Americans had their fill of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They don’t want a war in Syria. Don’t worry, says the Obama administration: We won’t do that. Instead, U.S. officials say they’re planning limited strikes, strictly from the air, not to oust Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad but to damage his forces and stop them from using chemical weapons again. We’ll fire cruise missiles from faraway ships. We’ll target a few air bases, command centers, and artillery sites. We’ll pound them for a day or two and be done.
It sounds better than an invasion. It’s certainly less likely to create new problems. But it’s also less likely to solve existing problems. That’s the price of minimal intervention: The less you do, the less you accomplish. Over the last 25 years, we’ve fought several wars that were explicitly limited in scope. Those limits carried a price. In Syria, we should expect the same or worse. Here’s a short review.
1. Kuwait. In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. President George H. W. Bush assembled a coalition to expel the Iraqi troops. Once they retreated back across the border, the coalition stopped pursuing them. Bush invited Iraqi citizens to “take matters into their own hands” and oust Saddam. But when Kurds and Shiites rebelled against Saddam—driven in part by his past use of chemical weapons against civilians—the U.S. sat on its hands.
A 1992 report by Human Rights Watch tells the story. Dick Cheney, who was then the secretary of defense, said "it would be very difficult for us to hold the coalition together for any particular course of action dealing with internal Iraqi politics, and I don't think, at this point, our writ extends to trying to move inside Iraq.” A State Department spokesman agreed: "We don't think that outside powers should be interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq." Secretary of State James Baker added, “We do not want to see any changes in the territorial integrity of Iraq, and we do not want to see other countries actively making efforts to encourage changes."
The U.S. set up a no-fly zone to protect refugees, but it refused to intervene as Saddam used helicopters to crush the rebellion. According to Human Rights Watch, Saddam’s men “killed thousands of unarmed civilians by firing indiscriminately into residential areas; executing young people on the streets, in homes and in hospitals; rounding up suspects, especially young men, during house-to-house searches, and arresting them without charge or shooting them en masse; and using helicopters to attack unarmed civilians as they fled the cities.”
Confronted with this carnage, Bush was unapologetic: "I made clear from the very beginning that it was not an objective of the coalition or the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein.” Baker defended the coalition’s limits: "We are not prepared to go down the slippery slope of being sucked into a civil war. We cannot police what goes on inside Iraq.” Human Rights Watch concluded that the failed rebellion “left thousands of civilians massacred by Saddam's troops and nearly two million forced to flee their homes.” Saddam stayed in power and continued his repression and belligerence, leading to the 2003 Iraq war.
2. Kosovo. In 1999, Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo prompted President Clinton and other NATO leaders to launch an air war against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. To minimize coalition and civilian casualties and sustain political support, the NATO allies ruled out a ground invasion, pruned their target lists, and confined themselves to dropping bombs from high altitude, beyond the reach of Serbian missiles.
The bombing campaign eventually persuaded Milosevic to give up. But it took 78 days and allowed him, in the meantime, to continue the ethnic cleansing. According to a postwar assessment by the Rand Corporation, the allies’ self-imposed constraints made them ineffective against Serbian ground forces and gave Milosevic “carte blanche … for accelerated atrocities in Kosovo.” The report notes that
“prior to the air war’s start on March 24, 1999, only some 2,500 civilian innocents had died in the Serb-Albanian civil war, whereas during the 11-week bombing effort, an estimated 10,000 civilians were killed by marauding bands of Serbs unleashed by Milosevic … There is no denying that the Serb ethnic cleansing push accelerated after Operation Allied Force began. It is even likely that the air effort was a major, if not determining, factor behind that acceleration.”
3. Libya. In 2011, again under NATO auspices, President Obama announced that the U.S. would join a military campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who was killing his own people in a civil war. “The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya,” Obama promised. “And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal—specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.” Even after Qaddafi was ousted, the U.S. and its allies minimized their involvement. Rather than “deploy postconflict peacekeeping forces, a Rand report notes, the allies “adopted a much lighter postwar footprint than in the interventions in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”
The light-footprint approach helped the new Libyan government avoid the taint of foreign occupation and puppetry. But it also left an unsolved problem. “The rebels never unified into a single army during the war, and when it ended, most militias occupied their own parcel of territory,” the report observes. None of these militias “could stand definitively for the Libyan state, and there were many disagreements between them.” This strife, combined with the weakness of the central government, led to “deterioration of underlying security conditions,” including sectarian religious violence, attacks on government buildings, and an assassination attempt on the British ambassador. It culminated in September 2012 with the fatal assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
By most reckonings, Kuwait, Kosovo, and Libya are success stories. They spared us the perils of regime-changing invasions. Obama’s plans in Syria, by all accounts, are even more modest. Military analysts predict they’ll do little to weaken Assad. If all we do is fire missiles from a safe distance, we won’t have to stomach the deaths of thousands of American soldiers. But we might have to stomach the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. And if we can’t live with that, we will have to do more.
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