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Before you conclude that "precision" bombing makes sense with Syria...

By James Fallows

...please read this article by Chuck Spinney, out today in Counterpunch. (And before you ask: No, I don't agree with everything in Counterpunch, nor every view of Spinney's, nor even everything in The Atlantic. But I do agree with this.)

Spinney, whom I have known and respected for his national-security views since I wrote about him in National Defense, makes an important specific point and an even more important general one.

The specific point concerns the "Kosovo model", the idea that the Clinton-era bombing campaign on Kosovo illustrates how pinpoint, punitive strikes might succeed in Syria. Spinney begins his piece thus:

I found it truly scary to read that some high officials in the Obama Administration are so disconnected from reality that they consider the 1999 war in Kosovo to be a precedent for justifying limited cruise missile strikes in Syria.

He goes on to explain how oversimplified he considers the current "Kosovo worked!" version of history to be. For instance:

In 1999, U.S. military planners and the Clinton Administration predicted that a “precision” bombing campaign would coerce Slobodan Milošević into resolving the Kosovo Crisis by complying with NATO demands after only two to three days of precision bombardment. But the air campaign ground on for seventy-eight grueling days...

Milošević did not react like a predictable mechanical thermostat. He chose instead to escalate rapidly — whereupon the “carefully calibrated” limited bombing campaign aimed at changing one man’s behavior exploded into a general war against the Serbian people. NATO had expanded the target list to include the Serbian power grid, chemical plants, Danube bridges, TV stations, and civilian infrastructure, not to mention military targets in Kosovo. Predictably, the war settled into a grinding siege of attrition, and planners worried about running out of cruise missiles.

Fred Kaplan of Slate, whom I also know and respect, has a more positive net assessment of the Kosovo campaign. But he too emphasises its imprecision and ambiguity — and even if you grant his version, I think Spinney is right about the larger pathology of U.S. military response through the post-Soviet era. He says it comes from the "marriage of two fatally-flawed ideas":

  • Coercive diplomacy assumes that carefully calibrated doses of punishment will persuade any adversary, whether an individual terrorist or a national government, to act in a way that we would define as acceptable.
  • Limited precision bombardment assumes we can administer those doses precisely on selected “high-value” targets using guided weapons, fired from a safe distance, with no friendly casualties, and little unintended damage.

This marriage of pop psychology and bombing lionizes war on the cheap, and it increases our country’s addiction to strategically counterproductive drive-by shootings with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs.

That sounds polemical but to me seems accurate. For 20 years now we have seen this pattern:

  1. Something terrible happens somewhere — and what is happening in Syria is not just terrible but atrocious in the literal meaning of that term.
  2. Americans naturally feel we must "do something".
  3. The easiest something to do involves bombers, drones, and cruise missiles, all of which are promised to be precise and to keep our forces and people at a safe remove from the battle zone.
  4. In the absence of a draft, with no threat that taxes will go up to cover war costs, and with the reality that modern presidents are hamstrung in domestic policy but have enormous latitude in national security, the normal democratic checks on waging war don't work.
  5. We "do something", with bombs and drones, and then deal with blowback and consequences "no one could have foreseen".

For instance, someone with whom I usually agree, Eugene Robinson of the Post, writes today: "History says don’t do it. Most Americans say don’t do it. But President Obama has to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s homicidal regime with a military strike — and hope that history and the people are wrong."

On where such "hope" might lead, I give you Spinney once more, with a numbered list of his own:

Consider the last twenty years: What has been achieved by

  1. using cruise missiles to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan and
  2. an obstacle course in Afghanistan, or
  3. the endless attacks on air defense sites in the Iraqi no fly zone in the 1990s, or
  4. the bombing campaigns of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars; and now
  5. Obama’s ever growing drone campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and god knows where else?

While such precision-guided coercion operations may infatuate the foreign policy wonks, media elites, and feather the nests of defense contractors, the resulting strategy of drive by shootings has failed utterly to coerce the likes of Milošević, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, or the Taliban to behave in ways our pol-mil apparachiks deem to be acceptable.

Read about the horrors going on in Syria — but also read Spinney, and an important reality-check item by John Hudson in Foreign Policy. Also The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf (and here), on why the honourable urge to "do something" about atrocities does not automatically mean dropping bombs:

The U.S. government could spend millions helping Syrian refugees ... There is no shortage of humanitarian suffering for us to address, if that's how we want to spend our money, and I am fine with spending more of it helping people.

But injecting bombs and cruise missiles into a civil war probably isn't the most cost effective way to help people. It is certainly the sort of humanitarian assistance most likely to make us bitter enemies, which inevitably happens when you pick a side and start killing some of the people on it ...

Hawks are most interested in humanitarian causes that can be carried out by force. There is no reason the rest of us should share their world view.

Only ten years after the disastrous "what could go wrong?"/"something must be done!" rush to war in Iraq, you would have thought these cautions would not need restatement. They do. In the face of evil we should do something, except when the something would likely make a bad situation worse.


This post was originally published at The Atlantic

28 August 2013