Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Forgotten military strikes and long-term repercussions

As I write this, most news outlets are running stories on the likelihood of a U.S. military strike against Syria for the latter's apparent use of chemical weapons against anti-Assad forces in the middle-eastern country (which has essentially been in a state of civil war for two years now). The consensus, by and large, is that such a strike or strikes is very likely. Similarly, the consensus is also that such military actions will be of a limited nature; "regime change" is apparently not on the table.

So one must ask, what is the point of such strikes? Punishment? A reminder of what could happen if the Syrian government doesn't play nice with the rebel forces? Or actual targeted destruction of military facilities in order to limit/destroy chemical weapons and other WMDs? Most assuredly, the Administration and Pentagon officials will point to the last. Of course, the effectiveness of strikes in this regard is dependent on effective intelligence, something that we often take for granted but have learned--the hard way--that we really shouldn't.

But what about the larger picture? Allowing that such limited military strikes are effective in the moment, what are the long-term consequences? The quintessential historical example--with regard to the United States--is Vietnam. Most remember now how the conflict there was an "escalating one," how the United States went from supplying advisors only to South Vietnam forces to supplying arms, then finally to actual U.S. troops and accompanying military apparatus, from planes to tanks to warships.

However, at first the United States simply initiated a series of limited airstrikes against North Vietnam targets, in response to supposed attacks on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August of 1964. It wasn't until March of the following year that any actual ground troops were sent to Vietnam as a fighting force. And true enough, that was the beginning of a massive escalation. To this day, many argue that President Johnson overstated--at the very least--the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in order to get to the point of full-scale war in Vietnam. The series of airstrikes that led up to war concluded with the start of the infamous Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive program of aerial bombardment lasting over three years, destroting infrastructure throughout Vietnam, yet ultimately failing to achieve its stated goals.

There are more recent examples of limited airstrikes by the United States, as well. For instance, President Bill Clinton engaged in a series of them against Iraq, starting with the launching of 23 cruise missiles into Baghdad on June 26, 1993. This attack was in response to the uncovering of an Iraqi-led assassination plot against former President George Bush in Kuwait two months earlier. Thus, it was very much a retaliatory strike, intended to demonstrate what the consequences would be for Saddam Hussein and Iraq if he continued to "misbehave."

Yet, Hussein did continue to misbehave. Despite the presence of UN personnel in Iraq (still trying to "inspect" Iraqi facilities for WMDs) and still-extant no-fly zones established after the Gulf War, Hussein launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in the north (in one of the no-fly zones). In response to this, Clinton once again turned to limited airstrikes against Iraqi, ordering the launching of another 44 cruise missiles against targets in southern Iraq. From Clinton's statement on the attack (my boldface):
The Iraqi attack adds fuel to the factional fire and threatens to spark instability throughout the region. Our objectives are limited, but clear: to make Saddam pay a price for the latest act of brutality; reducing his ability to threaten his neighbors and America's interests.

First, we are extending the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. This will deny Saddam control of Iraqi airspace from the Kuwaiti border to the southern suburbs of Baghdad and significantly restrict Iraq's ability to conduct offensive operations in the region. Second, to protect the safety of our aircraft enforcing this no-fly zone, our cruise missiles struck Saddam's air defense capabilities in southern Iraq...

We must make it clear the reckless acts have consequences, or those acts will increase. We must reduce Iraq's ability to strike out at its neighbors and we must increase America's ability to contain Iraq over the long run.

Which brings us to 1998 and Operation Desert Fox, a joint operation undertaken by United States and British forces against Iraq in December of that year. Lasting four days and consisting of over 600 sorties, including 90 cruise missile and 325 tomahawk missile attacks, this limited military strike was undertaken because of Hussein's lack of cooperation with UN weapons inspectors (whether or not the inspectors were "thrown out" was a subject of much debate). From Clinton's statement on this limited military action:
Earlier today, I ordered America's armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq. They are joined by British forces. Their mission is to attack Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors.

Their purpose is to protect the national interest of the United States, and indeed the interests of people throughout the Middle East and around the world.

Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons...

Now over the past three weeks, the UN weapons inspectors have carried out their plan for testing Iraq's cooperation. The testing period ended this weekend, and last night, UNSCOM's chairman, Richard Butler, reported the results to UN Secretary-General Annan.

The conclusions are stark, sobering and profoundly disturbing.

In four out of the five categories set forth, Iraq has failed to cooperate. Indeed, it actually has placed new restrictions on the inspectors. Here are some of the particulars.
Iraq repeatedly blocked UNSCOM from inspecting suspect sites. For example, it shut off access to the headquarters of its ruling party and said it will deny access to the party's other offices, even though UN resolutions make no exception for them and UNSCOM has inspected them in the past...
And Clinton goes on to make it absolutely clear what this attack means for Iraq, what it represents:
So Iraq has abused its final chance...

The international community gave Saddam one last chance to resume cooperation with the weapons inspectors. Saddam has failed to seize the chance...
Then repeats himself from 1996 (my boldface):
At the same time, we are delivering a powerful message to Saddam. If you act recklessly, you will pay a heavy price. We acted today because, in the judgment of my military advisers, a swift response would provide the most surprise and the least opportunity for Saddam to prepare.
Now in five years, President George Bush would launch an actual invasion and full-scale war against Hussein and Iraq on the basis of a continued lack of cooperation with weapons inspectors and on the pretext of not being willing to wait for the threat of Iraqi WMDs to become imminent (a point now roundly misrepresented as Bush declaring that the threat was imminent). Whether or not one agrees with Bush's rationale, the reality is that the Iraqi War represented the final step in a series of escalating ones, going back to the end of the Gulf War.

As a whole, the limited military strikes employed by President Clinton never succeeded in "teaching" Hussein anything, never succeeded in curbing his propensity for misbehavior. In the moment, each and every strike was declared a success as a matter of course. But the march of time shows that nothing was ever really accomplished. In 1998, Clinton also talked about regime change and how Hussein needed to be removed from power, but he refused to actually pursue such a goal, preferring to leave it for others, to simply offer non-specific support for such a thing. But if these strikes never led to such an outcome and never curbed Hussein's behavior, what was the point in carrying them out, aside from simple retribution?

And if it was just the last--as seemed to be the case in 1993--why not just leave it at that and dispense with all the rhetoric? From Vietnam to Iraq, it seems clear that if the intended goal is the elimination of a particular regime in a nation, limited military actions--in the form of airstrikes, in order to minimize the risk to U.S. personnel--are ineffective and will likely lead only to an escalating type of scenario, wherein full-scale war is more than likely.

The problem is, Administrations change in the United States. And when these kinds of attacks are taking place across years, they can be and are used as political propaganda in the moment, to make a given leader look good, to distract from other issues, or to demonstrate a supposedly serious commitment to national security or to international justice. Down the road, though, people tend to forget all about them.

Cheers, all.

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