I am something of a nostalgia buff. I watch old movies, love reading the classics and collect vintage art pieces. But I draw the line at cheering for the Obama Administration when it appears about to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton era. Despite virtual unanimity among experts and observers that he should either not use force at all against Syria or authorize a major air campaign against the Assad regime, the President appears committed to reprising the failed Clinton policy in the late 1990s of limited attacks on Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
Three times in the 1990s, the Clinton Administration tried employing limited strikes in the Middle East and three times they served only to prolong and even intensify the underlying conflicts. First in June 1993, 23 cruise missiles were fired at the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in retaliation for an attempt on the life of former President George H.W. Bush. Then in August 1998, in responding to Al Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States fired around 100 sea-launched cruise missiles against four Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan that was alleged to be a cover for the production of chemical weapons. Finally, in December 1998, after Saddam Hussein had refused to comply with U.N. resolutions and halted the work of that organization’s inspectors in Iraq, the President authorized a four day air campaign involving some 100 targets and over 200 air and sea-launched cruise missiles.
In each of these instances, the Clinton Administration complimented itself on supposedly degrading Al Qaeda’s ability to conduct terrorist strikes or Iraq’s warwaging capabilities. In all three instances, administration officials asserted that they had sent a strong message. And in every case, they also complained about their inability to do anything more substantial or decisive. In the case of Iraq, Clinton advisors even came up with the then novel argument that we didn’t dare overthrow Saddam Hussein because somebody worse might take his place.
In all three instances, limited strikes served only to increase the prestige of those being attacked while making the U.S. appear hesitant and weak. In response, Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime each picked itself up, proclaimed its ability to take America’s best shot and went right to its plans, respectively, to attack U.S. interests and forces in the region, prepare for 9/11 and circumvent the U.N. sanctions regime.
So here we go again. The Obama Administration is telegraphing the Assad regime and the world that it intends to conduct only limited strikes against Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden’s strong rhetoric will be followed by weak military action.
I have seen this movie three times. The ending never changes. It will not change the fourth time around. Sending messages, showing resolve and degrading warwaging capabilities has very little effect on hard core terrorist groups and regimes that see themselves as fighting for survival. If anything, such an approach encourages our adversaries to keep on doing what got them in trouble. So if past is prologue then we are fated to sit through the sequel to the Clinton foreign policy failures. If memory serves, that didn’t work out so well for us.
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