By ERIN BANCO, LARA SELIGMAN and ALEXANDER WARD
Biden administration officials are drawing up plans for the U.S. to respond to what they’re increasingly concerned could expand from a war in Gaza to a wider, protracted regional conflict.
Four officials familiar with the matter, including a senior administration official, described internal conversations about scenarios that could potentially draw the U.S. into another Middle East war. All were granted anonymity to speak about sensitive, ongoing national security discussions.
The military is drafting plans to hit back at Iran-backed Houthi militants who have been attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea, according to three U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the discussions. That includes striking Houthi targets in Yemen, according to one of the officials, an option the military has previously presented.
Intelligence officials, meanwhile, are coming up with ways to anticipate and fend off possible attacks on the U.S. by Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria, according to one of the officials. They are also working to determine where the Houthi militants may strike next.
The U.S. has for months behind the scenes urged Tehran to persuade the proxies to scale back their attacks. But officials say they have not seen any sign that the groups have begun to decrease their targeting and worry the violence will only surge in the coming days.
It’s an escalation that could result in President Joe Biden becoming more deeply embroiled in the Middle East just as the 2024 campaign season heats up and his campaign pushes to focus on domestic issues.
The potential for wider conflict is growing, officials said, following a series of confrontations in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran over the past several days. Those have convinced some in the administration that the war in Gaza has officially escalated far beyond the strip’s borders — a scenario the U.S. has tried to avoid for months.
The developments are perilous not just for regional security but for Biden’s reelection chances. He entered office with vows to end wars, realized with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that removed the U.S. from 20 years of fighting. Biden now ends his first term as the West’s champion for the defense of Ukraine and key enabler of Israel’s retaliation against Hamas.
Even without U.S. troops in either conflict, voters may see 2024 as their chance to weigh in on the key foreign policy question of this election: how involved should America be in foreign wars?
Biden has vowed to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” while standing staunchly behind Israel. Former President Donald Trump, Biden’s most likely Republican rival, has boasted he could end Russia’s invasion in mere hours and argued the U.S. should take a hands-off approach to the Israel-Hamas fight.
“Incumbents get blamed for bad things, whether they’re his fault or not. This is the downside of the imperial presidency,” said Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “Trump will campaign on a ‘remember the glory days’ message, arguing that Russia wouldn’t be in Ukraine, Israel wouldn’t have been attacked, and China wouldn’t be leaning into Taiwan had he been in charge.”
“Biden will have to say, ‘yes they would, and none of it was my fault,’” Logan continued. “It’s not a good subject for Biden. But unless things get a lot worse, to include U.S. troops dying, foreign policy is still unlikely to factor heavily in this election. It almost never does.”
Still, a Quinnipiac poll in November showed that 84 percent of Americans were either very or somewhat concerned that the U.S would be drawn into the Middle East conflict. And with each passing month, more and more Americans fear the Biden administration is offering too much material support to Ukraine.
A person close to the Biden campaign, granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press, argued that “an incumbent will always face foreign policy events,” noting George W. Bush contended with the Iraq War and Barack Obama oversaw the end of the Arab Spring during their reelection bids. The campaign confidant said Biden is focused on issues more important to voters like the economy, the future of democracy and abortion rights.
But as campaign season ramps up, the administration is increasingly being forced to address flashpoints across the Middle East.
Over the weekend, Houthi rebels targeted a commercial freighter, forcing U.S. Navy helicopters to target and sink three of their boats. On Tuesday, Hamas accused Israel of killing a top commander in Beirut. Dozens of people were killed Wednesday during a series of explosions at the tomb of Qassem Soleimani, the late Iranian military commander who was killed in a 2020 U.S. drone strike, in Kerman, Iran. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
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Tensions in the region ratcheted up even higher on Thursday after the Biden administration launched a drone strike in Baghdad that killed the Iran-backed militia leader Mushtaq Taleb al-Saidi, or “Abu Taqwa,” and at least one other militant, according to two Defense Department officials.
The president convened his national security team on the morning of New Year’s Day to talk about the situation in the Red Sea, to discuss options and a way forward, said another senior administration official. One of the outcomes of that meeting was a joint statement issued simultaneously by the U.S. and a dozen of its allies warning that the Houthis would face “consequences” if they continue to “threaten lives” and disrupt trade flows in the Red Sea, said the senior official.
Another U.S. official stressed that the administration’s concerns about a wider war in the region aren’t new. The official said the U.S. has for weeks been worried about the war in Gaza escalating and that there was no indication that the threats to U.S. troops overseas had expanded in recent days.
However, there are other signs the administration is worried about those threats increasing. In the aftermath of the attack in Iran on Wednesday, officials across the administration from the Pentagon to the State Department to the intelligence agencies began assessing how Iran or its proxy forces in the Middle East could directly target the U.S. or its allies in the region.
Such contingency planning is normal in states of heightened tension in the Middle East, officials said. But the scramble inside the administration to draw up reports on potential points of attacks and possible U.S. responses this week came as a result of orders from the top echelons of the administration over fears that the violence in the region will only continue to grow and that Washington will eventually have to intervene.
Of particular concern is the potential for escalation in the Red Sea. Houthi attacks against merchant vessels there prompted the U.S. last month to announce the start of a new international maritime coalition to deter these attacks. The coalition, which now involves more than 20 countries, has allowed roughly 1,500 merchant ships to safely transit these waters since operations began on Dec. 18, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. 5th Fleet, told reporters Thursday.
Still, as of Thursday, there had been 25 attacks against commercial ships transiting the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, Cooper said. On Thursday morning, the Houthis for the first time detonated a small, one-way attack, unmanned surface vessel in international shipping lanes, he said, posing a new threat.
Already, the Houthi attacks have forced major shipping companies that represent a significant portion of the international maritime economy to reroute their vessels, adding costs and delays. Officials are concerned about further escalation.
“From our perspective, the most worrying thing is that the Houthis might sink a ship. Then what happens?” said one of the U.S. officials.
And there’s the ongoing fear that the violence in Gaza could spread to the West Bank and Lebanon. Already, Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel are trading fire on the border, and there have been reports of attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank. Those concerns could grow after the suspected Israeli killing of a Hamas leader in Lebanon on Tuesday; so far though, the U.S. has not seen any signs Hezbollah wants a wider war.
“Although the U.S. has been trying to avoid having the war in Gaza from turning into a regional one, ultimately that decision is not entirely up to us,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Marine, CIA officer and Pentagon official under Trump. “The signs are blinking red for this to erupt into a regional war.”