It was, as military operations go, one of those “pinprick” strikes armchair generals like to denounce as akin to putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. The U.S. Navy launched multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles against three radar sites in Yemen early Thursday after those installations allegedly helped steer Iranian-supported rebel missiles towards U.S. warships in the Red Sea.
“The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said of the strikes, which President Obama had approved. The Navy launched the Tomahawks, tipped with half-ton warheads, from the destroyer USS Nitze in predawn darkness. They appeared to have destroyed the three radar installations, located in desolate areas along the Red Sea’s coast, manned by Houthi rebels supported by Iran.
While the U.S. strikes appear to be defensive, they also mark the first time the U.S. has taken military action in Yemen’s civil war. Saudi Arabia is leading the fight against Houthi rebels who have ousted the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by Riyadh and Washington, from Yemen’s capital. Washington has supported Saudi Arabia’s air campaign against the rebels, but has increasingly criticized the civilian casualties it has caused.
Like the unrest roiling Iraq, the Yemen war splits along Muslim sectarian lines, pitting Shiite rebels against the Sunni government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. It’s another sign of the challenge ahead. So long as the U.S. military wants to maintain a robust presence in the region—even if in international waters—it risks being drawn into the ancient enmity between Islam’s two major branches.
The strikes followed the launching of small coastal cruise missiles against the USS Mason and Ponce from Yemen on Sunday and Wednesday, and the apparently successful Oct. 1 attack against a United Arab Emirates vessel. U.S. Navy officials said the U.S. warships took defensive measures to protect themselves from the missiles, which splashed into the sea short of their targets.
It was nearly 15 years ago—5,371 days, to be precise—that President George W. Bush branded Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” What’s amazing is how little has changed since Bush denounced the three nations, despite waging wars that have cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $3 trillion and American families nearly 7,000 of their sons and daughters.
In his “axis of evil” speech, Bush was most critical of Iraq. Indeed, the U.S. would invade the country 14 months later and topple its leader, Saddam Hussein. “Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror,” Bush told the nation in his State of the Union address following the 9/11 attacks. “The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade.”
But unknown to U.S. intelligence, Saddam had shelved those efforts. The sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq since the 2003 invasion has provided fertile ground for the rise of the Islamic State, a Sunni terrorist organization whose violence has sown more fear around the world than Saddam ever did.
Bush also said that North Korea was “a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.” That transpired under Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Hermit Kingdom. But following Jong-il’s death in 2011, his son—Kim Jong-un—has accelerated Pyongyang’s push to build nuclear weapons small enough to sit atop an ocean-spanning missile capable of hitting the U.S. While North Korea is not there yet, it has made great strides toward achieving that goal in the five years of Jong-un’s reign.
As for Iran, Bush said nearly 15 years ago that it “aggressively pursues these weapons [of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” With the notable exception of the 2015 international accord that has imposed a decade-long brake on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran continues its push to export terror and repress its people. The U.S. has helped Saudi Arabia in its fight inside Yemen against the rebels, in part to win Saudi backing of that nuclear deal.