Remote Intervention with Conventional Air-Strikes

Air-strikes against military targets can be carried out without deploying troops in the target country, so they carry less domestic political risk than foreign wars.  They are carried out for various reasons, but they are all examples of realpolitik ( if they are not authorised by the UN:

Israel’s air-strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, on 7 June 1981, was claimed to be pre-emptive self-defence (although that claim was challenged).  A University of St Andrews posting, Osiraq, described the reason for it: “When Israeli intelligence confirmed Iraq’s intention of producing weapons at Osiraq, the Israeli government decided to attack”.  It delayed Iraq’s weapons programme.

Donald Trump authorised a missile strike against Syria in April 2017, allegedly to punish President Assad for the use of chemical weapons, but Raúl Ilargi Meijer’s article, Symbols of Strength, suggested that it was largely intended to signal his willingness to use military force – as a symbolic message to the Chinese president, with whom he was having dinner at the time.

Some remote interventions have wider consequences, though, such as NATO’s controversial bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999, on behalf of Kosovo, which was billed as a humanitarian intervention to prevent ethnic cleansing:

A BBC article, How the West justifies action, reported that the UN had passed a resolution which emphasised “the need to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo” but noted that such resolutions “do not authorise Nato or anyone else to take military action”.  NATO explained its action: NATO’s role in relation to the conflict in Kosovo.

Madeleine Albright, who was the US Secretary of State at the time of the Kosovo intervention and who argued strongly for it on moral grounds, described the circumstances and arguments which led to the decision in her book The Mighty & the Almighty (pp. 59-60).

The bombing eventually caused President Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo, but Serb terror then intensified – as predicted.  Noam Chomsky wrote A Review of NATO’s War over Kosovo, in which he noted: “As the bombing campaign began, U.S.-NATO Commanding General Wesley Clark informed the press that it was “entirely predictable” that Serb terror would intensify as a result.”

Another serious consequence was that the bombing ignored Russia’s opposition to it in the UN.  It was an example of a Security Council member defying the UN, which Russia took it as a precedent when invading South Ossetia (

All the above interventions contravened international law, unlike the air-strikes against Libya in 2011 which had been authorised by the UN Security Council under the emerging ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (

The initial legality of that intervention did not prevent it from turning into a disaster, however, when it toppled the Gaddafi regime.  A UK enquiry into Britain’s role in Libya, by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2016, concluded that Britain and France had failed to prepare for the consequences of removing the Gaddafi regime: an upsurge of violence, terrorism and strengthening of ISIS in the region; the BBC report on this enquiry was entitled MPs attack Cameron over Libya ‘collapse’.



This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/7322b.htm