Lessons in Limited Force

Feb. 1, 1999

In one ambiguous operation after another, the Clinton Administration practically conducted a clinic in 1998 on the shortcomings of limited force. It must have set some sort of record for the variety and number of instances in which we used or threatened to use military force to send political signals, crack the whip on a recalcitrant foe, or pursue some other limited objective.

The Administration came to office in 1993 believing that the policy for committing US forces to combat should be relaxed. Under the new policy, lethal military power could be used in small increments for limited purposes, even if no vital US interest was at stake or if our intentions were a little fuzzy. Such actions reached a peak in 1998.

As the year began, the White House had maneuvered itself into a showdown with Iraq over weapons inspections. However, it was not prepared to follow through on its blustery threats of military force. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan defused that crisis by brokering a deal in which we accepted transparently false promises from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and rewarded him with concessions.

In June, UN inspectors found the residue of nerve gas in an Iraqi weapons pit. In August, Iraq refused to permit any more spot inspections. In public, we talked tough and issued more warnings. Privately, the State Department was pressuring the inspectors to ease up as we edged toward a less confrontational policy.

On Aug. 20, US warships launched 79 cruise missiles against the terror network of Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire responsible for the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The targets were training camps in Afghanistan and, supposedly, a chemical weapons plant in Sudan. Damage to bin Laden’s network was minor. The strikes were billed as the first round of a sustained campaign against terrorism, but that seems to have gone by the wayside.

The scene shifted again in October. After repeated threats and warnings throughout the summer-during which Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic ran up the casualty count in Kosovo-the US and its NATO allies planned airstrikes, postponed them, planned them again, and finally canceled them on Milosevic’s pledge of good behavior. By December, with peace in Kosovo coming apart at the seams, the State Department was sending new and stronger warnings to Milosevic.

In late October, Iraq ended all cooperation with the UN inspectors. For once, even eight Arab states blamed Saddam for the worsening crisis, but President Clinton could not bring himself to pull the trigger. On Nov. 14, with B-52 bombers already in the air, he aborted the strikes on the strength of an unseen letter from Saddam to Kofi Annan. Within hours, the White House discovered the letter had “more holes than Swiss cheese,” rescheduled the airstrikes, then aborted them a second time when Saddam submitted a revised letter.

The provocations soon resumed, and so did the warnings. On Dec. 16, acting on a UN inspectors’ report on Saddam’s defiance, the White House ordered Operation Desert Fox to begin. There was less international support than for the aborted attack in November, and the visible provocation was no greater, but the Administration said the operation could not be delayed, even for a few days. It launched 650 air sorties and 400 cruise missiles against Iraq, but it had all the earmarks of limited force.

The considerations in Desert Fox were mostly political rather than military. Avoidance of casualties–on the Iraqi side as well as on our own–was a big constraint, as was concern about world opinion. Our objectives were stated in the language of hesitation: to “degrade,” “diminish,” or “weaken” Saddam’s position. There was no plan to “destabilize” the Iraqi dictator. The operation was to terminate after 70 hours, partly because bombardment of Iraq during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan would be “profoundly offensive.”

Desert Fox was not a valid measure of military power. In a tactical sense, it could be judged a success. The four-day bombing campaign was effective against the assigned targets, but the strategic value of it was dubious. Saddam emerged from it with enhanced standing in the international community. Within a week, Iraq, which had no qualms at initiating hostilities during Ramadan, was shooting at American and British aircraft in the no-fly zone.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan captured one weakness of the limited force policy when he told reporters last November that “Iraq does not fear the threat of the United States because it has been threatening Iraq for the past eight years.”

Going to war–or threatening to do so–is a serious step. Combat operations ought to be a last resort, undertaken only when other approaches have failed and when we are grimly steadfast in our purpose.

In February 1998, though, describing potential action against Iraq that was of roughly the same scope as Operation Desert Fox, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that “we are talking about using military force, but we are not talking about war.”

That distinction has not served us very well so far. Neither has the doctrine of Limited Force, with its legacy of half measures and lost credibility. The experience of 1998 strongly suggests that we should think again about the use of force and the threshold of combat.