Lessons from the Past for Syria Hawks

May 8, 2013 Topic: Security Region: Syria

Lessons from the Past for Syria Hawks

Those who want to rush to war over chemical-weapons allegations would be wise to consider history.


As the Obama administration weighs how to respond to the claims that Syrian president Assad crossed President Obama’s red line by allegedly using a small amount of the chemical weapon sarin, they should keep the lessons of at least three historical incidents in mind.

The first occurred in August 1964, when I was deployed as a naval flight officer and the North Vietnamese were alleged to have attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. In discussing the incident with my squadron commander, who had flown combat missions in World War II and Korea and had participated in the Berlin Airlift, he argued that what the Johnson administration was saying had happened in Tonkin made no sense. In addition to doubts about what really happened, he contended that it made no sense for North Vietnam to provoke the United States into a retaliatory attack. As it turned out, my commanding officer was absolutely right. Unfortunately, the Johnson administration used the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext to push a resolution through Congress that gave it the cover to launch a decade-long war, which resulted in the deaths of nearly sixty thousand U.S. personnel and millions of Vietnamese as it tore the country apart.


The second incident came in 1998 when, while simultaneously launching cruise missiles against Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, the Clinton administration launched missile attacks on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, the former home of Al Qaeda. The administration justified this strike based on laboratory analysis of soil samples collected by the CIA that appeared to indicate the plant was manufacturing VX nerve agent. It turned out that the soil samples were far from conclusive and that much of the evidence linking the factory to Al Qaeda and chemical-weapons production was extremely shaky. Critics have claimed that the strike may have led to the indirect deaths of many Sudanese who were left without important medicines produced at the site.

A third historical precedent resurfaced on the tenth anniversary of the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Stephen Hadley, deputy national-security adviser at the time of the invasion, wrote that no one on the Bush team ever thought about questioning whether Saddam Hussein was bluffing about possessing nuclear weapons, a possibility because of his fear that the Iranians might seek revenge for his brutal invasion of their country in 1980. Moreover, nobody questioned why, if Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, he let UN inspectors return in late 2002, knowing that the Bush administration’s public agitation for war was justified by Hussein’s alleged attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. Richard Haass, the director of policy planning at the State Department at the time, recently wrote (borrowing language from Richard Nixon) that the real justification for war was to show that the United States was not a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Reflecting on this history, it is hard not to see shades of such false pretenses in the rhetoric of the hawks agitating for military action in Syria.

In the run-up to war in Iraq, Bush administration officials failed to ask the questions outlined above regarding Saddam’s intentions and possible motives for bluffing. Despite never arguing that Hussein’s nuclear-weapons program was an imminent threat, they refused to give the UN inspectors a chance to do their job before launching the invasion. In fact, the Bush team even failed to conduct a basic cost-benefit analysis of their regime-change policy before launching their attack.

Based on these historical precedents, those calling for military action in Syria should allow the Obama administration time to work through possible outcomes and fully evaluate the evidence, as they are now doing.

As part of this process, the United States should be asking two central questions. First, what reason would Assad have for using small amounts of sarin on the rebels (and civilians) when he has so many other lethal conventional weapons at his disposal, especially considering his knowledge that their use would give the United States a clear justification to intervene? He must be aware that the intervention of the world’s only military superpower in Syria would all but ensure the demise of his regime. Without U.S. intervention, Assad believes he still has a chance to survive, so why would he take actions certain to increase the odds of U.S. involvement?

Second, U.S. officials must examine, as they are now doing, the evidence that sarin has actually been used by Assad. The U.S. intelligence community has “varying degrees of confidence” that it has been used, and assumes it must have been used by regime elements. This is perhaps a safe assumption, but is it enough to justify a war? The intelligence assessments before Iraq were described as a “slam dunk” certainty that Saddam had WMD. Now that we have learned that painful lesson, we must examine the possibility that, if sarin was indeed used, it was used by rogue elements of the Assad regime, or used by mistake. It is certainly possible that Assad is deliberately exploring the limits of President Obama’s redline, but that is just one possibility among many.

Indeed, even if the evidence eventually points to Assad’s culpability, the issue becomes what options should we pursue in response. They range from going to the UN to allow inspectors unfettered access to Syria; limited air strikes on appropriate military facilities, delivery systems, and regime targets (which would require extensive preliminary strikes to soften Syria’s formidable air defenses); air strikes and limited special-operations raids to secure stockpiles, with the high risks such actions would entail; and the large-scale ground intervention being advocated by some hawks, including many of the same people who pushed us into Iraq. But, as the most recent report by the Congressional Research Service makes clear, these military options—the establishment of safe zones and no-fly zones, direct attacks on chemical-weapons sites, arming the rebels—all serve different strategic priorities. There is no consensus on what the U.S. strategic objective should be in Syria, let alone the best course to achieve that objective. Thus, military action is a problematic proposition.

As President Obama weighs his next step, he is right to proceed slowly and deliberately. The last thing this country needs is to rush headlong into another disastrous war like Vietnam or Iraq, especially when the evidence is murky and the threat to our security doubtful. Even limited military intervention carries a host of risks and second-order effects, which proponents of action have spared little time to consider. Attacking Syria would represent a war of choice, not necessity, and should only be considered after extensive strategic calculation and with the involvement of the entire Congress, as the representatives of the people, our allies, and the United Nations. We certainly have not yet undertaken either of those preliminary steps in their entirety.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Curiosandrelics. CC BY-SA 3.0.