Syria, Libya policies flow from Tonkin Gulf
Fifty-one years ago, an American president deceived the public about the true purpose of a U.S. military mission, ushering in a decade of foreign policy disasters. Unfortunately, this method of abusing democracy has continued, on a bipartisan basis, to the present day, when it is casting a shadow over U.S. policy in Syria.
In August 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers deliberately misled Congress and the American people about the mission of two U.S. destroyers that were allegedly attacked off the coast of communist North Vietnam and their connection to U.S.-directed raids on nearby offshore islands. Their lie paved the way for U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and congressional passage of the administration’s Tonkin Gulf Resolution: a broadly worded measure that would soon facilitate Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. A policy that began with an act of deceit about a U.S. military mission had awful and ill-considered consequences for Americans, Vietnamese and other southeast Asians, U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and China, and America’s global reputation. Many historians are convinced that a diplomatic settlement could have avoided most of this damage.
In March 1969, President Richard Nixon initiated 15 months of secret B-52 bombing attacks against North Vietnamese sanctuaries in neutral Cambodia, mainly to let North Vietnam know he would take harsh measures that Johnson had rejected. The number of civilians killed by the carpet-bombing will never be known; and the North Vietnamese responded by moving their forces deeper into Cambodia.
Fast forward to March 2011. Challenged by the popular unrest of the Arab Spring, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s troops bore down upon armed rebels in Benghazi and other cities. In response, the Obama administration drove through a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary means” to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.” After organizing extensive British, French and U.S. air operations under NATO, President Barack Obama reassured war-weary Americans and legislators, “But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” Rather, the U.S. would use “nonmilitary means” to get Gadhafi to step down, including an arms embargo, financial sanctions, aid to the opposition and diplomacy.
But in reality, NATO air operations, complemented by covert CIA, British and French military aid to the rebels, were critical for the overthrow of Gadhafi and his capture and assassination by rebels in October.
Obama implicitly admitted his deception concerning the U.S. military mission during his October 2012 debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he said: “We went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre ... [W]e also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. … [W]hen it came time to make sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep. ... We were going to make sure that we finished the job.”
In recent memoirs and confidential interviews, top U.S. and Western officials have been more forthright. Leon Panetta, who was CIA director at the outset of the conflict and became secretary of defense on July 1, 2011, wrote that during an early July visit to Afghanistan, “I said what everyone in Washington knew but we couldn’t officially acknowledge: that our goal in Libya was regime change.” His predecessor, Robert Gates, revealed that he “tried to raise” with the president the issues of “an open-ended conflict, an ill-defined mission, Gadhafi’s fate, and what came after him,” but Obama “had not been interested in getting into any of that.” Key advisers on Libya in the French and British governments and a leading U.S. participant in the decisive administration meetings have all confirmed to me that getting Gadhafi out was a clear goal from the early days of the NATO mission.
Once again a hidden and poorly thought-out military policy had malign consequences. The rebel group we sponsored was unable to prevent the country from dissolving into chaotic violence that has claimed the lives of four American citizens and precipitated a migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. A continuing exodus of arms, ethnic fighters and Islamic fighters from Libya has strengthened violent extremists in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Nigeria and other countries. And NATO’s misapplication of the U.N. authorization of force reinforced Russia’s distrust of the West; it led directly to its veto of a subsequent U.N. nonmilitary resolution on Syria.
In retrospect, the Obama administration would have been better off either following its professed two-pronged military/political policy or, better still, supporting the African Union’s creative initiative for a negotiated cease-fire and orderly democratic transition supervised by international peacekeeping forces. Yet, as the aforementioned U.S. participant in the decisions revealed, “There was no discussion of using our force as a set-up for negotiation.”
More recently, in September 2013, Obama asked Congress to support his plan to attack Syria after it violated his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Compelled at last to assume its constitutional responsibility for making war, Congress was about to turn Obama down before a diplomatic agreement to dispose of the weapons saved the day. What lay behind Congress’ reluctance was the war-weary public’s doubt that it had received an honest description of the military mission — which was characterized in widely different ways by administration representatives — and therefore of its potential consequences.
Indications are that the problem of deceptive military missions persists today as the U.S. expands its military presence in the Middle East to confront violent jihadis. In June 2014 the administration sent Congress a proposal to “train and equip” Syrian opponents of the Bashar Assad government in neighboring countries. In September, after the Islamic State group expanded from Syria into Iraq, it repackaged this program to target the Islamic State in Syria rather than Assad. Congress approved. Despite this straightforward and focused ground mission, administration officials have recently been saying that they might provide U.S. close air support or otherwise move to “protect” their clients after they “integrate” with existing rebel groups in Syria. Such scenarios could bring America into direct conflict with Syrian government forces.
Even more far-reaching, U.S. and Turkish officials have just revealed that they are about to implement a long-discussed “safe zone” in northern Syria along 68 miles of Turkey’s Western border. While this is once again publicly justified as an anti-Islamic State initiative, it is potentially much more than that. According to the same officials, unidentified “moderate” Syrian rebels would be inserted into an area that is close to Syrian government operations in and around the contested city of Aleppo and would receive continuous air protection. That would create a combustible situation that could produce an accidental or purposeful confrontation between the rebels and their supporters and Assad’s forces. Another provocative possibility, long contemplated by U.S. and Turkish officials, is that the safe zone will harbor a rebel government on Syrian territory.
What appears then to be a stealthy expansion of the anti-Islamic State “train-and-equip” mission could have major consequences for U.S. policy in the Middle East, which the administration has not discussed publicly. An increased U.S. military commitment to anti-Assad rebels on the ground could produce military responses by Syria’s allies — Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. As in Iraq today, it could result in pressures to introduce U.S. combat forces to bolster the rebels. And, as in post-invasion Iraq, the U.S. could become enmeshed in a fratricidal conflict it has no real plan to resolve.
These are the very consequences that the public feared when it demanded that Congress pull the plug on the administration’s plan to bomb Syria in September 2013.
During this presidential election year, voters need to communicate to the candidates that they will hold them accountable for telling the truth about the purposes of American military missions and their potential consequences.
Stephen R. Weissman is the author of “A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.”