President Obama has said explicitly that his attack on Syria would be limited. It would not be aimed at regime change, wouldn’t include boots on the ground, and wouldn’t even aim to prevent the Assad regime from being able to continue to use violence to fight the rebellion.
Despite the administration’s reluctance over the course of two years to get involved in Syria, there is very little reason to believe that this war, should he launch it, would in fact be limited.
As Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has recently written, “it is highly unlikely that such an intervention can be so narrow that it will not force a deeper U.S. military engagement in Syria’s civil war.”
We have at least one experience to draw from on Obama’s understanding of “limited” airstrikes. Libya was supposed to be simply a no-fly zone to prevent the Gadhafi from using air power to kill Libyans. That was thrown out the window as soon as the bombing started, eventually turning into regime change that Libyans are still paying for and that had negative consequences throughout the region that the world is still dealing with.
Rhetoric about limited wars abound in presidential administrations. During the Bush administration’s sales campaign for invading Iraq, we were promised the war would last “weeks, not months.” Eight years, trillions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of lives later, those promises would be laughed at as naive at best and deceitful at worst.
When Lyndon Johnson went to Congress for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that would start America’s most costly quagmire in Vietnam, he promised a “limited and fitting” response to North Vietnamese naval attacks (which didn’t happen the way he said it did). He repeatedly assured Americans that “we seek no wider war” in Vietnam.
Many observers didn’t see vital interests at stake in Vietnam, just as many (even in Congress) doubt today that America has an interest in Syria. And Johnson was pulling for greater and greater escalation in Vietnam for reasons similar to what Obama is claiming in Syria. This is about Obama’s “credibility.” That is, he made a promise to bomb Syria if chemical weapons were used and if he doesn’t follow up on that promise he’ll signal to others that he’s cowardly.
As Johnson explained to Doris Kearns Goodwin in 1970, “if I left that war…then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.” Then, as now, it was all about “credibility.”
About ten years, billions of dollars, 58,220 American deaths, and millions of dead Vietnamese later, the “limited” war for the sake of America’s credibility was lost and went down in history as the U.S.’s greatest folly.
Whether Obama is sincere or not, a U.S. bombing campaign is unlikely to be limited. Any U.S. war in Syria, especially if you judge by the administration’s incredibly broad draft legislation for force authorization, will expand beyond what even the most hawkish can imagine. Mission creep is a very powerful force, and Syria is ripe for such a snowball effect.