Perhaps the best analogy for the “unbelievably small” airstrikes the Obama administration is contemplating against Syria would be Ronald Reagan’s April 1986 bombing of Libya. That campaign, too, was meant to be punitive and deterrent, and although Gaddafi himself was targeted, regime-change wasn’t an immediate goal of Reagan’s actions. Gaddafi was responsible for the bombing earlier in April of a Berlin discotheque in which two American servicemen were killed and 79 injured, and the Libyan dictator had generally been happy to sponsor terrorists of many flavors in Western Europe as retaliation for Western support of anti-regime elements in his own country.
What was the effect of Reagan’s bombing? Gaddafi struck back with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing some 270 people in all. A year later he also bombed UTA Flight 772 over the Sahara, killing 170. The attempt to punish and deter Gaddafi with “pinprick” strikes not only failed but led to revenge attacks more lethal than Gaddafi’s earlier crimes.
Reagan’s experience with Gaddafi is hardly the only case that casts doubt on the deterrent power of airstrikes. Remember Bill Clinton’s cruise-missile strikes on terrorist camps in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998? That was punitive action in response to terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But far from being deterred, al-Qaeda went on to bomb the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 and perpetrate the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
That’s not to say that Assad or his allies in the Shi’ite world—Iran and Hezbollah—would want to retaliate directly against the U.S. in response to an attack launched by the Obama administration. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think that’s likely. But the idea that limited bombing campaigns are any kind of deterrent to bad behavior on the part of regimes like Assad’s, Gaddafi’s, or the Taliban (which continued to host bin Laden despite Clinton’s attacks) is disproved by history. If Assad considers it in his interest to use chemical weapons, there is no evidence to suggest that American missiles will change his mind.