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Attacking Syria could be a major mistake: historical perspective

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Recent history has shown that military strikes in the Middle East can lead to unintended consequences. Sometimes, action is unavoidable or necessary. However, there are times when a more measured approach should be undertaken. U.S. interventions over the last three decades have directly led to tragedy or controversy on at least five occasions. Syria would likely lead to a sixth incident.

In April 1986, a bomb exploded inside a Berlin nightclub killing one American and wounding 63. The government claimed Muammar Gaddafi was behind the attack. In fact, the C.I.A. considered Gaddafi “public enemy number one.” In response, the U.S. launched air strikes against the Libyan dictator. The raid led to 40-60 Libyan casualties. Gaddafi escaped when the Italians warned him in advance.

Gaddafi waited two years to retaliate. Libyan agents placed a bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. The attack murdered 270 people, including 11 on the ground. Libya eventually assumed responsibility for the incident and settled for nearly $3 billion.

El Qaeda struck American interests nearly a decade after the Lockerbie attack. In 1998, the terror group exploded munitions at two American embassies in Africa. President Bill Clinton authorized cruise missile strikes on terror bases in Afghanistan and the Sudan. One of the missiles struck an aspirin factory. Overall, the American assault proved ineffective and El Qaeda escaped unscathed.

Osama bin Laden needed little incentive to strike America. However, Clinton’s cruise missile attack proved a powerful recruiting tool for bin Laden and El Qaeda. The group increased in size and scope making it easier to conduct complex operations. They attacked the USS Cole in 2000 and launched the 911 attacks in 2001. President Clinton hoped a surgical strike would eliminate the El Qaeda threat. Instead, he made the group more dangerous.

The Sudan and Afghanistan were not America's only targets in 1998. President Clinton also bombed Iraq. Saddam Hussein refused to comply with the 1991 Gulf War cease fire and a number of U.N. resolutions. Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act making regime change American policy. The administration talked war, but decided to use military strikes instead. The U.S. and U.K. struck for three days and killed nearly 2,000 Iraqis.

Americans and other westerners wondered whether the attack was designed to deflect attention away from Clinton’s impeachment. Hussein dubbed the munitions used on his country “Monica bombs.” The attack did nothing to stop the president’s problems. In the end, the attack and its lead up justified the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and the dictator's ouster.

Saddam Hussein’s downfall led Muammar Gaddafi to surrender his nuclear program. Bush neutralized Gaddafi as an agent of instability in the Middle East. In 2011, Barack Obama decided to intervene in a Libyan civil war against Gaddafi. There was no pressing American interest in toppling Gaddafi at this point. However, the Libyan strongman fell and was murdered. Obama took credit for the murder and the change of regime.

Obama’s actions destabilized Libya. On September 11, 2012, terrorists attacked the American mission in Benghazi. The American ambassador and three others died in the assault. The president ignored warning signs leading up to the attack. Ambassador Chris Stevens was the first American ambassador to be assassinated in decades.

In addition to the Benghazi attack, President Obama has demonstrated to burgeoning nuclear powers the price of cooperation. Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear program and Obama overthrew him. There is no incentive for Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, or any other rogue nation to stop producing weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Obama’s actions in Libya justify Iran’s nuclear program as a self-defense measure.

Military action often yields unintended consequences. If Obama attacks Syria, he will be inadvertently siding with El Qaeda rebels. That has the potential for disaster. In the past, military exercises have led to major problems. Reagan’s attack on Libya led to the bombing of Pan Am 103. Clinton’s cruise missile attacks in the Sudan and Afghanistan led to 911 and his attack on Iraq led to an invasion of that country five years later. Obama’s strike on Libya led to the Benghazi attack and justified Iran’s nuclear program. An attack on Syria likely would lead to similar dire consequences. Both Assad and the rebels are both enemies of the west. However, an El Qaeda-led Syria would prove more dangerous,disastrous, and destabilizing than under Assad.

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