Their names and photos haven't yet been released, and I hope and pray that by some miracle they may yet be found alive, but at this writing it sure looks as if the new phase of the war between Iran and the U.S. has claimed two American seamen.
A press release from U.S. Central Command reports that on January 11, "U.S. Navy SEALs operating from USS Lewis B Puller ... executed a complex boarding of the dhow near the coast of Somalia in international waters of the Arabian Sea, seizing Iranian-made ballistic missile and cruise missiles components." The dhow—a sailboat with a triangular sail—was "conducting illegal transport of advanced lethal aid from Iran to resupply Houthi forces in Yemen as part of the Houthis' ongoing campaign of attacks against international merchant shipping," the press release said. More from the release:
Seized items include propulsion, guidance, and warheads for Houthi medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), as well as air defense associated components. Initial analysis indicates these same weapons have been employed by the Houthis to threaten and attack innocent mariners on international merchant ships transiting in the Red Sea....
Two U.S. Navy SEALs previously reported as lost at sea were directly involved in this operation. "We are conducting an exhaustive search for our missing teammates," said General Michael Erik Kurilla, USCENTCOM Commander....
"It is clear that Iran continues shipment of advanced lethal aid to the Houthis. This is yet another example of how Iran actively sows instability throughout the region in direct violation of U.N. Security Resolution 2216 and international law," said General Michael Erik Kurilla.
If President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are sure of anything, it's that they aren't going to allow the U.S. to be dragged into a war with no exit strategy and no victory plan. At the same time, it's an election year. Even if it weren't an election year, allowing Iranian proxies to invade Israel and also effectively close the Suez Canal to international shipping with impunity would not be a good look, coming after a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And it's not only about appearances. The effective Suez Canal closure contributes to inflation and supply chain disruptions. And the appearance of American toothlessness increases the likelihood of additional acts of aggression, such as Communist China making a move on Taiwan or North Korea moving against South Korea.
The pattern has been that Biden will take carefully calibrated actions to provide the appearance of retaliation without risking further escalation. The problem for him is timing. He can run this summer and into the fall as a George W. Bush or FDR-style wartime president, asking voters not to fire him midwar as victory is approaching; or he can try to buy a truce before the campaign begins in earnest. Our enemies see this and adjust their actions and negotiating posture accordingly. And Trump sees this, too—he's been out on the campaign trail telling voters that no one would have messed with America this way if he were president.