by Thomas W. Lippman
Military analysts and political commentators have deluged their readers over the past week with their views about the U.S. missile strike on Syria ordered by President Donald Trump. Some of the assessments were more useful than others, but what was surprising was that the authors mostly seemed surprised. They shouldn’t have been. The firing of cruise missiles into Middle Eastern countries with which the United States is not at war is old news.
Some articles, including one in The Washington Post, used the word “unprecedented” about the strike, but the only unprecedented part was the identity of the ruler whose facilities were targeted. In fact, as the astute Juan Cole of the University of Michigan noted, the United States has been doing this for more than 20 years – with little if any known impact on whatever conflict provoked the missile strike or whatever ruler was in disfavor with Washington at the time.
President George H.W. Bush was the first to deploy U.S. cruise missiles in a Middle Eastern conflict. He assembled the international military coalition that drove occupying Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991, and the alliance used cruise missiles in the campaign. At least in that conflict the United States was an active, on-the-ground participant, and it used the missiles in conjunction with an array of other weapons. Bush’s successors have fired cruise missiles into countries where there was limited U.S. military involvement, if any.
Bill Clinton started it. In June 1993, five months after taking office, he ordered the armed forces to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at Iraq to retaliate for what he said was an Iraqi plot to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush. Bush had been the apparent target of a foiled car-bomb attack while visiting Kuwait in April.
In a televised address after the missiles struck a building near Baghdad, Clinton said the attack “was an elaborate plan devised by the Iraqi government and directed against a former president of the United States because of actions he took as president. As such, the Iraqi attack against President Bush was an attack against our country and against all Americans.” The message of the missiles, he said, was that “We will combat terrorism. We will deter aggression. We will protect our people.”
If the Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein, was contrite after the missile reprimand, there was never much evidence of it in the years before another President Bush sent U.S. troops to destroy his regime in 2003.
Clinton struck again in 1998, after al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He ordered cruise missile strikes against a reported meeting of al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan—failing to hit Osama bin Laden—and against a drug factory in Sudan that U.S. intelligence officials believed al-Qaeda was using to manufacture poison gas. It wasn’t; it was the largest manufacturer of legitimate pharmaceuticals in Sudan.
Then it was the turn of President Barack Obama—he of the Nobel Peace Prize. By the end of the unfortunate military campaign to get rid of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, he had ordered the firing of at least 192 cruise missiles, according to a Pentagon report at the time.
None of the foreign leaders whose actions or policies provoked these missile attacks was ever struck by one of them. Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi are dead, but they died by human hands, not in missile attacks. And the target of Trump’s wrath, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, is not only alive but defiant – within a day or two of the missile strike his warplanes were back in the air, flying from the same air base struck by the missiles.
In fact, the impact of these assorted missile firings has been greater domestically than internationally. Firing Tomahawk missiles at stationary targets has enabled presidents to appear muscular in strategy and robust in style, with little cost other than the price of the projectiles. No military personnel are placed in harm’s way when a Navy ship lets loose a barrage, but the president can portray himself as taking strong action rather than dithering in the Oval Office.
That didn’t work for Clinton. After the 1998 missile attacks targeting al-Qaeda, he was widely accused of ordering them to distract public attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It’s too soon to know whether it will work for Trump. No one outside his inner circle knows what he plans to do next about Syria—he may not know himself—and it may depend on the assessment Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brings back from his meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. But what the record of his predecessors shows is that a protracted, multi-faction war in the Middle East cannot be resolved from the air.