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Strike warfare: An American fetish and a global scourge

Strike warfare: An American fetish and a global scourge

A common thread through recent history is that 'hellfire from above' doesn't really work

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry in response to recent press reports suggesting that the Biden administration is gearing up for a “sustained bombing campaign” against the Houthis in Yemen. Unsurprisingly, the initial coalition strikes against the Houthis apparently did not destroy the Houthi arsenal being launched at commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

As was the case in the great jihadi hunt across Southwest Asia stretching over nearly a quarter century, the United States today finds itself at war in a conflict with no defined political objective and a clearly unachievable military objective against an enemy that is nested in a complex political and strategic circumstance that is completely unfamiliar to the United States. Sound familiar?

It is also a war with no apparent timeline in which the application of force is linked to ill-defined benchmarks, suggesting that we could launch our bombs and missiles indefinitely or until we run out of ammunition — to no strategic purpose.

Have we learned nothing from our follies of the last 25 years in which we proved incapable of clearly relating ends, ways, and means in making decisions on when and under what circumstances to use force?

For those states that can afford them, standoff weapons and bombs have become the preferred method of policing the international system. Yet it’s hard to remember any of these strikes having any sort of lasting positive impact once the headlines and videos faded. Strangely, these tools of war maintain a hold on government and the popular imagination as some sort of “decisive” action that curiously demonstrates strength, commitment, and resolve.

The reality is that strike warfare — long range strikes by planes and missiles — has rarely achieved its advertised political and strategic consequence. Yet it remains a dangerous, drug-like chimera to countries like the United States desperately searching for some sort of easy, low-cost way of maintaining global influence, control, and primacy in a chaotic world. Like all drugs, the initial rush feels great, but the long-range addiction is, in the end, far more destructive, dangerous, and difficult (if not impossible) to kick.

We tell ourselves that the state/bad guy on the receiving end (in this case the Houthis) will feel the wrath of our (duly proportionate) strikes and reconsider continuing their attacks.

Yet, of course, the Houthis in public pronouncements seem to have welcomed the chance to start shooting directly at the United States. Moreover, we have limited knowledge of the Houthi anti-ship weapon arsenal in its entirety, let alone the political motivations that surround their own use of force. The truth is we have no knowledge or understanding of whether and under what circumstances the Houthis will cease fire, but blithely assume that our missiles and bombs will make them behave.

The history of America's fetish

Open-ended military strikes regrettably have become an ill-considered American fetish. We told ourselves the same thing in December 1998, in the three-day fusillade against Iraq known as Operation Desert Fox, when Washington wanted to stress its disapproval of Saddam Hussein’s recalcitrance toward UN weapons inspectors. And, of course, Desert Fox was really just the exclamation point on a campaign of long-range strikes during the 1990s that sought to control the Iraqi dictator’s non-existent WMD programs.

My favorite strike of the 1990s was the 1996 cruise missile strike to warn Saddam off attacking the Kurds in northern Iraq. He did not. But the strategic consequences of those strikes went unrecognized at the time, and they had little to do with Saddam. Following those strikes, the U.S. took on the role of protecting the Kurds and tacitly endorsed their dream of statehood — a decision that today continues to shape the region in ways that may or may not support our interests. In the end, the era of the 1990s culminating in Desert Fox proved to be little else but the bridge to the next phase of the U.S. war on Iraq.

We told ourselves the same thing in the opening phases of the shock and awe campaign of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as we blasted away in our creative targeting against Saddam’s armies under the rubric of “shock and awe” and “effects-based operations.” Sure enough, Saddam’s armies indeed melted away from our initial bombing and our advancing armies, only to regroup and morph into something much more dangerous and deadly that is still shaping the landscape of the Middle East today.

We told ourselves that same thing in Afghanistan, as we unleashed a fusillade of strikes called in by CIA jawbreaker teams that sent the Taliban scurrying over the border into Pakistan in 2001 to rest and refit. Once they had done that, they slipped back across the border to resume the war — a conflict they would eventually win 20 years later — forcing the United States to retreat and leaving the Taliban in control of the country.

We told ourselves the same thing in Libya in 2011, when we believed that a few well-placed missiles and bombs would enable a peaceful transition of power from Qadafi to someone more amenable to, well, us. Of course, as was the case in Iraq, the strikes were only the opening round in an ongoing struggle for political power and authority that continues to this day.

As was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, the second-order effects of the strikes in Libya ended up being of far greater strategic consequences than was anticipated at the time. The current Biden national security team, which engineered these strikes, obviously learned nothing from the experience.

We’ve told ourselves the same thing in the global war on terror, where we have sent our robots and special forces hunting for sought-after “high value targets” all over the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. We have surely rained death and destruction on these enemies (and killed lots of innocent people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time) with our Hellfire missiles, but did we win any of these wars?

Yet we remain addicted 

Despite these uncertain results and even colossal failures, we remain addicted to strike warfare, telling ourselves that we can police the politics on the ground by dropping bombs from on high. The reality is, of course, different. Targeting people and property with high explosives tends to make them angry and fight harder. Just ask the Houthis, who have endured years of U.S.-sponsored and supported airstrikes by the Saudis and others in the Yemeni civil war. Obviously, the Houthis were not bombed into submission.

Therein lies the strategic dilemma for the West, which has invested billions in the strike, information, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities designed to blow things up at long range with little advertised collateral damage. The revolution in military affairs (and billions of taxpayer dollars) indeed delivered the strike complex — much to the delight of political leaders, who saw in it a low-cost substitute for sending armies to the four corners of the globe to police local political disputes. As described above, this is largely a myth.

The Houthis have indicated they’ll stop shooting when the Gaza War ends. Perhaps Secretary Blinken should stop by Sana'a on his next trip to the region for consultations. Even more importantly, maybe the Biden Administration should listen to the Houthis and others and take decisive steps to end the war in Gaza instead of becoming enmeshed in the conflict's wider fires to no strategic purpose.

Surrounded by the wreckage around the world wrought by strikes stretching back over half a century, you’d think that it was time for us to get into the rehab center and confront our addiction, yet this latest round of strikes tells us that our habit depressingly remains as strong as ever.

An aviation ordnanceman on board the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) tightens a laser guiding device to the nose of a 2,000 pound bomb in preparation for strikes against Iraq during DESERT FOX in 1998 (US Navy/public domain)

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