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Iran-backed terror groups have escalated their attacks against U.S. soldiers and American interests in the Middle East since Hamas invaded Israel, massacred 1, 200 Israelis, and kidnapped 240 more as hostages on October 7.

Washington’s response to this aggression can be characterized as disappointing at best, and dangerously incompetent at worst. The U.S. must respond to protect American lives, maintain America’s credibility to its allies, and restore Washington’s deterrence toward its enemies.

Between March 29 and October 6, U.S. soldiers were targeted 7 times by Iran-backed terror groups in Iraq and Syria. That figure has ballooned exponentially to more than 61 attacks since October 7. The most dangerous and escalatory behavior, however, has come from the Houthis in Yemen.

On November 19, the Houthis hijacked the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader and took the 25-member crew hostage. Emboldened by America’s lackluster response, on December 3, the Houthis launched UAVs and missiles at three commercial vessels connected to 14 different countries in the Red Sea.

CENTCOM has since stated that the attacks were “enabled” by Iran, and that it will consider “all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners.” To start, the Houthis must be immediately re-designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

Declaring war against Israel, firing ballistic missiles at the Jewish State from more than 2, 000 kilometers away, violating Saudi Arabia’s air space, and jeopardizing freedom of navigation on the high seas by targeting and hijacking commercial vessels are unacceptable escalations.

For too long, Washington has been tough toward its partners, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, while being soft against its enemies. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Aden might’ve lost the war against Iran and the Houthis in Yemen, but they don’t have to lose the peace too.

Unfortunately, the Houthis’ escalatory conduct isn’t a new phenomenon. Like Iran and the rest of the terror groups it funds, trains, and arms in the Middle East, the Houthis are emboldened each time their aggression goes unpunished.

In 2018, the Trump Administration failed to respond when the Houthis launched missiles at Jizan, killing 3 civilians. The lack of consequences encouraged the Houthis to bomb Saudi Arabia’s oil refineries in Abqaq in 2019.

In 2021, the Biden Administration failed to respond when an Iran-backed terror group bombed U.S.-led coalition forces at Erbil International Airport, killing 1 and injuring 9. Emboldened by the lack of consequences, the IRGC itself launched missiles at the U.S. consulate in Erbil the following year.

Likewise, America’s response was also muted when the Houthis conducted a terrorist attack at Abu Dhabi International Airport in 2022, killing 3 and injuring 6. With each act of aggression that goes unpunished, Iran and the terror groups that serve its interests are gnawing away at U.S. credibility.

To restore American deterrence, the aggressors must pay a heavy price whenever they target Washington’s partners, including the AANES and KRG as well as major non-NATO allies like Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar.

While the same should apply any time commercial vessels are targeted on the high seas, the most devastating of all consequences must be imposed whenever U.S. forces are targeted personally.

Iran and its terror network will continue testing the U.S. and its partners until America reminds them of who it is. Each act of aggression that goes unpunished is not interpreted as restraint, but as weakness. This instigates the aggressors to increase the frequency and raise the intensity of their attacks.

As a policy choice, allowing America’s enemies to do all of the escalating has failed miserably in the Middle East. It has also failed in every other theatre from the South China Sea to Ukraine. When bad faith actors, especially those who manipulate their way to obtain concessions through appeasement, resort to aggression, they must face consequences for their actions — period.

If U.S. deterrence were holding, America’s enemies wouldn’t feel so confident engaging in escalatory conduct. In fact, if Iran’s terror network weren’t escalating, Israel and Saudi Arabia would still be on the road to normalizing relations, and the IDF wouldn’t be doing the Arab League’s dirty work in Gaza.

The current policy is unsustainable and counterproductive. It welcomes Iranian aggression at the time and place and with the intensity of Tehran’s choosing. To say that this endangers American lives and undermines U.S. interests is an understatement.

It also demonstrates to Washington’s allies that the U.S. is no longer credible. If America doesn’t retaliate when its own soldiers are targeted by Iran-backed terror groups in Iraq and Syria, then why would Washington respond when its partners are attacked in Estonia or the Philippines? America’s partners in the Middle East, like NATO, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan all share this concern.

America is bound, by law, to protect gas fields in the Persian Gulf which supply nearly one-fifth of the world’s energy consumption. U.S. forces also ensure that roughly 20 million barrels of oil per day transit peacefully through the Strait of Hormuz to reach global energy markets, despite the risk of Iran hijacking tankers and the threat posed by Iranian missiles pointed at most cities in the Gulf.

Washington’s allies in the Middle East host thousands of American soldiers not out of the kindness of their hearts, but because they trust that the U.S. will follow through on its commitments to deter, defend against, and punish the bad faith actors spreading chaos across the region. So, what’s the point of being a superpower if America doesn’t defend itself like one?

Originally published by The Hill on December 8, 2023.

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