President Obama has declared his intention to launch military strikes against Syria after pausing to seek congressional approval, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged horrific chemical weapons attack against its own people. The response, he said, would “not be an open-ended intervention,” would “not put boots on the ground” and would be “limited in duration and scope.” The objective would be to “hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out” — with the emphasis on deterring future violations, by any regime, of the taboo against using weapons of mass destruction.
Taking action to hold the Syrian government accountable is morally and strategically justified, but the history of limited uses of force offers many reasons to doubt their effectiveness here. The United States certainly has the ability to destroy foreign military assets with great precision. Manipulating regimes’ behavior with limited attacks, however, has generally proven very difficult.
Air strikes, including missile attacks, are a tempting option for American presidents. They utilize technological advantage to inflict costs without putting U.S. personnel directly in harm’s way, and they appear to avoid any long-term military commitment. The key to these strategies, however, is not what the United States and its partners immediately destroy; rather, it is what they credibly threaten to do in the future. Carefully limited air strikes often do not deliver their intended message — which in any case may be read very differently by different audiences — and they can even signal an unwillingness to get dragged further into a crisis.
This case somewhat resembles the 1986 U.S. air strikes against Libya in response to terrorist attacks, the 1993 cruise missile strikes against Iraq in response to an assassination attempt on former President George H.W. Bush, and the brief 1998 air campaign against sites of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in response to violations of disarmament pledges. The long-term effectiveness of those strikes is debatable (it is hard to measure if deterrence is working), and it is unclear whether those strikes weighed heavily in the minds of other foes that might have challenged the United States or violated international norms. But Syria differs from these earlier examples, in that the country is locked in a devastating civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives.
In our book, “The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might,” published a decade ago, Daniel Byman and I studied the history of limited military strikes as an instrument of American foreign policy, especially to compel or deter certain behavior by adversary regimes. Why, we asked, was it often so difficult for the United States, a superpower with an overwhelming superiority in military strength, to alter the ruthless and dangerous behavior of despotic regimes or group leaders in such places as the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Somalia and Haiti in the 1990s? The answer is that politics — including domestic public opinion and international diplomacy — matters more than sheer military might in these contests, and there are many ways in which these factors undermine the credibility of U.S. military threats and the effectiveness of its strikes. Those lessons are instructive here.
It is already evident to any close observer, for example, that Americans are war-weary and that diplomatic support for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East is weak — even to deal with the proliferation and use of the most heinous weapons. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may therefore be tempted to test U.S. resolve by defying threats and even escalating violence. Moreover, no matter how much the U.S. government might claim that its vital interests are at stake, the Assad regime and its supporters know that they are fighting for their very survival, while their American opponents are not. There is a vast imbalance in motivation, and dictatorial opponents have often been willing to accept much greater short-term pain than U.S. planners expect.
Indeed, if a regime fears its downfall, not only is it willing to absorb the costs of limited military strikes, it may even see gain in them. American air strikes often breed anger among the local population, which a regime can stoke through propaganda to strengthen its hold on power. In some cases, air strikes can hit targets valuable to a regime’s military and security forces, and therefore sow fear and dissent among them. But calibrating military attacks to have those desired effects is difficult, and these regimes are very practiced in maintaining discipline.
All crises are unique, but the Kosovo example is informative. In 1999, NATO conducted almost 80 days of intense air bombardment to stop Serbian atrocities committed in Kosovo, while Russia blocked action by the U.N. Security Council. While it is true that the Serbian leadership ultimately conceded to NATO’s demands, this did not happen until that extensive air campaign was matched by a threat of NATO ground assault, gains by Kosovar rebels and Serbia’s loss of significant diplomatic support from Russia. Limited air strikes alone did not produce their desired effect on Serbian leaders’ decision making.
By no means should the U.S. sit back and do nothing. Indeed, if Obama believes that military action is needed to enforce international taboos against certain types of atrocities, he may need to consider much more drastic military measures or aid for Syrian rebels, after building the political support needed to sustain that approach. Otherwise, there are many nonmilitary steps he can take, including diplomatic pressure on Russia to support international efforts to restrain Assad. History suggests, though, that the tempting middle path of limited air strikes will be of limited positive effect.