National Security

Yemen Displays Obama Failures in a Nutshell

Just what did retaliatory strikes accomplish in this proxy war?

Harold Hutchison · Oct. 14, 2016

The events of the last two weeks off the coast of Yemen encapsulate Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy — and highlight just how badly it has failed America. So, let’s review what went down and take in the lessons.

On Oct. 1, HSV-2 Swift, a former U.S. Navy vessel owned and operated by a firm in the United Arab Emirates, was attacked, suffering damage from at least two RPGs. The United States sent the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Mason (DDG 87) and USS Nitze (DDG 94), along with the interim sea based USS Ponce (ASFB(I) 15), to assist the damaged vessel. Houthi rebels sponsored by Iran are believed to be the culprits.

On Oct. 9, two anti-ship missiles, believed to be Noor anti-ship missiles (essentially Iranian copies of the Chinese C-802), were fired at the USS Mason north of the Bab el Mandab, a maritime choke point connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Mason used a Nulka decoy rocket and a combination of RIM-66 SM-2 Standard Missiles and RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles to defeat the attack. In other words, active defenses were needed to save the lives of dozens of sailors.

Then, on Wednesday, the Mason came under attack for a second time, and again defeated the attack. One news report indicated that the Houthi may have used small skiffs to provide targeting information for the missile attack.

“The ship employed defensive countermeasures, and the missile did not reach USS Mason. There was no damage to the ship or its crew,” a Department of Defense statement said. The Navy stated that the destroyer was continuing its operations in the area, and vowed that “U.S. commanders retain the right to defend their ships, and we will respond to this threat at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.” The response was a three-Tomahawk salvo from the USS Nitze to destroy radar sites on Yemen’s coast.

While the Navy reported that all three targets were destroyed, this response highlights the problem with Obama’s policies in the region. The Tomahawk response should have been carried out immediately after the first attack on the USS Mason, once the incoming missiles had been defeated. There is precedent for this: In 1981, when two Libyan Su-22 Fitters fired on U.S. Navy F-14s, the Tomcats shot them out of the sky. President Ronald Reagan elected not to respond further, because the immediate response sent the right message: Don’t start a fight — you will lose.

By waiting to shoot back, and then delivering a pinprick in response to Iran’s clients, Obama has projected weakness. A far better option would’ve been a more muscular response (say, an Alpha Strike from a carrier). As it stands right now, Iran’s clients have lost three radar stations — stations that may be secondary to the small skiffs they use as scouts and pickets — but have damaged one ship, and may well still have additional Noors to shoot.

Furthermore, here’s something else to think about: How was Iran able to get those missiles to the Houthi in the first place? Anti-ship missiles, while not the biggest line item in a defense budget, still don’t come cheap. Yet the Houthi had enough to carry out two attacks on the Mason in less than a week’s time. Did Obama’s $1.7 billion in ransoms help pay for the missiles? Or did Iran have a bigger defense budget thanks to the lifting of sanctions after Obama gave away the store, which meant they could make and pass off more missiles?

Then we get to the rules of engagement. It defies imagination that the crew of the Mason was unaware that small skiffs were being used to provide target spotting for the anti-ship missile attacks. Restrictive ROEs have been an issue with the Obama administration before. That needs a re-think as well. A seemingly unarmed small boat could be rigged to carry high explosives — and in a chokepoint like the Bab el Mandab, such an attack could very well be devastating to a ship.

Finally, we need to take a long, hard look at our Iran policy. Despite Obama’s appeasement, Iran has not become friendlier to the United States, nor has it given up its goal to destroy Israel. If anything, nearly eight years of Obama now has Iranian clients shooting at our ships. That, more than anything, shows how badly his Middle East policy has hurt the United States. That no American casualties were suffered in those attacks is due to the skill of the crew on the Mason and her advanced technology.

Make no mistake: This is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it’s happening in large part because Obama made such a hash of Middle East policy.

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