemn the Houthi attacks at the United Nations and to continue building a multilateral coalition intended to defend shipping. But he also gave instructions to prepare to proceed on a second track if diplomacy failed, telling military leaders to refine a list of targets to hit in tandem with allies. 

In the days after the meeting, discussions with UK politicians and defense planners accelerated. 

The two countries discussed options that included special forces operations, more aggressive action at sea and strikes on land. The US pushed for strong action from the beginning, while UK, European and Middle East allies cautioned that an overzealous response could draw the West into direct conflict with Iran. 

In the background, both US and UK officials pondered the economic impact of a wider war in an election year for both countries. Official assessments warned of significant inflationary impacts and a hit to GDP if a full-blown Mideast war erupted.

Private diplomacy — and public messaging — continued. On Jan. 3, the US and 13 other countries issued a joint statement warning of “consequences” if the Houthis failed to halt their attacks in the Red Sea. 

In private, the US sent repeated back-channel messages to Iran, urging it to stop the Houthi attacks. Tehran responded that it had no control over the group, despite continued indications from UK intelligence that showed the Houthis restocking with weapons that could be traced to Iran

On Jan. 9, a massive Houthi attack concentrated the minds of US and British policymakers, making it clear that diplomacy was unlikely to succeed. The Iran-backed group launched its biggest missile and drone attack yet in the Red Sea, prompting the US and UK forces to shoot down 18 drones and three anti-ship missiles. 

Biden’s national security team met again on Jan. 9, this time with the president in Washington. He was presented with military options from a list of potential strike targets that US Central Command maintains. A senior official said the president chose one of the more aggressive options.

At the end of the meeting, Biden directed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to carry out a military response. Austin joined the meeting from Walter Reed National Military Center, where he was hospitalized for complications after undergoing prostate cancer surgery, a diagnosis he’d failed to disclose to Biden until that day. 

A constant throughout the discussions: The difficulty in finding an off-ramp once hostilities began. 

London Turns

The latest Houthi attack also shifted thinking in London. HMS Diamond, a Royal Navy destroyer, had been among the ships targeted by the Houthis. Secretary of State for Defense Grant Shapps and UK military chiefs now backed the US plan for airstrikes. 

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak backed the plan on Thursday, Jan. 11,  as he traveled to Ukraine. Opposition leader Keir Starmer also threw his support behind it. 

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden moved to Admiralty House to watch the operation unfold. Biden tracked developments from the West Wing of the White House. 

Strikes Begin

At about 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Washington and 2:30 a.m. the next day in Yemen, the strikes began. 

Residents in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, reported hearing huge explosions and watching as fire consumed a string of military targets. 

American and British forces hit radar installations, storage sites and missile and drone launch sites using fighter jets from the US Air Force and the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier, as well as Tomahawk missiles launched from a submarine and surface ships.

A senior US military official said the targets were selected to minimize the risk of collateral damage and precision munitions were used for the same reason.

Biden warned that more action may follow. “I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary,” he said in a statement. 

In the hours that followed, the president’s national security team received no back-channel messages from Iran or the Houthis indicating a desire to deescalate. But within hours, protesters holding Palestinian and Yemeni flags had gathered in Sanaa to denounce the US and Israel. A Houthi commander said retaliation was “imminent.” 

That possibility has yet to unfold, although a ship hauling Russian oil had a narrow miss with a missile fired from Yemen.  “We will make sure that we respond to the Houthis as they continue this outrageous behavior,” Biden told reporters Friday afternoon.

About 24 hours later, the US followed with another strike, described as a follow-up action, against a radar installation that hadn’t been fully destroyed the night before, US officials said. It signaled Biden would not stop hitting the Houthis to degrade their capabilities even without retaliation.

As for the prospect for a wider war that would draw in Iran, Biden said, “I’ve already delivered the message to Iran. They know not to do anything.”

Also Read: Houthis Vow To Escalate Attacks On Shipping

By Peter Martin, Alex Wickham and Jennifer Jacobs © 2024 Bloomberg L.P.

Unlock Exclusive Insights Today!

Join the gCaptain Club for curated content, insider opinions, and vibrant community discussions.

Sign Up
Back to Main
polygon icon polygon icon

Why Join the gCaptain Club?

Access exclusive insights, engage in vibrant discussions, and gain perspectives from our CEO.

Sign Up


Maritime and offshore news trusted by our 107,047 members delivered daily straight to your inbox.

Join Our Crew

Join the 107,047 members that receive our newsletter.