The real reasons behind American military adventures tend only to become clear in retrospect.
By even the most friendly of interpretations, President Obama has painted himself into a corner in the Middle East. By making a public threat — the drawing of a so-called “red line” — the president has created the expectation that the administration will ultimately follow through when pressed. The failure to respond to this alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime could effect a costly and permanant loss of credibility for the United States and may endanger the nation’s influence on Middle Eastern affairs in the future.
If the United States’ claims prove correct, however, that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on Syrian citizens, all of this become moot. Despite Syria not being a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is a party to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which bans the belligerent use of oxygen-replacing gases on other treaty signatories. While the actual wording of the treaty does not make use of chemical weapons explicitly illegal in a civil war situation and does not outline enforcement protocol when faced with defiance of the treaty, it is nearly universally accepted internationally that the use of chemical weapons in warfare cannot be condoned.
But for many, this argument is strangely familiar. In its justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, President Bush cited the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — including the presence of biological and chemical warheads and ballistic delivery systems — and alleged that Saddam Hussein had the intent to use them against Iran, which is a clear violation of the United nations’ charter.
It would later be alleged that the Bush administration knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destructions and knowingly manipulated evidence to suggest a false link to al-Qaeda.
Few can defend the Bush administration’s intervention as successful. Present-day Iraq is on the brink of civil war. The administration is corrupt and brutal, and is unable to provide electricity, clean water and sanitation services to all of its citizens. Unemployment for young men is near 30 percent, bombings and shootings are an everyday occurrence and the divisions between Shia and Sunni are more pronounced than ever before.
Yet “success” is relative. Based on the Bush administration’s assertion that Hussein was a threat needing to be removed, the invasion met the stated needs of the administration — despite the destruction the intervention led to.
In Yemen, as in Somalia and Pakistan, the Obama administration announced the use of lethal force via armed drones in order to fight the expanding “war on terror,” targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban-affiliated groups. However, critical analysis of the casualty list suggest a hidden motivation. Of the approximately 4,700 people that have been killed by drone strikes, less than 100 were high-level terrorist suspects. It has been alleged that in Yemen, for example, American military involvement was meant to prop up support of Yemeni President Mansour al-Hadi, who faces an uprising in his country but is an ally to the U.S.
So when judging the “success” of a foreign intervention, the challenge becomes identifying what the unstated goals of the U.S. really might be. The White House may pursue goals that are not immediately obvious — or simply may be unpopular with voters if known.
In August 1964, for example, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the attack on the U.S.S. Maddox and the U.S.S. Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin incident off the coast of Vietnam. In his call for a response, Johnson called for a resolution “expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia,” stating the the resolution should offer support “for all necessary action to protect our Armed Forces,” but repeated previous assurances that “the United States … seeks no wider war.”
After less than nine hours of total debate in committee and on the floor, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 10, 1964, by unanimous proclamation in the House and a vote of 88 to 2 in the Senate. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution marked the only congressional authorization for the Vietnam War — one of the nation’s longest and costliest foreign interventions.
The problem with all of this comes with the fact that the White House’s public rationalization for that war amounted to a lie. What actually happened on Aug. 2, 1964 was that the U.S.S. Maddox, an electronic surveillance patrol boat patrolling the North Vietnamese coast on the Gulf of Tonkin, was detected and attacked by three patrolling torpedo boats. All four boats took minimal damage, and the attack would have been written off as a non-event, until four F-8 Crusaders from the nearby U.S.S. Ticonderoga engaged the torpedo ships, damaging them.
The Johnson administration then alleged that the North Vietnamese attacked the U.S.S. Maddox and the U.S.S. Turner Joy again two days later on Aug. 4, but it would later be revealed that there was no second attack. Contemporary reports indicate that the North Vietnamese navy was involved in salvage operations that day, and a Freedom of Information Act-released document recorded President Johnson telling his press secretary Bill Moyers a year later, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
The problem with foreign intervention is an information issue. A very limited number of people are forced to find distinguishable patterns in a sea of intelligence. The task amounts to a high-pressure order to identify possible threats to national security amidst an endless field in innuendos, false leads and useless information. What inevitably results is a long litany of questionable observations and gambles, which at the time they were made seemed reasonable and even logical.
President Johnson was ultimately motivated by the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. At the time, American foreign policy revolved around the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The U.S. feared the spread of communism would represent an increase of the USSR’s “sphere of influence.”
This creates a situation in which an administration engages in an operation that offers no gain to national security or even any universally agreed-upon set of “national interests,” but protects and promotes the administration’s interests.
Another example is the Iran-Contra affair. Between 1982 and 1992, 96 foreign nationals, mostly Americans and western Europeans, were kidnapped and held hostage in Lebanon by various Hezbollah-affiliated clans. To secure the freedom of hostages in 1985, the Reagan administration came up with a scheme to supply Israel with weapons, which Israel would in turn sell to Iran, with the proceeds going toward buying more weapons from the United States. The Iranian recipients, who were largely connected to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards corps, would then work to free the hostages.
When it became obvious that this was simply an “arms-for-hostages” trade, Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council changed the deal. At the time, the communist but democratically elected Sandinista government controlled Nicaragua. The Reagan administration had publicly condemned the Sandinistas for spreading communism in Latin America.
Privately, however, Ronald Reagan wanted the Sandinistas out of power and eliminated. To accomplish this, North modified the agreement — now selling arms directly to Iran after a markup and funneling the proceeds to support the Contras, an anti-Sandinista guerrilla group inside Nicaragua. This was illegal, as it deliberately violated the Boland Amendment, a law aimed at limiting U.S. governmental assistance to the Contras.
The affair was disclosed in 1986, and 14 officials were indicted and 11 were convicted in the ensuing scandal. Some of these convictions — including North’s — were vacated while the rest were pardoned by President George H. W. Bush shortly before leaving office.
Reagan was never officially attached to the scandal. In his autobiography, Reagan eventually would say that he was deeply committed to free the hostages and was willing to do even the immoral in respect of his compassion. Ultimately, over 2,500 anti-tank and nearly 20 anti-aircraft missiles were traded, and it was later alleged, but never proven, that the affair was funded in part by American involvement in drug trafficking.
When everything works out…
Even in cases when a military intervention seems to “work,” in hindsight doubts tend to remain on its execution. The Bosnian intervention, for example, can be qualified as a success. During the three-year Bosnian War, the U.N. Security Council issued Resolution 816, which authorized member states “to ensure compliance” of the no-fly zone over Bosnia. Seventeen years after the international imperative to intervene on humanitarian reasons, the nation is at peace but remains starkly divided.
The nation’s Muslims, Serbs and Croats still hold allegations and pent-up animosity against each other, preventing reconciliation and calcifying local politics while creating a de facto cold war. The divisions have led to a weakened central government, widespread corruption, floundering economic growth and a political environment toxic to foreign assistance.
In some ways, Bosnia is as shell-shocked and traumatized as it was when the bombs were exploding, but it’s an instance where there is some legitimacy behind America’s “humanitarian” pretenses. Despite the lingering pain and hardship, it’s hard to argue that the U.N.-backed intervention did not improve and stabilize the lives of many Bosnians.
Many continue to see Syria as a Bosnia-type situation. “Just like Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, president Bashar al-Assad sees no obligation at present to negotiate seriously,” wrote Wolfgang Ischinger, former ambassador from Germany to the U.S., for the German Council of Foreign Relations. “In Bosnia, too, peace plans and blueprints (“Vance-Owen”) were laid out in the early stages, but led to nothing because of the West’s lack of willingness to implement them.”
“This is also the decisive issue for Syria: From a position of strength, to which Assad has apparently returned somewhat, his regime will never be ready to make the necessary concessions. As long as Assad is convinced that his situation could continue to improve over the course of the conflict, or that he could even resolve the war in his favor, he will continue the fight. The international community needs to change this calculation if it wants to reach a political solution,” Ischinger concluded.
Ultimately, history judges the valor of these “presidential crusades.” Faced as we are with the ambiguities and uncertainties about what’s really taking place in Syria, it may be that history will prove Obama to be right after all. But even when a president gets it right within the framework of humanitarian ethics, there are always permanent consequences. Military intervention inevitably sets off an incalculable chain of events — events both good and bad — and it is these hidden contingencies that policymakers and the public must consider.
Meanwhile, it can only be hoped that these events are set in motion for honorable reasons.