Edited by Sam Thielman
U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND ANNOUNCED on Sunday that two Navy SEALs lost in the Arabian Sea during a Jan. 11 boarding mission to intercept Iranian missiles en route to the Houthis are now considered deceased. They represent the first known U.S. casualties of an open-ended war the Biden administration is accepting rather than doing the one thing that will stop the Houthis from harassing Red Sea commerce, which is to make Israel stop what Biden himself has called its "indiscriminate" war on Gaza.
The SEALs, whose names are being withheld pending the notification of their families, are unlikely to be the last such casualties. Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration, having painted itself into a corner on Yemen, is preparing a "sustained military campaign" against a Houthi foe that seven years of U.S.-backed Saudi bombings and Emirati ground operations could not defeat.
Conspicuously absent from the Biden team's overview to the Post, and depressingly familiar from a generation-long War on Terror, is any theory of victory. In its place is a declaration of Principle. "[T]he principle that it simply can’t be tolerated for a terrorist organization … with these advanced capabilities to essentially shut down or control shipping through a key international choke point is one that we feel very strongly about," some senior U.S. official told the paper.
As FOREVER WARS wrote on Jan. 12, the day after the U.S. began bombing the Houthis, principles are not strategies. Biden on Friday demonstrated that better than I could, telling reporters, "Are [the bombs] stopping the Houthis? No. Will they continue? Yes." It was as concise a rededication to post-9/11 U.S. strategy as could be delivered by someone who helped shape that strategy before running for president on a pledge to move on from it. True to Biden's word, the U.S. strikes on Houthi infrastructure continued on Friday and again on Saturday, all to negligible achievement. The Biden of the Afghanistan Pullout appears to be a distant memory.
Biden might think he sounds like Churchill during World War II. Instead, he sounds like Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam, or Bush during Iraq. Or, for that matter, himself during Iraq.
Statements like Biden's are the wages of normalizing the War on Terror. To everyone accustomed to Forever Wars, they sound like declarations of resolve, defiant in American opposition to the ever-shifting, ever-implacable Enemy. To everyone else, they sound like fucking madness, a promise that we will have during this permutation of the Forever Wars what we have had during every prior permutation of the Forever Wars: neither peace nor victory.
THE POST PIECE SUGGESTS that Team Biden considers its war on Yemen limited. It seeks neither regime change nor even the end of the Red Sea shipping attacks. "The appetite is to degrade their ability to launch these kind of attacks going forward," a "diplomat close to the issues" told the paper. (My emphasis.) But just because that's what Team Biden sets as an objective now doesn't mean it's what Biden or Trump will set as an objective later, after the bombings fail to meaningfully "degrade" Houthi naval and missile capability.
The War on Terror instructs that within elite politics and the Security State, the failure to achieve an objective is more of an argument to escalate than it is an argument to retrench. When the Houthi boardings and drone/missile attacks began, and the U.S. spun up a maritime policing task force, declarations came out from those circles that maritime policing would be insufficient, and the U.S. needed to strike the Houthis in Yemen. Now that's happening. How long will it be until, in frustration, voices in the administration, the opposition and the military community argue for expanding not just the target package but the objective?
Biden has little choice but to make his bombing of Houthi-controlled Yemeni territory operate on the level of principle. Without it, his administration would have to confront that the entire reason the Houthis are threatening Red Sea commerce is the destruction of Gaza that the U.S. materially and diplomatically supports Israel committing. "Nothing is more important than Palestine," the amateur Yemeni pirate that TikTokers have dubbed TimHouthee Chalamet recently told Hasan Piker. The U.S. isn't the only party to this conflict that considers itself to operate on the level of principle.
So let's check in on the Gaza war that Biden would rather support by launching a "sustained military campaign" in Yemen than pressure Benjamin Netanyahu to conclude.
CONTINUING ITS REORIENTATION to southern Gaza, the IDF over the past several days has assaulted the southern city of Khan Younis, bringing to the city what Reuters calls "Gaza's bloodiest fighting so far in January." Israeli attacks occurred around Nasser Hospital, Gaza's last operational one, and reportedly cut off patients from trauma care. Ahmed Moghrabi, a doctor at the hospital, called the situation faced by patients and staff "catastrophic" in a message to Democracy Now. As well, CNN reported that the IDF has desecrated cemeteries in Khan Younis, Gaza City and elsewhere, something the network calls a "systemic practice" and that the IDF justified as somehow related to hostage rescue. In Gaza City, the IDF wiped al-Israa University off the face of the earth.
Eli Askozido, director of Israel's antiquities authority, posted and then deleted a claim that the IDF took ancient artifacts from Gaza and placed them in the Knesset, something that immediately put me in mind of the April 2003 looting of the Iraqi national museum after the U.S. captured Baghdad. (Askozido subsequently posted that the IDF asked him to help them "inspect a warehouse" containing suspected antiquities that they left "undisturbed at the site.") "Not only does it want to crush our present & destroy our future, Israel is attempting to obliterate our past," tweeted the Palestinian eminence Hanan Ashrawi.
And the death toll stands at 25,100 Palestinians killed—an estimated 9600 of them children.
Meanwhile, as anyone who has ever paid attention to the decades-long political career of Benjamin Netanyahu could have told you would happen, Netanyahu rejected a proposal—one backed by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt, per the Wall Street Journal—to trade the remaining hostages for the end of the war. And, just as anyone who ever paid attention to his career could also have told you, Netanyahu rejects anything like Palestinian statehood, all while Biden insists that he can get Netanyahu to break with Netanyahu's entire political history and base of support and accept Palestinian independence. The families of the hostages Hamas seized on October 7 are justifiably livid at the government and today interrupted Knesset committees by yelling things like, "What kind of a country is this where I have to beg the Knesset to do something to bring back my loved ones?"
Israel instead killed three members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Damascus on Saturday. Later that day, per CENTCOM, Iranian-supported militias launched missiles and rockets at the U.S.-used al-Asad airbase in western Iraq. CENTCOM says that "at least one" Iraqi servicemember was wounded and "a number" of U.S. personnel are being examined for traumatic brain injuries. The dynamic illustrates the now-familiar ways the war has regionalized: clients strike at adversary patrons, in the unrealized expectation of pressuring the patron to back down and restrain the client.
"We will never fail to honor their service, their legacy, and their sacrifice," Biden said of the SEALs lost in the Arabian Sea on Monday morning. But Biden is committing himself to sending their shipmates, and others, to wage yet another futile war in the Middle East—one that can end if he summons the will to restrain Netanyahu. It was hard for me not to remember all the times during the War on Terror I heard quotes like that from presidents. They tended not to describe ending wars as a way to honor such sacrifice.
I don't make any political predictions when I compare Biden to Lyndon Johnson, although Hamilton Nolan recently compiled the valuable actions of the Biden administration on behalf of labor that Biden is jeopardizing in his Johnsonesque devotion to a clearly catastrophic and immoral war. But perhaps if the ghost of Lyndon Johnson wishes to do something productive during its eternal purgatory, it should visit Joe Biden before Biden has to make any more statements honoring fallen servicemembers.
THE COLUMBIA SPECTATOR REPORTS that Columbia University and the NYPD are investigating accounts of pro-Palestinian protesters getting sprayed by a stink-producing crowd control chemical agent reminiscent of the "Skunk" that the IDF uses. According to a witness:
Layla Saliba, SSW ’25, said she noticed individuals of the same description acting “unusual” and approaching students holding a “CU Jews for Ceasefire” banner, calling the protesters “self-hating Jews,” she said.
And here I thought Columbia was so devoted to protecting the safety of Jews on campus!
OVER THE WEEKEND, I finished Atef Abu Saif's agonizing memoir of the 2014 Gaza War, The Drone Eats With Me. I strongly recommend it to you. Among its endless heartbreaking moments is this one, about the day the ceasefire took hold to end a 51-day long nightmare.
My kids are overjoyed. Each one asks me the same question in different ways: Is this really the end of it? Without waiting for my answer, the boys run out into the street, leaving little Jaffa crying and wanting to find them, slamming the door behind them. She shrieks like never before, as if she knows that she is missing the most joyful moment in her young life. The moment we all realize she has survived.
Ten years later, we are publishing this edition on Day 108 after Oct. 7.
JASPER DIAMOND NATHANIEL has a must-read dispatch from the West Bank. I won't spoil it for you.
THE INTERCEPT REPORTS that the veterans of the infamous spyware firm NSO Group are pitching, from Gaza, a new "defensive cybersecurity solution to protect critical infrastructure and state-level assets."
I WILL UNDERSTAND IF YOU WISH TO RESPECT THE BUY-NOTHING STRIKE THIS WEEK FOR PALESTINE, but after it's done, make sure to buy a subscription to FOREVER WARS; a pre-order copy of the WALLER VS. WILDSTORM hardcover, out Jan. 30; a set of all four WVW issues signed by me through Bulletproof Comics, which will also sell autographed WVW hardcovers once they're out; and, in keeping with this particular edition of the newsletter, my book REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP!