As President Obama weighs a possible limited military strike against Syria, he may want to consider the track record of his predecessors on this front. It’s not encouraging.
The Obama administration and several before it have seen limited attacks as a way to sending a tough message without drawing the U.S. into a larger conflict.
But critics say such strikes rarely, if ever, inflict serious damage or change the behavior of those targeted. And worse, limited U.S. military action has been followed by some of the deadliest attacks against American targets over the past three decades.
“If this is indeed the sort of attack on Syria that the president is contemplating, it is not likely to be very effective,” writes Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University and a frequent commentator on the Middle East. “Indeed, it may encourage [President Bashar Assad] to launch even more chemical weapons attacks due to the belief that while US retaliation may be annoying, it will not threaten the survival of his regime.”
Here’s a list of several limited U.S. strikes in recent decades:
Lebanon, 1983: U.S. warships in the Mediterranean shelled Beirut for several days in support of the Lebanese army, which was led by Christians fighting Muslim factions in the country’s anarchic civil war. A month after the U.S. shelling, Shiite Muslim suicide bombers struck at the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut on Oct. 23, killing 241 Marines. This remains the biggest loss of life of U.S. military personnel on a single day since World War II.
President Reagan subsequently ordered the Marines out of Lebanon in February 1984 and the Lebanese civil war carried on for another six years. A military committee appointed by Reagan found that American commanders believed the U.S. shelling of Beirut led to the bombing of the Marine barracks.
Libya, 1986: Libya was implicated in the deadly bombing of a disco in Berlin frequented by U.S. servicemen. In response, Reagan ordered a one-night bombing raid on Libya, which targeted the compound of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The Libyan leader survived, and two years later, in December 1988, a Pan Am plane was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing nearly 260 people on the plane and the ground. Many of the dead were Americans. After a protracted international legal fight, Libya acknowledged involvement and paid compensation of $1.5 billion in 2008. Gadhafi remained in power until 2011, when a more sustained NATO air campaign helped rebels drive him from power.
Afghanistan and Sudan, 1998: Al-Qaida blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August, and President Clinton responded two weeks later with a brief barrage of cruise missile strikes directed at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, a country that supported al-Qaida.
The strikes inflicted limited damage and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden interpreted this as a lack of U.S. resolve to engage in a major confrontation. Al-Qaida attacked the USS Cole while it was in port in Yemen in 2000 and followed that a year later with the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
Iraq, 1993, 1996 and 1998: On several occasions in the 1990s, Clinton ordered limited airstrikes and cruise missile attacks against Iraq. The intent was to put pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein following aggressive action by his forces against opposition groups or by his refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.
However, the Iraqi leader remained firmly in control until the U.S. ground invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam. Eight years of war followed until the U.S. forces withdrew in 2011.
Despite many years of tense relations between Syria and the U.S., Syria has not been directly implicated in any major attacks against the U.S. However, Syria’s close allies, Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, have been linked to actions that range from kidnapping Americans to terror attacks.