The USS Mason destroyed three coastal radar sites held by the rebel government in Yemen, the Pentagon announced last night, after the USS Mason was twice within four days the target of missiles launched from rebel-held territory in Yemen. Those missiles all missed and the USS Mason was not damaged. The U.S. action is the first time it has bombed Houthi targets in Yemen since Houthi rebels ousted the U.S.-backed government in Sana’a, which retreated to Aden, in 2014, sparking a civil war in which Saudi Arabia has intervened in support of the exiled government. The Saudi and U.S.-backed president escaped to Saudi Arabia in 2015.
“These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway,” Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook said in a statement. “The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb, and elsewhere around the world.”
The Houthi government denied responsibility for the failed missile strikes, saying it had “nothing to do with this act.” Instead, Houthi officials suggested the accusation was an attempt to distract from the “heinous” airstrike on a funeral in Yemen over the weekend that killed more than 150 people. Saudi Arabia denied responsibility itself for the air strike on Yemen, and said it would “investigate.” Human Rights Watch said remnants of U.S.-made munitions were found at the site. The U.S., for its part, insisted its support for Saudi Arabia did not amount to a “blank check” for Saudi actions in Yemen, with the White House claiming it would conduct an “immediate review” of what a National Security spokesperson described as “significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led Coalition.”
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) tried last month to block a $1+ billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia but the effort failed in the Senate. Saudi Arabia has been the primary recipient of U.S.-made arms from 2011 to 2015, a period during which the U.S. was responsible for a third of arms exports across the world.
While the Pentagon asserted that U.S. commanders “retain the right to defend their ships,” it says the strikes on the radar sites in Yemen, which the U.S. insists were in remote coastal areas far from civilians, were authorized by President Obama upon the recommendation of Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Prior to the civil war, the U.S. conducted drone strikes in Yemen against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other targets, sometimes fed to them by the government now in exile. Unsurprisingly, the airstrikes bred anger at the government and encouraged anti-Americanism. The power vacuums aggravated by Saudi intervention in the current civil war have helped Al-Qaeda resurge in Yemen, with the terrorist group even taking complete control of Mukalla, the third largest port city in the country.
Yemen’s exiled government has accused the Houthi rebels of being backed by Iran. No one appears to accuse the rebels of being backed by Al-Qaeda. The U.S. could not, then, twist the 2002 authorization for the use of military force against the perpetrators of 9/11 and their “associated forces” for a more direct and more sustained intervention in the Yemen conflict in the way it has used the AUMF to justify interventions in conflicts from West Africa to the Kush.