As the United States moves closer to a military intervention in Syria, polls show at least half of Americans oppose using U.S. forces in that country’s civil war. The widespread apprehension is understandable; the U.S. is still feeling the bitter fallout from the war in Iraq, and fighting continues in Afghanistan. Many people fear a strike on Syria could escalate from bombing missions and cruise missiles into a similar costly, long-term affair. But in the post-Vietnam era, the U.S. has flexed its military muscle on a number of occasions in limited conflicts that lasted anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of weeks. Here are five U.S. military operations that accomplished their objectives, with limited loss of U.S. lives and no long-term obligations.
5. The United States Invades Grenada (1983)
Despite a population of only about 100,000, the tiny island nation of Grenada occupies a strategic spot in Caribbean. So the U.S. took notice when Cuban forces built a major airstrip there, and began stockpiling military equipment on the island, all with the tacit approval of the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration feared that the Cubans would use Grenada to spread communism throughout the region. When a coup resulted in the execution of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop on Oct. 19, 1983, the U.S. decided to invade, citing the need to protect American medical students on the island. More than 7,000 U.S. personnel participated in Operation Urgent Fury, and they were joined by several hundred troops from other Caribbean nations. After several days of fighting against Grenadian, Cuban and North Korean soldiers, the U.S.-led forces prevailed; 19 U.S. soldiers were killed in the conflict. The international community and even staunch U.S. allies such as the UK and Canada opposed the U.S. invasion, but it enjoyed widespread support in America. And it remains popular in Grenada — today, residents of the island nation celebrate the anniversary of the invasion as a national holiday.
4. The U.S. Bombs Libya (1986)
Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who died a brutal death at the hands of Libyan insurgents in 2011, had long been a menace in the Middle East, especially in the 1980s. Gaddafi sent terrorists to fight Israel, set up terrorist training camps, and reportedly embarked on a program to build nuclear weapons. But the dictator stepped over the line in early April 1986 when a bomb planted by Libyan agents exploded in a West Berlin disco, killing three — including two U.S. servicemen — and wounding dozens more.
Nine days later, the U.S. unleashed Operation El Dorado Canyon on Libyan targets. Incredibly, the operation lasted less than 12 minutes. Air Force jets based in England and Navy jets from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Sidra successfully attacked communications facilities, air defenses, barracks and airfields. The U.S. also targeted Gaddafi’s home; the dictator escaped injury, but later claimed that the bombing killed his adopted infant daughter (reports in recent years indicate she is alive and well today and working in the medical field). Two Air Force pilots were killed when a surface-to-air missile shot down their aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra. In a bizarre coda to the military strike, Gaddafi — once dubbed the “Mad Dog of the Middle East” by President Ronald Reagan — declared that Libya had “won a spectacular military victory over the United States.”
3. The U.S. Retaliates Against Iran (1988)
During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the U.S. Navy began patrolling the Persian Gulf and escorting oil tankers in the region. On April 14, 1988, a U.S. guided missile cruiser suffered damage when it struck an Iranian mine. Four days later the U.S. retaliated with Operation Praying Mantis. At the time, the one-day operation was considered the largest U.S. surface-air naval engagement since World War II, involving about a dozen U.S. ships as well as fighter aircraft and Marines. The strike involved a complex and fluid engagement with multiple skirmishes against Iranian ships and aircraft as well as oil platforms armed with anti-aircraft gun emplacements. During a single day of combat, Marines raided and severely damaged two platforms and the Navy sunk an Iranian frigate and four smaller vessels. Two Marine Corps pilots were killed when their Cobra attack helicopter went down over the gulf. In the aftermath of the strike, Iranian mines never again posed a threat to U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf, and some observers credit the conflict with leading Iran to agree to a ceasefire later that year in its lengthy war with Iraq.
2. The United States Invades Panama (1989)
Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega served as a longtime ally of the United States’ CIA, which conveniently overlooked Noriega’s history of violence and allegations of ties to arms smuggling and drug trafficking. But the relationship became strained in the mid-to-late 1980s as Noriega increased his stronghold on Panama, executing opponents and strengthening his ties with a drug cartel. In 1989, U.S. and international outrage grew when Noriega claimed de facto control of the country despite losing a national election. As the U.S. struggled to deal with the dictator, the situation came to a head when Panamanian soldiers killed an off-duty Marine Corps officer stationed in the country. Four days later, on Dec. 20, President George H.W. Bush sent almost 26,000 American troops to Panama in Operation Just Cause. Their mission: protect Americans in the country, secure the Panama Canal and arrest Gen. Noriega. U.S. forces quickly overwhelmed Panama’s military, although 23 Americans were killed in action. The number of Panamanian civilians killed, however, remains hotly disputed, with estimates of anywhere from a couple of hundred to several thousand.
As for Gen. Noriega, after the attack began he fled to the Vatican embassy, but he surrendered on Jan. 3 after U.S. soldiers blasted non-stop heavy-metal music through loudspeakers. The invasion has been hailed by U.S. military officials as one of the first examples of a model 21st century conflict — a fast, precision strike that quickly accomplishes its mission.
1. The U.S. Strikes Against Iraqi Forces (1990s)
While the United States’ successes and failures in both the Gulf War (1990-91) and the Iraq War have been well documented, the intervening years are a bit murkier. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein maintained his aggressive stance toward the U.S. and the international community as a whole, and continued targeting certain segments of Iraq’s population. To protect those Iraqi minorities, the U.S., the United Kingdom and France maintained two “no-fly zones,” to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims to the south. Yet on two occasions, the U.S. decided to go it mostly alone in strategic air strikes designed to cripple Hussein’s military power. President Bill Clinton ordered Operation Desert Strike in September 1996 to stop an Iraqi offensive against Kurdish separatists in the north. In addition to enforcing an expanded no-fly zone in the region, U.S. ships launched cruise missiles and Air Force bombers dropped heavy ordinance in an operation that lasted one day. The president ordered a more extensive strike against Iraq in December 1998. Dubbed Operation Desert Fox, the four-day mission came in response to Hussein’s interference with UN weapons inspectors. The United States launched a barrage of cruise missiles and U.S. and UK aircraft flew more than 600 sorties, targeting Iraqi facilities suspected in the production or distribution of weapons of mass destruction.
Although these two U.S. strikes against Iraq were deemed a success, they didn’t change much in the long run. Tensions between the U.S. and Iraq continued to escalate to all-out war in 2003 — the sort of scenario many Americans worry will repeat itself if the U.S. takes military action now against Syria.