In Syria, Obama should study the lessons of Operation: Rolling Thunder

“Limited, narrow strikes” on Syria? Sounds like the 1965-68 air war in Vietnam. Photo: Obama should study the Vietnam War for its airpower lessons. (AP File Photo)

WASHINGTON, August 31, 2013 – The Obama Administration’s developing pitch for “limited, narrow strikes” in Syria is an awkward balancing act between punishing Assad for alleged chemical weapons use, retaining presidential “red line” credibility and all the while not being so severe as to draw Russia or Iran into the conflict.

Many observers have decried the plan as new evidence of Obama’s weak leadership, but this style of White House policymaking isn’t without prior historical precedent.

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During the height of the Vietnam War in February 1965, then-National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy urged President Johnson to use punitive air and naval action against the North, recommending “This reprisal policy should begin at a low level. Its level of force and pressure should be increased only gradually … should be decreased if VC terror visibly decreases. The object would not be to “win” an air war against Hanoi, but rather to influence the course of the struggle in the South.”

Johnson initiated the Operation: Rolling Thunder bombing campaign on March 2, 1965. Worried about Vietnam falling to the Communists but even more concerned about the possibility of greater regional escalation that would involve China or even Russia, U.S. policymakers micromanaged the air war in Vietnam so strictly that many targets had to be individually vetted in Washington. Fears that Soviet engineers might be killed in select bombing raids also made mission planning and sorties even more complex.

The end result was that while large numbers of bombs were dropped during the war, often times strikes were completely useless either because by the time attacks were approved the tactical situation had changed or because strategic targets were completely off limits.

Later, Rolling Thunder was greatly expanded in its destructive scope, but the three year bombing campaign ultimately failed to stop the flow of men and material from the North to the South and did not succeed in bringing Hanoi to surrender.

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Rolling Thunder is generally accepted within most policymaking circles as a cautionary tale of the effects of an open-ended air war and the dangers of civilian confusion. President Johnson’s team miscalculated the powerful moral resolve of the North Vietnamese and handicapped the U.S. military.

As one report by the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College tells, “In essence, the American military objective was not to defeat or destroy the enemy. Rather, the military objective was to persuade the enemy that he could not win - a far cry from defeating the enemy in any traditional sense.”

Many of the hard lessons learned in Rolling Thunder and the Vietnam War led to a reformation of America’s military doctrine, but these lessons appear to have been forgotten over the years or altogether unheard of in the post-9/11 era.

The experience of Operation: Rolling Thunder in Vietnam should remind policymakers about the dangers of open ended air campaigns. (U.S. Air Force file photo)

SEE RELATED: President Obama’s sound and fury on Syria signifies nothing

President Obama’s team would do well to remember the historical precedent of the disastrous Rolling Thunder campaign which cost the United States not only the moral advantage in Vietnam but also many lives.

A key lesson from the Vietnam War was that forces should never again be committed to a conflict where there is no political desire (or plan) to win decisively. America either fights to win with a clear moral imperative … or stays home altogether.

In the Syria crisis, America is edging once more in the direction of the same mistakes that cost her so dearly in Vietnam. President Obama needs to realize a responsible Commander-in-Chief ought never send forces just to do something for the sake of doing something.

Rather than launching a “limited, narrow strike” against Syria with thin legal grounds and no clear long-term objectives, a better choice would be not to attack in the first place.

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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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