So the U.S. launches a military strike. Then what?
As the Obama administration and the U.S. military plot military action against Syria, they should be spending just as much time — and arguably more — considering what happens next. Once Washington crosses the threshold of action, there’s no retreating from blame for anything that follows, whether through action or inaction. And in the weeks and months to come, dangers will only deepen.
First, quick hits rarely achieve enduring political goals — and often produce more costs or unintended consequences than benefits. I’ve seen it so often before.
I lived in Lebanon in the fall of 1983 when the Reagan administration ordered the Marine peacekeepers deployed in Beirut to open fire on a Muslim militia. The commander bluntly warned Washington that a strike would have dire consequences for U.S. policy and his troops. “We’ll get slaughtered down here,” he predicted. Nonetheless, the cruiser Virginia stationed offshore fired 70 deafening rounds on the Lebanese fighters.
It was supposed to be a quick hit. It was supposed to send a warning.
But 34 days later, on Oct. 23, a yellow Mercedes truck carrying the equivalent of 6 tons of explosives drove into the Marine barracks as the peacekeepers slept. In my head, I can still hear the thundering bomb blast. It was the single largest nonnuclear explosion anywhere since World War II. It produced the largest loss of American military life in a single incident since Iwo Jima.
Four months later, the world’s mightiest military was ordered to leave Lebanon, its mission incomplete. The embryo of what became Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, had forced the retreat of American, French, Italian and British troops.
This time in Syria, Washington may again consider its action limited and specifically targeted. But Syria and its allies, notably Hezbollah, surely won’t. And they can respond in many ways.
The last five presidents have tried limited strikes with specific messages in various crisis spots, many in the Middle East. The track record is pretty sorry for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Again during the Reagan administration, I reported on the 1986 U.S. airstrikes against Libya for bombing a Berlin disco, a hangout for American troops. Three had been killed and more than 200 injured in the blast, not all Americans. Ten days later, U.S. airstrikes sent a kinetic message to Moammar Kadafi about the costs of terrorism.
Operation El Dorado Canyon hit Kadafi’s military headquarters and other military targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, although several bombs missed their targets and hit civilian areas. The strikes did little to end the outrages. Two years later, Libya masterminded the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people. And Kadafi remained in power another quarter-century.
In 1998, I covered Operation Desert Fox, when the Clinton administration launched four days of cruise missile and bombing strikes against Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime had failed to comply with United Nations resolutions and weapons inspectors for a year. The goal was to “degrade” Baghdad’s ability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction and to destabilize Hussein’s hold on power.
The impact was negligible. Hussein held on for five more years, until the George W. Bush administration launched a ground invasion that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and nearly 4,500 American lives over the next eight years.
And in the end, the United States discovered that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction anymore.
I also covered Operation Infinite Reach, when the Clinton administration ordered cruise missile strikes on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998. It was a response to twin bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Twelve Americans had been among the 224 killed.
But a year later, I was in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden’s camps were still thriving. The U.S. strikes had made him even more popular and powerful on the terrorist circuit. And he skillfully adapted Al Qaeda’s tactics. In 2000, a suicide dinghy struck the U.S. destroyer Cole docked in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. And then the 9/11 suicide planes, the most successful attack against the United States since Pearl Harbor. Bin Laden may be dead, but the franchises born of his movement are thriving from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
So the idea of quick hits or short campaigns is often an illusion. The one notable success was the 2011 air campaign that helped oust Kadafi. But it had the full endorsement of the Arab League, the United Nations and , NATO, which ran the international mission. Thousands of Libyans actually did the fighting, while the Transitional National Council provided a viable alternative government from inside the country. And still Operation Unified Protector lasted 222 days.
In the case of Syria, a few days of strikes against military targets may assuage moral outrage over its heinous use of chemical weapons. But they also carry the danger of widening the war by legitimizing or deepening involvement by other foreign powers, notably Iranian and Russian support for Damascus.
I lived in Beirut during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization. It achieved the immediate goal, yet Operation Peace for Galilee also backfired: Iran deployed Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon and created Hezbollah, which ultimately drove out both Israeli troops and American peacekeepers. It was Israel’s first retreat — made voluntarily due to inexorable costs — in the long Arab-Israeli dispute.
So, as the U.S. and its allies take on Syria, they need to ensure that the costs do not ultimately outweigh the benefits, and that another military mission doesn’t backfire.
Robin Wright, the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World,” is a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center.