Dear Mr. President,
Let's talk about precedents. You’re thinking about doing something in Syria to punish the regime there for using chemical weapons. You say it will be a “limited, tailored” action. But we’ve done this sort of thing before many times in many countries, including Syria, and in almost every case it proved a very bad idea.
I have been a foreign correspondent since 1980 and there has not been a single one of those 33 years when the United States did not engage in an act of war against someone, somewhere. These might be covert actions, like mining the harbors of Nicaragua, or they might be very overt ones, like the invasion of Iraq, but acts of war they were, and there are lessons to be learned from them.
For starters I’d like to suggest, if I may, a couple of general rules:
First, be very wary of the word “credibility,” and of those who tell you that yours or the country’s is on the line if you don’t go to war. Of course you want to stop the use of chemical weapons. Of course that is a red line, as you said. But credibility does not come from actions, it comes from results. And nothing you or those in your administration have talked about doing will solve that problem. The only thing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad really fears is being removed forever from power. And that is not a “limited, tailored” operation.
In the meantime, fewer than 30 percent of Americans support any military action in Syria at all, and the current tracking poll by Reuters/Ipsos shows that as the news from Syria gets worse, opposition to intervention grows greater. The British Parliament’s refusal to go along with Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to join you in military action reflects not only British opinion but world opinion. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic blog, is exactly right when he says the people questioning your credibility are, in fact, a tiny insular inside-the-Beltway elite who’ve convinced themselves that war, for one reason or another, is more credible than peace.
Nothing could be more ironic. If war imbued a president with “credibility,” then George W. Bush would be one of the most credible presidents in the country’s history. I don’t think anyone believes that is the case.
But that brings us to the second general rule: The kind of drumbeat now heard in Washington can lead to what the French call “la logique de guerre,” by which they mean a sort of pathology that takes over politics and the press and eventually a whole people, discouraging all debate and dissension. Costs are not calculated, benefits are fabricated; the rhetoric of glory disguises the grotesque realities of combat until armed confrontation not only seems inevitable, it is inevitable. That was precisely the kind of “logic” that propelled us into Iraq in 2003, and it is precisely the kind of thinking that has to be avoided now.
I think it is safe to assume from everything you have said and done, Mr. President, that you do not want another Iraq or another Afghanistan. But the precedents of not-so-ancient history show us that limited, punitive actions have been at best ineffectual and at worst horrifically counterproductive.
Assad certainly knows this. He grew up staring down the barrels of American and Israeli guns. And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he carried out a chemical-weapons attack precisely to call your bluff, knowing that what doesn’t kill him makes him stronger. That’s been the case with many tyrants before him, including his father.
In the summer of 1982, President Ronald Reagan sent the United States Marines to Lebanon to try to stabilize the country after the Israelis invaded and then partially withdrew. By the time the Americans left in early 1984, the Marine barracks had been blown up, killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers, and the United States Embassy in Beirut had been devastated—twice in two different locations—by enormous car bombs.
Toward the end of that debacle, the U.S. battleship New Jersey shelled enemy positions in Lebanon, and Navy pilots attacked targets inside Syria, where Hafez al-Assad, father of the current dictator, was defying American demands that he withdraw from Lebanon and quit supporting groups like Hezbollah that were attacking American allies and American soldiers. A U.S. pilot was killed and his navigator was captured. Assad continued to defy the Americans.
In 1986, the frustrated Reagan administration ordered the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya, to punish the dictator Muammar Gaddafi for his support of terrorists. In fact, the bombers did their best to kill Gaddafi himself. (I have a fairly vivid memory of that night, since I was on the ground in Tripoli as the bombs were falling.)
There is a myth—there is no other way to describe it—that after this raid, called “Operation El Dorado Canyon,” Gaddafi was neutralized. Nothing could be further from the truth. In point of fact he shifted his support from terrorists targeting Israel to terrorists targeting the United States and Great Britain, where the American bombers were based. The culmination of Gaddafi’s response to El Dorado Canyon was the blowing up of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 innocent people.
Also in the mid-1980s the U.S. Navy set about blowing up Iranian oil derricks and targeting Iran’s warships. In the course of those punitive operations, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian Airbus, killing 290 innocent Iranian men, women, and children.
There is a terrible redundancy to all this.
In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein managed to hold on to power despite the fact he’d suffered a massive and humiliating defeat in the Desert Storm campaign that forced him out of Kuwait. The outgoing administration of then-president George H.W. Bush launched a punitive raid against several Iraqi installations in 1993. (I watched from a rooftop as the cruise missiles thundered into various corners of Baghdad.)
For years, American, British, and French warplanes soared over the north and south of Iraq to impose a “no-fly zone.” Yet Saddam remained. In 1998, after Saddam defied U.N. weapons inspectors, the Clinton administration launched Operation Desert Fox, meant to force his compliance. He refused, and all inspections ended for almost four years. When they resumed, they found nothing. But the logic of war, as the Bush administration understood it, dictated an invasion. We couldn’t be sure Saddam was disarmed unless we occupied his country.
Also in 1998, al Qaeda blew up American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Since Osama bin Laden and his men had found refuge in Sudan and Afghanistan, the Clinton administration launched cruise-missile strikes against both countries, again, with no discernible effect except to embolden bin Laden.
Against this long litany of self-destructive delusions about the effect of limited punitive military actions, there are only a very few examples of relative success.
In 1995 in the Balkans, American-led bombing raids on Serbian communications and command-and-control centers broke a bloody stalemate. The Croatian Army rolled forward on all fronts, and as a result the Serbs were forced to negotiate the Dayton Accords that ended the horrific genocidal war in Bosnia. But there is no force in Syria unified, cohesive, accountable, and powerful enough to play the role the Croatians did at that moment in the Balkans. At some time in the future, if such a force can be found, it could be useful for the Americans to attack Syria’s military infrastructure the way they attacked Serbia’s. But that moment has not yet come.
In 1999, to protect the people of Kosovo from the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, the United States lead a NATO coalition (without U.N. approval) through 78 days of air war, including 38,000 bombing sorties. Not a single American soldier was lost in combat, and eventually, as a result, Milosevic was toppled and tried for war crimes. Kosovo was given its independence.
But that success was the exception rather than the rule, and a very misleading precedent indeed. In 2006, the Israelis thought they could do something similar to eliminate the threat of the Syrian-and-Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. They failed, had to go in on the ground, and the vaunted Israeli Defense Force was fought to a humiliating draw by Assad’s allies.
Finally, there is the example of Libya: a concerted campaign by America and its allies to topple Gaddafi once and for all. It worked, but with much greater difficulty than anticipated, even though it was a war fought essentially along one road that ran along the sea, and the rise of radical Islamist groups inside the country since then—including those implicated in the murder of the American ambassador a year ago—is a cautionary example of what could be in store in post–Assad Syria.
Once again the lesson learned, Mr. President: what doesn’t kill a tyrant makes him stronger. But even when you do kill him, that may not solve your problems, and if you have to occupy his country, you actually make the United States weaker. That’s the real logic of war. Which is why this war should not be our war.