The type of limited, punitive military campaign now being contemplated against Syria has failed to deter U.S. adversaries in the past, and at times emboldened them, military analysts say.
In two major episodes in 1998, the U.S. government unleashed a combination of bombs and cruise missiles against its foes — Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. In a more distant third case, in 1986, the U.S. bombed Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya.
The bombs and missiles mostly hit their targets, and the U.S. military at the time declared the attacks successful. But in the end, they achieved little.
Two years after the U.S. bombed Tripoli, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 passengers and crew. Investigators later concluded that the U.S. attack was a primary motive for Gadhafi to support the Lockerbie bombing.
Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people in attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Saddam kicked out international weapons inspectors and survived despite sanctions until a U.S.-led invasion deposed him in 2003. The benefit to the U.S. of that costly war and the occupation that followed remains in dispute.
In a paper reviewing the 1998 attack on Iraq, Mark Conversino, associate dean of the U.S. Air War College, cited the unease of some military experts about the use of air power within tight constraints.
“Many air power theorists had long cautioned against using air power in penny packets or in hyper-constrained political environments,” he wrote in the 2005 paper.
Yet presidents confronting limited options continue to consider such action. President Barack Obama is said to be contemplating a limited series of cruise missile strikes in response to the apparent chemical weapons attack last week on civilians by the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.
Military analysts are warning about the limits of such an approach.
“If the U.S. does something and Assad is left standing at the end of it without having suffered real serious, painful enough damage, the U.S. looks weak and foolish,” said Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and former State Department official in the Bush administration, who has long been skeptical about reliance on air power.
“Can you do damage with cruise missiles? Yes,” said Anthony Cordesman, military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “Can you stop them from having chemical weapons capability? I would think the answer would be no. Should you limit yourself to just a kind of incremental retaliation? That doesn’t serve any strategic purpose. It doesn’t protect the Syrian people, it doesn’t push Assad out.”
Previous such punitive attacks were aimed at countries that had targeted or threatened American personnel or facilities. If Obama authorizes action against Syria, he would be striking a country that has posed no clear threat to the United States.
However, Obama did authorize U.S. participation in a U.N.-approved mission to protect civilians in 2011 that ultimately led to the fall of Gadhafi’s government. Secretary of State John F. Kerry in a toughly worded statement Monday cited what he called “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” in the attack last week.
In 1986, after officials concluded that Gadhafi had ordered a bombing that killed two U.S. service members in a Berlin disco, Pres. Ronald Reagan authorized an airstrike of 60 tons of munitions in 12 minutes on targets in Tripoli. Among the targets was Gadhafi’s residential compound, but he was warned and fled.
In August 1998, days after al-Qaida bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, President Bill Clinton signed off on plans to target bin Laden with cruise missiles, and the U.S. fired 75 of them into terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
Clinton’s operation also targeted a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that U.S. officials thought was making chemical weapons. Later evidence cast doubt on that claim.
Bin Laden canceled a planned meeting at one of the bombing sites, and he and many of his top lieutenants escaped unharmed. Documents declassified in 2008 suggested the strikes may have brought al-Qaida and the Taliban closer politically and ideologically. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the 2001 attacks when the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden.
In December 1998, Clinton ordered an operation designed to “strike military targets in Iraq that contributed to its ability to produce, store, maintain and deliver weapons of mass destruction,” according to a Pentagon history.
Later evidence showed Saddam had shelved his banned weapons programs by then, but the attacks were at the time considered a military success.