President Donald Trump’s impulsive Tomahawk-missile strikes on the tiny Shayrat Syrian Arab Air Force base in Syria is not the first high-profile use of this weapon by a modern president. A review of past such strikes suggests that they are typically deployed symbolically by presidents in trouble at home, and that they have no significant military implications.
President Barack Obama began his air assault on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL) group in eastern Syria in 2014 with 47 Tomahawk missiles. This massive assault, which continued for the subsequent two and a half years with regular bombings by fighter jets, did nothing in and of itself to set back the terrorist organization. In 2016 alone, Obama dropped over 12,000 bombs on Syria. Obama had received substantial criticism after ISIL took over much of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq for its so-called “caliphate” in spring-summer 2014. Despite US assertions that it has visited substantial attrition on ISIL commanders, these individuals appear to have been easily replaced, and ISIL retains substantial territory in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces. That is, the aerial strikes have had no significant effect, inasmuch as, for the most part, they have not been in support of a ground force capable of taking substantial territory.
President George W. Bush began his war on Iraq with a cruise missile “decapitation” strike against Saddam Hussein on March 20, 2003. This strike, which killed innocent civilians in Baghdad, was based on faulty intelligence, and Saddam appeared on television later that day. Human Rights Watch estimated that of 40 aerial strikes on Iraqi leaders, none of them succeeded, but they killed 42 innocent noncombatants and wounded dozens more.
President Bill Clinton hit Iraq in June of 1993, early in his first term, in retaliation for an alleged attempt by the Saddam Hussein regime to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush during his visit to Kuwait. Clinton’s approval ratings had plunged to 37 percent that month, and markedly improved after his show of force. His administration alleged that the building hit by the 23 Tomahawks was the very one where the assassination attempt was planned out; six civilians were killed in the attack. That the United States had that level of reliable human intelligence on the secretive Baath regime is unlikely.