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Inside Biden’s decision to strike the Houthis

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The administration had been under pressure to respond to the Iran-backed attacks.

U.S. officials had been worried that hitting the Houthis, who say the attacks on commercial ships are a demonstration of support for the Palestinians, would provoke Iran into its own response and risk widening the Israel-Hamas war into a regional conflict.

During the Jan. 1 meeting, Biden directed his team to issue a final warning statement, together with international partners, before taking military action.

Unknown to the other national security leaders, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had just undergone surgery to treat prostate cancer 10 days earlier. Later on Jan. 1, he would be taken in an ambulance to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for complications from that procedure. Austin’s doctors concluded his symptoms stemmed from a urinary tract infection and transferred him to the intensive care unit for further treatment.

From Jan. 2 until Jan. 5, Austin’s deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was effectively in charge of the Pentagon while on vacation in Puerto Rico. The rest of Biden’s national security team were not made aware of Austin’s hospitalization until Thursday. Since resuming his full duties on Jan. 5, Austin has continued to call in to meetings from his hospital bed.

On Jan. 3, the U.S. and 13 other countries issued a statement warning that the Houthis would bear the full “consequences” of any further attacks against commercial vessels. But that did little to deter the Houthis.

On Tuesday, the Houthis launched their largest and most brazen attack yet, marking a turning point for U.S. officials. The group launched a volley of drones and missiles targeting U.S. commercial and military ships. U.S. and U.K. naval forces shot down nearly 20 drones and three missiles, preventing the severe damage the Houthis had intended.

In the wake of the attack, Biden convened his national security team for another meeting that day. Hunkered down at the White House with no public obligations on his schedule, Biden was again presented with military options. At the end of the meeting, Biden decided it was time to move forward. He instructed Austin, still working from the hospital, to carry out the strikes.

The operation took time to coordinate because the other nations involved wanted to understand the legal basis for the strikes, a senior DOD official said, along with precisely what the U.S. was asking them to contribute.

The U.S. forces were joined by four Royal Air Force Typhoons, supported by a Voyager aerial tanker, according to a statement from the U.K. Ministry of Defense. The jets used Paveway IV guided bombs to launch precision strikes on two Houthi facilities: a site at Bani in northwestern Yemen used to launch drones and an airfield at Abbs that used to launch cruise missiles and drones over the Red Sea.