“Last night’s strikes were only the beginning,” Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told the Pentagon press corps. More strikes can be “expected.”
Well, let’s hope so: the $64,000 question has been whether Barack Obama would take this war seriously, and whether the military means would match the mission of degrading and “ultimately destroying” the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. As Kirby’s only-the-beginning comment implies, the strikes carried out last night were more pinpricks than shock-and-awe. Indeed, 1998’s Operation Desert Fox – the Clinton-era cruise-missile raid that introduced the term “pinprick” to military punditry – was many times larger than last night’s as-yet-unnamed operation.
Even a cursory review of what’s known about the strikes reveals that they are more notable for what they weren’t than what they were. Begin at the level of international politics: announcing the strikes, President Obama stressed that the “broad coalition” against ISIL “makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone.” But based upon the public reckoning from last night, the coalition is very narrow and small. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Bahrain “participated” militarily, while Qatar, host to the U.S. Navy’s regional headquarters, “supported” operations. In other words, the coalition consisted exclusively of “moderate” Sunni states. That’s not bad – these are our long-standing and most natural allies, and they represent the most “willing,” if only because they have no where else to turn even when they doubt us. But it leaves out Turkey and looks like (and in fact is) an anti-Iran, anti-Shi’a lineup. It also doesn’t mention Iraq, whose Kurds surely “supported” the strikes flown from bases near Irbil. We are intervening in a region-wide struggle for power, and the size and composition of the coalition reflect that fact.
Operationally the strikes were likewise a reflection of the unfocused nature of administration strategy. In additional to attacking ISIL headquarters – apparently vacated at the orders of ISIL leaders – other strikes went after elements of Jabhat Nusra, the formal al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria, and members of the “Khorasan Group,” a delegation of al Qaeda senior leaders and experts dispatched by AQ central. All these were worthy targets, but that reflects the diffuse and dispersed nature of the enemy and the costs of delayed action in Syria, and serves to divide and lessen whatever punitive effects the strikes may have had. Attacking in three directions at once with a relatively small force – and, to repeat: in what is a larger war – is indeed a recipe for a long campaign, if not necessarily for victory.
President Obama has, for the moment at least, succeeded in defining decisiveness down. BuzzFeed declared that “[t]he attack on Syria is more aggressive and expansive than many anticipated.” The Washington Post thinks the campaign “went big” last night. And cable television still loves a good nighttime Tomahawk launch almost as much as it loves fireworks on the 4th of July.