Syria, Signaling, and Operation Infinite Reach

September 5, 2013

With Congress divided about a strike on Syria and President Obama maintaining that he has the right to act without congressional authorization, much remains uncertain about the prospects for U.S. intervention. But it seems likely that any American action that does occur will involve hitting Syrian regime targets with Tomahawk land-attack missiles (TLAMs or cruise missiles), hundreds of which are aboard ships already on station in the eastern Mediterranean, ready for a potential attack. As such, comparisons have abounded between the proposed action in Syria and other examples of U.S. airstrikes. One parallel that has received relatively little attention is Operation Infinite Reach, the cruise missile strikes launched by President Bill Clinton on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in August 1998. The operation was undertaken as retaliation against al-Qaeda for the terrorist group’s bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It is mainly remembered either as one of the early bungled attempts to assassinate Osama bin Laden or, given its concurrence with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a real-life manifestation of the film Wag the Dog. In fact, though, Clinton’s strikes also offer timely insight about the motivations behind, and the likely degree of efficacy of, the intervention that Obama is envisioning.

Operation Infinite Reach was, of course, an attempt to take out bin Laden. Yet it is impossible to separate the discrete objective of targeted killing from the broader strategic objectives: punishing al-Qaeda and communicating a message of strength and resolve. In this way, the thinking behind the strikes mirror much of the current discourse on Syria, because the Obama administration has made it clear that it does not aim to take sides or otherwise alter the course of the Syrian civil war. Rather, it seeks primarily to send a message about the impermissibility of using chemical weapons.

“Even if we don’t get the big guys…”

It is remarkable how strongly a similar “communicative” motivation underlay the Clinton team’s deliberations about how to respond to the embassy bombings. According to counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke, President Clinton said at one point to JSOC Chairman Hugh Shelton,

“Hugh, what I think would scare the shit out of these al Qaeda guys more than any cruise missile…would be the sight of US Commandos, Ninja guys in black suits, jumping out of helicopters into their camps, spraying machine guns. Even if we don’t get the big guys, it will have a good effect.[emphasis added]

Clinton was speaking somewhat fancifully, but the desire to send a message was clearly influential from the start. One official described this intended message as: “You’re gonna lose because our reach is infinite and our resources are infinite and, of course, our resolve is infinite.” Even the very name of the operation indicated that the administration was trying to communicate about Clinton’s foreign policy, which had been crippled over the previous months and years by a perception of weakness, reactivity, and indecision. A commentator later suggested that that the operation’s “intended audiences, in rough order of priority, were the domestic public in America, bin Laden and his associates, militants worldwide, and any who wanted to join their ranks.”

The emphasis on sending a message of resolve may explain why the Clinton administration glossed over spotty intelligence about proposed targets for the cruise missile strikes. The El-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan was targeted because it was thought to be a chemical weapons facility. It soon became clear that El-Shifa was nothing of the sort, and that intelligence reporting had in fact never shown definitively that terrorists were using the plant to manufacture WMDs. Part of the reason for this intelligence oversight was that the administration was searching a priori for targets to strike and, consequently, giving inadequate consideration to their actual relevance. The New Republic later noted that, along with the al-Qaeda training facility in Afghanistan, officials wanted to hit “another country, preferably in Africa, where al Qaeda’s terrorist network enjoyed support. [CIA director George] Tenet’s job was to provide targets” [emphasis added].

The symbolic function of the targets, then, was more important than their strategic relevance. Even the number of targets was determined by aesthetic considerations rather than strategic ones: analysts including Micah Zenko argue that the team wanted to hit exactly two targets in order to mirror the two embassies that al-Qaeda had attacked.

Using force as signaling device

Operation Infinite Reach is an example of what Zenko calls a “discrete military operation,” or DMO. Zenko recently told Stars and Stripes that, since the end of the Cold War, DMOs have become increasingly attractive to civilian leaders because they carry the political advantage of appearing to communicate a message of strength, without incurring the political costs of sending troops into combat. Signaling, then, has become an accepted justification for military force.

The present-day debate over Syria represents, in many ways, the culmination of this trend. Unlike Clinton, Obama does not even purport to have military objectives, at least not in the narrowest sense of the term. Clinton, for his part, was attempting to take out a key enemy leader and a (suspected) enemy weapons facility, but the proposed strikes on Syria are intended to do neither. In this way, Obama’s objective is almost entirely communicative. Of course, sending a message can have secondary implications by affecting adversaries’ calculations, in this case by potentially deterring Assad and others from using chemical weapons. But at best, Obama can only hope that the proposed limited strikes might influence events; they are clearly not meant to force them in a strategically chosen direction.

(It’s worth noting that the Obama team itself appears confused on its own objectives: the President acknowledged on Tuesday that sending a message to Assad is one of his aims, while Secretary of State John Kerry declared a few hours later, “This is not sending a message, per se.”)

Is signaling a legitimate justification for airstrikes or other military engagements, however limited? Relatively few commentators have grappled with the question – whether from a strategic, legal, or ethical perspective – of whether lethal force should be used when the primary purpose, or one of them, is to communicate a message to an adversary. One important exception is WOTR friend Jack McDonald, who makes a key distinction between strikes as a signaling device and strikes as a method of affecting the outcome of the Syrian civil war, ultimately concluding that the former would be more likely to achieve their objective.

Conclusion: First, do no harm

One problem with the signaling concept that McDonald doesn’t discuss is that it is difficult to evaluate success when the criterion is something as nebulous and un-measurable as “sending a message.” How do we know if the message is received? Even if chemical weapons aren’t used in the future, can we link it causally to our initial action with any degree of certainty?

For this reason, the question of whether employing airstrikes as a means of sending a message is justifiable seems to hinge in large part on the possible negative impacts of these actions. That is, because the benefits will be impossible to determine definitively, we can only evaluate them in light of potential costs.

The issue of costs is where the parallels to Operation Infinite Reach appear to end. Those who believe that there were significant downsides to the 1998 operation argue that the strikes delivered a propaganda boon to al-Qaeda and radicalized its members (see, for instance, this BuzzFeed piece by the Wilson Center – yes, you read that right!) And, of course, there is the small matter of collateral damage – the operation had roughly 300 casualties.

On balance, though, Operation Infinite Reach is remembered not so much as counterproductive as merely ineffectual: it may or may not have achieved the communicative goal toward which it was oriented, but at any rate it didn’t do much major strategic harm.

But it’s far more difficult to make the case that the strike on Syria won’t have significant downsides. First, the stakes are far higher for Assad than they were for al-Qaeda.  He is struggling to hold onto power in the midst of an active rebellion, and as Ryan Evans has argued, the U.S.’s commitment to only limited objectives in Syria might be difficult to maintain when Assad pursues his own, more existential counter-objectives. Moreover, as a sovereign leader with more resources at his disposal and Iran and Hezbollah supporting him, Assad arguably has a greater ability to harm U.S. interests – particularly its regional allies – in a variety of complex and indirect ways. Finally, in this case, American missiles would land in the midst of an ongoing and bloody war – a far more compactly kinetic situation than those in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998. Inherently, then, the unintended consequences for Syria are both more difficult to foresee, but also almost certainly likely to be more severe.

So even if you accept the consensus view that little harm was done by Clinton’s effort to project “resolve” via TLAM, it certainly doesn’t follow that the same would be true if we undertook a similar signaling effort in Syria.

Looking back, we may well find that a Syria strike didn’t serve its purpose of communicating that chemical weapons usage is unacceptable – but that’s hardly the worst possible scenario. A much worse outcome would be provoking escalation by Assad and his allies, locking ourselves into a far bloodier engagement, or otherwise bringing about consequences that we could not foresee. On these questions, Operation Infinite Reach isn’t a perfect parallel, nor does it provide definitive answers. However, it should encourage consideration of the very real possibility that military action geared principally toward sending a message can produce some unsavory results, with too few measurable benefits to justify it.


Usha Sahay is an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks. She is the Director of Digital Outreach at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Council for a Livable World, where her work focuses on U.S. nuclear policy, Iran, Afghanistan, and other national security issues. The views expressed here are hers alone, and do not represent those of either organization.

Photo Credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery