Middle East Aflame Because Iran Thinks Biden Is 'Mush,' Retired CENTCOM Commander Argues

(Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
January 5, 2024

President Joe Biden's administration has squandered the deterrence against Iran established under former president Donald Trump, retired Marine general Kenneth McKenzie argued in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

"Iranian leaders work with Lenin's dictum that 'you probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.' Tehran and its proxies are pressing their attacks because they haven't confronted steel," wrote McKenzie, who led CENTCOM from 2019 to 2022.

Under McKenzie's command, American forces killed military commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. That action, according to McKenzie, was a key factor in deterring Iran from further coordinating strikes on American assets and allies in the Middle East.

"It takes will and capability to establish and maintain deterrence," McKenzie said. "We were able to reset deterrence as a result of this violent couplet. The Iranians have always feared our capabilities, but before January 2020, they doubted our will."

With Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis disrupting passage between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a "forceful response" is needed, McKenzie wrote. He added that taking such an action "isn't likely to lead to theaterwide escalation" and that doing so is especially important as the "Chinese are watching to see how we respond to a threat involving a narrow strait," a reference to Beijing's designs on Taiwan.

"To reset deterrence, we must apply violence that Tehran understands," McKenzie said. "Paradoxically, if done earlier, this violence could have been of a far smaller and more measured scale. Indecision has placed us in this position. There is a way forward but it requires the U.S. to set aside the fear of escalation and act according to the priorities of our strategic documents and concepts."

A U.S. strike on Thursday killed a militia leader whom the Pentagon blamed for attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq. That strike represents the most forceful response from the Biden administration after Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria hit American troops at least 100 times since the beginning of Israel's war on Hamas.

As Biden is considering how to respond to the Houthis' disruption of transit in the Red Sea and attacks on U.S. personnel, he has thus far refrained from striking the group in Yemen.

The Washington Free Beacon's editors argued in early December that the administration's response to Iranian proxies in the Middle East has been inconsequential and insufficient.

"The United States-led international order begins and ends on the high seas," the editors wrote. "The order already teetering, the Biden administration faces a crossroads. Its tit-for-tat response to the scheming of Iran's satraps has failed. It can further enable the Houthis—and Iran's aggression—or reassert some American muscle."