Thoughts on the impending Syria strikes
In December 1998, the US initiated a four day, cruise missile heavy, bombing campaign known as Operation Desert Fox against Iraq in response to its expulsion of UN weapon inspectors and in order to degrade its WMD and missile capacity. The Clinton administration neither sought international support nor Congressional backing for the attacks. The international community was too divided on Iraq and no one really expected a President to go to Congress for a short-term, low or no causality, military engagement that did not involve troop deployments (one could make the argument that Congress had also passed numerous resolutions related to the issue of Iraq disarmament). Times have, however, certainly changed.
Desert Fox was ultimately largely unsuccessful in its goals. Iraq’s WMD program, as we later found out, was extremely limited at the time, and the UN inspectors were still not going to be allowed back. International reaction was so critical that Russia, China, and France all made diplomatic gestures to lift all economics sanctions on Iraq at the time.
Is the lesson of Desert Fox the US should ask for international permission to strike at a perceived threat to the US and international community? Is it that the American President should seek Congressional approval for every instance of force projection abroad? Is the lesson of Desert Fox that these types of short term bombing campaigns are bound to be ineffective? I’d say no, no, and sort of.
Seeking international support from the international community is a desirable, but ultimately often futile, course of action. The UN Security Council has only authorized the use of force by one state against another twice in its seventy year history. That’s not about to change. As for more informal endorsements of US action by other countries – well, we live in an era when populations around the world almost invariably view any US intervention abroad as an act of aggression, no matter what the cause. In the near future, either the US has to accept limited international support for its actions abroad or turn in on itself and leave the world to its own devices.
As for President Obama consulting Congress for limited military strikes – it might seem democratic, but it is setting a bad precedent. Despite the cries of Congressional representatives for more input, the President is neither wise nor required by the Constitution to consult them for this type of military action. Limited military action is most effective, both in terms of its psychological effects and military goals, when it is swift and decisive. The current consultative process comes across internationally as feckless and is allowing the Syrian government weeks of preparation for a strike. Whether one trusts or doesn’t trust the President, he is the one invested, more or less, with the power to launch a nuclear strike were he to so choose. This decision does not rise nearly to that level of responsibility.
The strikes are not likely to affect the long term balance of forces fighting within Syria. Limited military effectiveness, however, does not equate necessarily to limited symbolic effectiveness. The US only needs to inflict enough cost to make the Syrian regime think twice about using chemical weapons in the future. Operation Desert Fox was built on poor intelligence; this time, the facts seem quite straightforward – Syrian forces launched the attack, albeit without necessarily the stamp of approval at the highest levels.
The lesson of Desert Fox that is most relevant and important, I think, is the fact that only fifteen years later, most people simply don’t remember it. This is not to downplay the dozens, if not more, Iraqi civilian deaths in the strikes; only to put things in perspective a bit. Fifteen years later, people are also likely to have a very hard time recalling any strike that occurs this week or next.
However, if no action is taken on behalf of the international community, people may always remember the indifference of the US and international community this month. Absent any meaningful response, it’s also likely the Syrian government will resort to the use of chemical weapons again. Next time, however, the United States would shoulder some of the culpability if we employed nothing more than harsh words against the Syrian regime this time around.