Foreign Policy of the Cruise Missile

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Inside America, President Clinton will go down as only the second president to be impeached. But overseas, he may well be remembered as America’s cruise-missile president.

With last week’s 70-hour salvo against Iraq, the administration demonstrated beyond any doubt that cruise missile attacks--which inflict damage without risking American casualties--have become a central element in U.S. foreign policy. It’s worth asking how effective these are in achieving their intended results.

Over the past six years, the Clinton administration has resorted to cruise missile attacks on five occasions. Three were against Iraq (in 1993, 1996 and last week). One was against Serb positions in Bosnia in 1995. And one was against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan last August.


In a perceptive 1996 essay, two scholars described America’s growing reliance on cruise missiles as “the Clinton doctrine.”

“Under the terms of the Clinton doctrine, force is employed neither to defeat nor even to coerce,” wrote A.J. Bacevich and Lawrence F. Kaplan, then of Johns Hopkins University. “Rather, the utility of force lies in its capacity to influence, to prod an adversary to see the error of his ways, to encourage him to modify his future behavior.

”. . . Violence, strictly controlled and carefully limited, becomes akin to a communique, albeit one rendered with particular sharpness.”

In only one of these five instances has a cruise-missile attack achieved clear, lasting results. In Bosnia, the missiles and other bombing by the United States and its allies led within months to the peace settlement at Dayton, Ohio. (Yet Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was not deterred from other adventures, notably in Kosovo.)

With Iraq, the results have been decidedly mixed.

“Over the past six years, every time Saddam Hussein has challenged the United States, he has returned to the status quo, or in some cases better,” says Robert Zoellick, a former George Bush administration official and now president-designate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In 1996, the last time America let loose its cruise missiles against Iraq, then-CIA Director John M. Deutch acknowledged afterward that Hussein had emerged politically stronger than he had been. These remarks seemed to contradict Clinton’s claim that the missile attack had left Hussein “strategically weaker,” and Deutch was soon replaced.


What about Operation Desert Fox, the administration’s moniker for last week’s bombardment? To be sure, the missiles served an intangible interest that American officials usually call “credibility.” The attack demonstrated that Hussein will suffer some punishment if he defies repeated American warnings.

More concretely, administration officials also maintain that the attacks set back Iraq’s ability to wreak destruction on its neighbors. “Saddam Hussein is weaker because all the targets and things that he cares about most have been destroyed,” asserted Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Even if such claims turn out to be true--and it is far too early to tell--the benefits should be weighed against the costs. And the costs are substantial.

“What we can see, now that Desert Fox is over, is that it’s been another pinprick, just one with a larger gauge of pin,” says Bacevich, now a professor at Boston University. “What have we got? We’ve got a situation where, almost for sure, the United Nations inspections are over. Public opinion, both in the Arab world and also in Europe, is more sympathetic to Iraq. And the U.N. sanctions against Iraq may be lifted.”

In the long run, the most damaging result of last week’s attack will be its impact on America’s relations with other major powers--those that either supported or acquiesced in America’s previous efforts against Iraq.

The contrast with Desert Storm, the 1991 war against Iraq, is particularly striking.

Back then, the United States labored patiently for six months to pull together a multinational coalition against Iraq, and it went to war under the auspices of the United Nations. This time, America and Britain acted on their own.


Back then, America and Russia were working more or less together. This time, the United States treated Russia so dismissively that the Russian ambassador to the United Nations learned about the cruise missiles in the midst of a Security Council meeting aimed at deciding what to do about Iraq.

Now, as a result of the missile attack, Russia’s ratification of the START II arms control treaty is on the shelf. And the Clinton administration will probably find it hard to persuade NATO to go along with the American effort to have the alliance adopt a new strategy broadening its missions.

Long gone is the Bush administration’s idea of a “new world order” in which major powers would team up to enforce the peace. Gone, too, is the notion enunciated by the new Clinton administration in 1993 that its foreign policy would be one of “assertive multilateralism.” Over time, both have been replaced by the foreign policy of the cruise missile.

There are all sorts of reasons this has happened. The administration wants to achieve surprise, and it wants to avoid the sorts of delays that are necessary in working with other nations. Yet it is worth keeping mind an old aphorism of Winston Churchill: “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without allies.”

Over the past few days, Clinton administration officials have claimed repeatedly that Iraq’s military capability has been “degraded” by the brief military operation. One can only hope that is true. For what has also been degraded, unfortunately, is America’s ability to work with and command the respect of other nations.

Jim Mann’s column appears in this space on Wednesdays.