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Historically Speaking:  Missile Attacks [Reprinted from January 13, 2020]

By James W. Finck

If anyone was hoping for a calmer more peaceful decade, then surely by now they are disappointed. With just a few days into 2020, the major news story already is a drone strike and death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Instantly political sides were drawn as Trump supporters praised the president’s actions as a strike against terrorism and protection for American lives. Trump detractors criticized the decision as dangerous. Presidential contenders have all denounced the president, calling him basically a war monger and a murderer. As always, I am not here to comment on the president’s decision. There is enough of that already. But historically speaking, the president’s actions are far from new. We have seen presidents strike Middle Eastern targets as far back as there have been Middle Eastern issues. You can claim he had ulterior motives, the same as previous presidents, but you can’t claim his attack is out of the ordinary.

Though most modern presidents have used missile strikes, I want to focus on two, President Clinton and President Reagan, both of whom made similar decisions. When Reagan took over in 1981, one of the principal “bad guys” was Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Similar to Iran today, Libya in the 1970s and 1980s was a principal supporter of terrorism. They were outspokenly anti-Israel and supported terrorist groups in Palestine and Syria. Like Iran, they were also actively trying to start a nuclear program.

The 1980s saw an uptick in Islamic terrorism when 239 marines were killed in a bombing in Lebanon in 1983. 1985 saw bombings in Vienna and Rome airports, the high-jacking of a TWA plane and an Italian cruise ship, both with American deaths. Finally, in 1986 American service men were killed and injured in a disco bombing in Berlin. Libya had ties to them all. After the disco bombing, Reagan ordered Operation El Dorado Canyon, which were air strikes against Libya hoping to kill Gaddafi. Unfortunately, Gaddafi was warned of the strikes and escaped before the bombs fell on his compound, sparing his life. The bombing did very little to curtail Libya’s support of terrorism as they continued throughout the 1980s. The United Nations condemned the attack, but Americans overwhelmingly supported Reagan’s actions, strengthening his popularity.

Two presidents later President Clinton launched his own Middle Eastern attacks. The first time was in June of 1993 when Clinton hit sites in Iraq. Supposedly the attack was in response to an assassination attempt against former President H.W. Bush while he was visiting Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was seen as a leading sponsor of terrorism and, like Iran, was supporting terrorism around the globe. The missiles hit the building where the assassination was planned but did little to curtail Saddam Hussein’s support of terrorism. The show of force did help Clinton’s poll numbers, which had dropped in recent months.

Clinton’s second strike came in August of 1999 and targeted a then little-known terrorist origination known as Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had recently attacked American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Clinton’s response was a missile attack against Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The attacks killed 24 but missed Osama bin Laden. This attack has more in common with Trump’s recent attack as it was seen more skeptically. Clinton was in the midst of his own impeachment issues and many saw it as an attempt to divert the nation’s attention. The catch phrase of the day was “the tail wagging the dog.” Clinton had taken a hit with the Black Hawk Down incident and was hoping this show of force would help his image. In the end the attacks on Al Qaeda did little to stop their growth as we all found out on 9/11.

Trump’s latest missile attack has some differences and some similarities. Iran is a supporter of terrorism, both in Iraq and Syria, and Soleimani was behind much of the violence. As with Reagan and Clinton, Soleimani and Iran can be tied to several key attacks. Last May they supported the terrorist group that attacked Saudi oil fields. In June two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman and a U.S. Navy drone was shot down. In July they captured a British oil tanker. In September they once again supported a terrorist group that attacked Saudi oil fields. In December rockets killed U.S. service men in Kirkuk. Finally, in December they attacked the American embassy in Iraq. Also, all the while, they continued to work towards nuclear weapons. Yes, during the escalation the president and Iran carried on a verbal battle which seemed childish considering the consequences, but the list of terrorist activities is not unlike the list from Libya or Iraq.

The key difference between all these attacks seems to be that Trump was the only one to hit his target. Another difference is that outside of the bin Laden attack, the other attacks occurred in the target’s own nation. Soleimani was not in Iran, but Iraq. What we cannot know is the retaliation. Libya, Iraq, and Al Qaeda all vowed retaliation for the bombing. None of the previous presidents stopped the terrorists and we did see more mass destruction, though we can never know if attacks were a response or would have been carried out anyway. Iran did launch missiles at American bases in Iraq, but there were no casualties. Maybe that will be enough for the Iranians to save face. Only time will tell. They do not want to look weak, but are they willing to escalate?

The other major difference is the American response to the attacks. Clinton took some flack, but most of the attacks by American presidents, including Bush and Obama, have been met with positive reviews. Obama was even praised by both parties for taking out Bin Laden. With Trump, as expected, the attacks have come swiftly and brutally. All the major candidates trying to secure the Democratic ticket have condemned Trump. Historically speaking, maybe what Trump has done is no different from past presidents. Maybe it’s we who are different and more cynical.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

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