Why Bombing Syria Isn't Likely to Work

Air power coercion succeeds only about a third of the time


B2 Bomber in air formation
Public Domain

"Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment," the political scientist Eliot Cohen wrote in 1994. President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress seem poised to succumb to the seductions of air power as they try to fashion some way to stop Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons against his opponents. Will our politicians be gratified? Can they avoid commitment? The scholarly literature suggests not.

But first, let's briefly trace how the Obama administration backed itself into this unlovely corner. Two years ago, President Obama declared that Assad must "step aside." The tyrant remains in power, and the recent momentum of the Syrian civil war seems to be running in his favor. Last year, the president asserted that if Assad used chemical weapons he would cross a "red line" that would change Obama's "calculus" about what to do about Syria.

Obama told an audience in Sweden on Wednesday that he did not set a red line but the international community did, since countries representing 98 percent of the world's population have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. It bears noting that Syria is one of seven countries that has not.

So will raining missiles down on Damascus stop Assad from gassing his people in the future? Quantitative research by Michael Horowitz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Dan Reiter of Emory University suggests that threatening such aerial attacks works about a third of the time. In their 2001 article "When Does Aerial Bombing Work?" in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the two define coercion as "a threat to inflict pain on a target if the target does not accede to a demand." The two identify and analyze all attempts to use air power to coerce countries between 1917 and 1999. "Of our 53 cases of air power coercion, 19 (36 percent) were successes and 34 (64 percent) were failures," they report.

Horowitz and Reiter define air power coercion a "success" when a target changes its behavior as demanded without being attacked. ("Successful threats are those that do not have to be carried out," as the economist Thomas Schelling wrote in his 1966 book Arms and Influence.) Clearly, the threat of U.S. air power has failed to dissuade Assad from poison gassing his people. The researchers also count air-power coercion as successful if a target yields shortly after being attacked. With regard to Syria, that kind of "success" is still up in the air, so to speak.

Air power coercion "fails" when a target refuses to comply and no attack follows the coercer's threat. Such a failure would occur if Congress refuses to authorize an attack on Syria and the president observes this constitutional constraint. Coercion also fails when would-be coercer abandons its follow-on attacks before the target accedes, or when the coercer must utterly destroy the target before it gives in. In other words, attempts to coerce solely using air power fail when a target calls the coercer's bluff, withstands limited bombing, or must be conquered.

The analysis found that air power coercion is most likely to succeed when its military assets are particularly vulnerable and when the coercer's demands do not amount to an ultimatum that the target country change its regime. In this case, Syria will have had up to three weeks to reduce its military vulnerability to aerial attack by scattering its forces and hardening targets. Thus the efficacy of a U.S. bombing and missile attack to degrade to Assad's military assets, including his chemical weapons stocks, has been significantly blunted. Furthermore, the White House's manifest goal of overthrowing the Assad regime will strengthen its resolve to resist U.S. demands. 

The president has also declared that whatever aerial attack the U.S. launches at Syria will be a "limited, proportional step." The current version of the congressional resolution authorizing an attack limits the effort to 90 days and forbids the introduction of troops on the ground. Assad will reasonably conclude that he can outlast the bombs and missiles because the U.S. is not ultimately serious about enforcing its demands.

Proponents of a bombing campaign could counter that the Libyan civil war is the more accurate template for assessing the probable efficacy of a U.S. attack on Syria. Clearly, air power supplied by NATO allies was crucial to overthrowing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. In that case, the United Nations Security Council authorized "all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas." The same resolution also explicitly excluded "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." In "Libya's Lessons: The Air Campaign," a paper published in the January 2013 issue of Survival, Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies acknowledges the vital role that NATO air power played in Libya. NATO planes, missiles, and bombs gave the Libyan rebels the time to obtain weapons from abroad and develop rudimentary military capabilities.

President Obama agreed in June to ship some weapons to the Syrian rebels after the disclosure that the Assad regime had evidently used chemical weapons to kill civilians back in December 2012. Perhaps Syrian rebels armed by the U.S. and backed by American air power could make significant headway against Assad's military forces. However, the administration has not yet delivered any of the promised weapons, due to reasonable fears that the guns, grenades and rockets might end up in the hands of radical Islamist such as the Al Nusra Front.

Considering how badly the situation in Libya is deteriorating, the Obama administration has reason to worry about what would happen if the Syrian rebels do actually win. Even as Barrie argues that aerial coercion succeeded in Libya, he cautions, "Such operations, however, where air power is used to support local boots on the ground, should not be the default model for future interventions." Unfortunately, history teaches that those boots, once in power, are all too likely to stomp on the rights of fellow citizens. In any case, it is doubtful that a limited and proportional aerial attack will tip the Syrian civil war toward a rebel victory.

Threats have already failed to coerce, and the limited aerial attacks contemplated by President Obama are not apt to much change Assad's military calculations. History and the reckonings of political science argue that Congress and the president should shun the seductions of air power. They are not likely to be gratified, and they could all too easily be drawn into a commitment that they and the rest of us would soon rue.

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  1. I guess because people, and especially our various nitwit top men who went to “top schools” don’t study history (and by that I mean real history not the role transgendered court jesters in Plantagenet England) anymore, they don’t understand war. You don’t win a war by bombing or even occupying territory. Those are means of winning a war but they are not victory. You don’t obtain victory until you break the enemy’s will to fight. Our leaders never seem to understand this. They think winning means knocking out various targets or taking this or that objective. And that is all fine and often necessary for victory. But it is not victory. But since our leaders don’t understand what victory is, they never have a plan to achieve it. Bombing, absent death and destruction that is totally inconsistent with our values, never breaks the enemy’s will to fight. We leveled Germany in the summer and fall of 1944, and they fought on. We bombed Vietnam for 7 years. People adjust to bombing and it rarely affects the decision makers enough to get them to quit and it almost never affects the population enough to drive them into rebellion.

    1. Nobody studies history anymore. I think there were about 30 seniors in my major when I graduated. Yesterday one of my old professors was lamenting how her current students would all love history if there were not so many names and dates etc.

      1. And when they do teach history they have decided not to expect students to memorize names and dates because that is just too hard. Ah, it is not all about the names and dates. But if you don’t know those, you can’t learn the rest of it or put it into any context.

        I am constantly amazed at how little my very educated colleagues know about history and geography. Many of them have Ivy League or near Ivy degrees.

        1. That can be a damning indictment of our modern hyper-specialized workforce. In eras past, many educated persons had a wealth of information across a variety of subjects, because they were in the course of their daily lives expected to interact with a variety of people and perform a variety of functions in the course of their business. Now, we are so specialized that people focus only on learning the most inane aspects of their own finely tuned profession and tune out everything else.

          1. Shorter Sudden: Americans used to be well-rounded. Now we’re just, well, rounded.

          2. That or people aren’t learning shit in high school or college Liberal Studies these days. Specialization provides some serious benefits, and it should be quite possible to have a decent grounding in humanities, history, and science while still having specialized knowledge.

            They should do away with college courses “for non-majors”.

            1. That is just it. All of these people have high end degrees that are supposed to impart some general knowledge in addition to their specialty. But that is not happening.

      2. Yet they can instantly recall the names of sundry celebrities and how long their various marriages lasted.

    2. John–Can you please apply for a position with this administration and bring your copy of “On War” to work so that BHO can get some useful bedtime reading. What our community organizer does not get is that Asad has two choices–fight to survive by any means possible or be found hanging from a meathook like Mussolini. Blowing up a few of his rocks is not going to convince him that the meathook is the better option. And if he goes, it ain’t going to convince the Alawites that being a powerless minority is a very good option. Eitehr kill them all, or stay at home.

      1. Have a plan to win or don’t go.

    3. I guess because people, and especially our various nitwit top men who went to “top schools” don’t study history (and by that I mean real history not the role transgendered court jesters in Plantagenet England) anymore, they don’t understand war.

      Yes, this is definitely a factor. But I think a simpler explanation is that politicians, especially on the left, just want to do something. Even when they know that something is merely ceremonial (in their minds, at least). This is why Obama is willing to admit openly that they just want to do some ceremonial bombing to somehow show that the world won’t tolerate chemical weapons. Because ceremonial actions are so extremely persuasive to regimes that would actually use chemical weapons on their own people.

      1. Maybe they can throw in a national boycott of Stolichnaya over Russian interference.

    4. I think John is really Victor Davis Hanson.

      1. Also, I couldn’t read the article because the first sentence was so cool, I didn’t want a letdown.

  2. Sure it will work. You just don’t see the larger plan. We bomb Syria. Iran retaliates and then we have the justification to take out Iran’s nuclear program. It’s genius. What could possibly go wrong?

    1. They are not thinking that far ahead. And Iran is unlikely to retaliate. If they were crazy enough to commit national suicide by attacking the US in a significant way, they wouldn’t need us attacking Assad as an excuse.

      1. They ARE thinking that far ahead. The Pentagram has plans at least two decades out, and they have gamed out all, and I mean ALL of the outcomes. These people do this for a living, and they are good at it. Look up what Wesley Clark said a couple of weeks after 9/11 – he was told that the US was going to attack 7 countries in 5 years. It’s taken a bit longer, but they’re making it happen, and this was known 12 years ago, and they are sticking to the plan.

  3. If bombing Syria takes attention away from the NSA and other various scandals, well then it damn well will work.

    1. We’re gathered here, with a cross to bear, the bravest men anywhere,
      that this great land will remain free.

      God bless the men of the 303.

      Side by side, we know no fear, our minds are sharp, our eyes are clear.

      In the air, on land, or on the sea we’re the fightin’ men of the 303.

      Give us this day our daily bread, and leopard skin for our head,
      that we may fight

      Years from now, when we are gone, our childrens kids will hear this song.

      Think how strong and proud they’ll be.

      Grampa fought for the 303.

      God bless the men of the 303.


  4. This whole thing is b/c obama ad-libed a response and utter the words “red line” and and either too proud or stupid (okay both) to admit error. unbelievable.

    1. And didn’t have the balls to just do something to save face immediately. Instead of dropping a few cruise missiles before anyone could object to bail his sorry ass out without causing too many problems, he kept talking and decided he would build a coalition (I don’t think he even knows to do what) and opposition built and the Russians got annoyed and here we are. If there is a more textbook example of an undisciplined idiotic world leader than this, it is hard to think of one.

      1. I can’t imagine what a day of coalition building with the Obama administration would be like.

        1. Me either. And what did he say to them? He has no plan or any admitted desired end state. Is it any wonder the Brits told me no? Spare me the “they just don’t trust us anymore BS”. Bullshit. They don’t have to trust us to do something that is in their interests and they have their own intelligence services to obtain information. They said no because Obama gave no reason to say yes.

  5. When your only tool is a drone all of your problems look like weddings.

    1. +1 Pakistani teenager.

      1. Just one?

        1. Well, it’s only friday afternoon.

          1. Yeah, they’re all at mosque until sundown. Then its DRONE SEAZON!

  6. Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find:
    – One forty-five caliber automatic
    – Two boxes of ammunition
    – Four days’ concentrated emergency rations
    – One drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine,
    vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills
    – One miniature combination Russian Arabic phrase book and Bible
    – One hundred dollars in rubles
    – One hundred dollars in gold
    – Nine packs of chewing gum
    – One issue of prophylactics
    – Three lipsticks
    – Three pair of nylon stockings.

    Shoot, a fella could have himself a pretty good weekend in Vegas with this stuff.

    1. I love that scene and a lot of others in that movie. Slim Pickens was an American icon.

      1. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our haired mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed. Tops. Er, depending on the breaks.”

        “General Turgidson, I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler.”

        “Perhaps it might be better, Mr President, if you were more concerned with the American people than your place in the history books.”

        1. “Gentleman, there is no fighting in the war room”.

          1. All of the setup for that is why old movies are so much better than the modern ones.

    2. ” This thing turns out to be half as important is I figure it just might be, I’d say that you’re all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing’s over with. That goes for every last one of you, regardless of your race, color, or your creed. Now, let’s get this thing on the hump.”

      1. “They might be able to harpoon us. But they sure won’t be picking us up on no radar.”

      2. And the navigator on the bomber was none other than James Earl Jones.

        “What about Major Kong?”

    3. The original line as scripted and filmed was “weekend in Dallas.” During post-production they changed that to “Vegas” because of the Kennedy assassination.

      1. Originally, Kubric planned to make a drama about the Cold War; something along the lines of Fail Safe. But after he started doing research for the script and reading various cold war think tank pieces and government policies and military doctrines, he found the whole thing to be so disturbing and absurd that he felt that you could only make a dark comedy about the subject.

        1. Yeah, Fail Safe is obviously the template.

          1. And such an inferior movie, despite being a very well made drama. Kubric was right. Only a surreal black comedy fit the subject matter.

          2. I saw Fail-Safe when I was just a kid during the cold war. It disturbed the hell out of me, what with the final shots of New York and all. Way better than The Day After.

            1. It is a good movie. Very underrated. It is just that Dr. Strangelove is better.

            2. Really? I’ll have to give Fail-Safe a look because The Day After scared the crap out of me and I grew up post-Cold War.

              My dad was in the Air Force during the 80s and he told there was always that lingering sense of dread that a war could break out at any moment.

              1. Episirach is right Fail Safe is a much better movie than the day after. It is very claustrophobic. Most of the movie is Henry Fonda playing the President talking to the Russians through his translator in a very small room. It plays out with a real sense of timing. It is the kind of movie that Hollywood can’t make anymore because it doesn’t have enough explosions and catch phrases and demands the audience have the attention span beyond that of an ADHD ten year old boy on espresso.

                1. Re: the Day After .. was Steve Guttenberg in every 80s movie?

              2. 60’s 70’s 80’s into the early 90’s

                I remember climbing under desks during safety drills in grade school in the 60’s

              3. Right Hon, see Threads. It is one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. Think of it as a much less bowdlerized U.K. Day After.

                1. On The Beach, Ghost. That movie makes Sofie’s Choice seem like a feel good comedy.

                  1. I’ve read the book. The crushing sense of futility permeates everything they do, from the Grand Prix to relationships.

                    Threads was just a “Holy Fuck, no ones going to make it, and no one will want to,” to my 11 year old eyes. (And then I read Warday.) I realize now that it was overstated in some areas, and understated in others.

                    Still, a big strategic exchange, with some spoiler shit thrown into other Hadley cells ’cause why should Brazil get to sit this out, would have taken us back 200 years. I don’t think we’d have killed everyone, but it would have been the most hideous thing since the Black Plague. Or to be a Native Eastern American when the Old World diseases started rampaging.

                2. anyone ever see this? I have not. just curious though


                  I think it’s on netflix, but i’m not sure.

                  1. It’s also on youtube.

                  2. I saw it when I was in high school (ca. 1970). It was quite sobering.

      2. It was also supposed to end with a massive pie fight between the people in the War Room. If you look in the background during the final scene you can see a large table full of pies.

        They actually filmed it, but Kubrick felt that slapstick would have blunted the impact of all those bombs going off at the end.

        1. It is one of those movies I wished I had been an adult when it was first released. I saw it as a kid and loved it but didn’t really get it. By the time I did, I still loved it but it didn’t have the same impact because I had already seen it. I would imagine that final scene of all of those bombs going off to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” was pretty fucking striking to audiences that first saw it.

  7. Even as Barrie argues that aerial coercion succeeded in Libya

    It certainly succeeded in something. Chaos, factional violence, devastation of the nation’s oil production. Success.

  8. I was a startling moment when I realized the Obama made me miss Richard Nixon. And now I’ve reached the point where I miss the Vietnam War. It was ugly and a total failure. But at least the motivations for being in the war were tied to some rational that sort of made since — evil commies and dominoes theories and what not.

    Barack Obama: Dumber than Carter; Dirtier than Nixon; Bloodier than Johnson.

    When Obama decides to lob tactical nukes into the middle east, we an add Truman to the list.

    1. Nixon ended the Vietnam war and got every single thing we wanted at the Paris Peace Accords. he achieved in a little over four years what Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson couldn’t achieve in 9. It wasn’t Nixon’s fault that the North broke the treaty and rearmed and Ford told them they could invade the South with no worry of the US intervening.

      1. I was in the last cohort of 19-yr-olds to register for the draft. I a soft spot in my heart for Nixon for ending that fiasco.

        1. And just think, Nixon only tried to get the IRS to go after his enemies. And as bad as wage and price controls were, they were a hell of a lot easier to undo than Obamacare. I would trade this assclown for Nixon in a heartbeat.

      2. He also gave us the EPA, EEOC, wage and price controls, and four years of Jimmy Carter (the last being unintentional of course).

        1. …OSHA, Amtrak, “revenue sharing” (so places like Detroit could avoid a reckoning for decades to come).

          The fact that I STILL would prefer a zombie Nixon in office to the current occupant speaks volumes.

    2. …made me Miss Richard Nixon

      I shudder in horror at the thought of the swimsuit competition. Were the other contestants representing ex-presidents, too?

  9. The scariest part of all of this is that Syria is still a client state of Russia. Putin has been pretty clear about this. So there is a non-zero, non-trivial probability that Obama is going to start WWIII here.

    1. That is what I keep saying. No one thought the Serbian crisis would amount to much at the beginning of August 1914. Nations do blunder into wars they never intended to fight. The Russians being involved in all of this scares the shit out of me. I don’t care about Iran. But Russia is something to worry about.

      1. Syria has done much worse shit in the past, and we have ignored it because of Russia.

        I cannot imagine that Putin will do nothing if the US bombs Syria.

        1. And could you blame Putin for miscalculating and seeing Obama as being so weak that he could attack a US carrier group and get away with it? Would the US public be willing to go to war with Russia over an attack that occurred in a war that they didn’t even want but Obama dragged us into?

          I don’t know. I think US pride would compel us to act and escalate. But I could see how Putin might calculate differently and give it a shot. And that is how wars start. Obama has gone from being a bad President to a legitimately dangerous one.

          1. Putin is scary. I don’t him miscalculating anything. He is a hardened pro — everything that Obama is not.

          2. I think if the Russians attacked a US Navy ship, no question about it WWIII

            1. What if they are stupid? Or what if they accidentally do it? All unlikely, but with huge consequences. Those are the stakes Obama is playing with here.

              But remember it was that Cowboy Bush, who attacked two countries that didn’t have a friend in the world and were not allied with the Russians who was the real dangerous idiot.

            2. I don’t think that will be the kinds of response to expect from Putin.

              I expect Gazprom will shut off all deliveries of natural gas to Europe just as winter sets in.

            3. I think if the Russians attacked a US Navy ship, no question about it WWIII

              What if it could be spun that the Syrians actually did it? All of Syria’s stuff that could conceivably kill a USN ship came from Russia or the Soviet Union. I don’t think the Russians will actually get to the point of pulling triggers, but I definitely can see them doing the same stuff we did during the Falklands, like passing along targeting data and other intelligence.

              The 2014 Olympics I think is going to really cool any Russian desire to get frisky. But you can’t rule it out, and guys pointing guns at each other occasionally make a mistake.

              1. the fact that we’re even having this discussion is damning indictment of what a clown Obama is.

              2. Exactly. How about we not take this risk, however small? We are going to risk World War III so this fucking incompetent narcissist can not have his ego bruised.

                In some ways we almost deserve World War III for electing this fucking moron. We elected a guy into a position where he can start wars because he was black and voting for a black man made us feel good. And then re-elected him for the same and other equally stupid reasons despite four years of manifest incompetence. Shit like who is President does matter to some degree. It is probably a really bad idea to elect faculty lounge idiots to the position because doing so makes us feel cool and enlightened.

                1. The cold-war-era pros would have worked behind the scenes to get Russia to make Syria behave. The fact that Russia is letting this happen (and probably supplying the chemical weapons) is a clear indication of how poorly we are running the State Department at this time.

              3. I would definitely expect to see Syria fire a bunch of Soviet-era surface-to-surface missiles against the US fleet.

                I would expect the Syrian to suddenly have a bunch of GPS jamming equipment.

                And so on.

              4. I would definitely expect to see Syria fire a bunch of Soviet-era surface-to-surface missiles against the US fleet.

                I would expect the Syrian to suddenly have a bunch of GPS jamming equipment.

                And so on.

                1. Not to mention that their SAM umbrella isn’t exactly thrift store stuff either.

                  1. We could take down the air defenses, but it would take a while. Unless you are just going to use cruise missiles, any air campaign would have to last weeks to be effective. It would have to methodically degrade their air defenses and then go after the various targets the head negro in charge wants destroyed, whatever those are.

                    There is no action other than a few symbolic cruise missiles that can be taken quickly or without risk of US casualties.

                  2. ^ that’s my concern — perhaps off base. Russian tech/manpower shoots down a plane. and it comes out its the Russians, and we revert back to the 80s.

                    1. It will be, NoVA. Everything I’ve read says the Syrians don’t know how to operate the latest weapons the Russians have sent them. Ergo, it’ll be Russian advisers running them.

                      It’s really unlikely, I think, that the Syrians can do more than shoot down a plane or two, but what if they kill a cruiser or God forbid, a carrier? Or if the Russians or U.S. get a case of the Vincennes and blast something they shouldn’t have?

                      Cue Red October quote from Fred Thompson.

                2. The other thing is too, is that ship based point defense systems have never really been tested in battle before because there havent really been any modern era naval conflicts.

                  In the one example of this, as the British found in the Falkins War, their ships were very valnerable to the French made anti-ship missiles that the argintines had despite having for at the time advanced defense systems.

    2. A Democratic president would never be party to launching America into a global conflict! Only evil people like Bush wage that kind of war.

      1. Oh, and any opposition to Syria is inspired either a.) because Bush was dumb, or b.) because racist/partisan, and therefore is less valid. I’m currently in a forum fight on the Washington Times site with someone who appears to be arguing simultaneously that:

        a. Missile strikes are a bad idea
        b. It’s Bush’s fault people are against missile strikes
        c. the Iraq War was much worse, so you should support missile strikes

        Yep. He/she/it finally said, “I don’t know who said anything about missile attacks not being an act of war, herp derp, you should probably set that person straight,” to which I gleefully replied, “Secretary of State John Kerry in testimony before Congress, you partisan hack.”

    3. I don’t think it will necessarily lead to WWIII here, but it could lead to a (likely undeclared) war between the US and Russia.

      If Russia expanded the theatre beyond Syria they would draw in the rest of NATO and given the current state of their economy/military it is unlikely that even they think they can win that war. Leave it to just “defending their ally Syria from American Aggression” and there is a very good chance they could defeat the forces that America could commit to that theatre since it is right in their backyard and we’d have to transport forces from halfway around the world to fight.

  10. Talking about bombing Syria is working just fine keeping the IRS, NSA, and Benghazi out of the news.

    1. but they have replaced it with something that people are even more pissed at. I don’t want this war any more than other people here, but I don’t think this is a wag the dog situation

  11. Nothing like an engineered war to distract the sweaty masses from the real problems at hand.

  12. Bombing will work if the object is to cause more instability in the region and then side with a winner to gain complete control over the Syrian oil pipelines. Syria has very little oil of it’s own, but a huge amount flows through those pipes … oh those pipes are calling me.

  13. 2-1 odds aint bad. It’s a necessary risk to spread some freedoms to them Syrians. In my experience, nothing is as freeing as being bombed.

  14. Publishing your evolving war plans in advance for peer review by your brothers in AQ is simply good etiquette. Who cares if it works?

    A few cruise missiles, a couple of SF fire teams, and the remaining shred of US foreign policy credibility are a pittance to pay if we can ensure that the image of Dear Leader remains intact.

    Some people will, regrettably, be killed in this exercise. And to the friends and families of our SF people, and the unlucky Syrians who catch a JDAM – well…At this point, what difference does it make anyway?

  15. The two identify and analyze all attempts to use air power to coerce countries between 1917 and 1999.

    Who was getting threatened with a grenade dropped from a biplane back in 1917?

  16. power, and the recent momentum of

  17. ould change Obama’s “calculus” about what to d

  18. ould change Obama’s “calculus” about what to d

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