"The one thing we should learn is you can't get a little bit pregnant," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was at the helm of U.S. Central Command when the Pentagon launched cruise missiles at suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and weapons facilities in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "If you do a one-and-done and say you're going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in."
Images of the glassy-eyed corpses of civilians, including children, killed in last week's chemical attack in a Damascus suburb struck a powerful chord in Washington, where until now there has been little appetite for a military intervention. With U.S. Navy destroyers stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, the White House is scrambling to assemble international support for a days-long bombing campaign targeting military sites, which appears to have robust support from Congress.
The United States has at best a mixed record of success with such operations. In late August 1998, the Pentagon fired cruise missiles at suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan and the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that was presumed to be producing chemical weapons. The campaign, called Operation Infinite Reach, was in response to the bombings on Aug. 7, 1998, of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which were the first al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets.
The strikes in Afghanistan failed to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants. The one in Sudan became an embarrassment for the Pentagon because the intelligence that put a pharmaceutical factory on the target list turned out to be faulty.
In December of that year, the Clinton administration lobbed cruise missiles at military targets in Iraq in response to Hussein's refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions that condemned Iraq's weapons program.
Former U.S. officials said neither operation dealt much of a strategic setback to the targets. But they enraged many in the Muslim world, prompting angry demonstrations, including an attempted siege of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus by a mob that later ransacked the ambassador's residence.
"We didn't really gain anything," said longtime U.S. diplomat Ryan C. Crocker, who was the ambassador in Damascus at the time. "The behavior of our adversaries did not change. A couple of cruise missiles are not going to change their way of thinking."
With Congress in recess, the lead-up to a military strike on Syria has unfolded with relatively little substantive debate on Capitol Hill about the risks and merits of a cruise missile strike. Potential pitfalls include strengthening rebel factions aligned with al-Qaeda and triggering even more brutal attacks by the regime.