Making the Case Against Syria

Members of the local Syrian community rally against the United States' involvement in Syria, Aug. 27, 2013 in Allentown, Pa. (AP Photo/Chris Post)
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Michael Hirsh
Aug. 28, 2013, 2:13 p.m.

It was per­haps the greatest “Perry Ma­son mo­ment” in the his­tory of the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil. When U.S. Am­bas­sad­or Ad­lai Steven­son chal­lenged his So­viet coun­ter­part, Va­leri­an Zor­in, to ad­mit that the USSR had in­stalled of­fens­ive mis­siles in Cuba in 1962, Zor­in replied, “I am not in an Amer­ic­an courtroom.” Steven­son swiftly re­tor­ted:  “‘You are in the courtroom of world opin­ion right now, and you can an­swer yes or no.” Us­ing pho­to­graph­ic evid­ence of So­viet mis­siles gathered from spy planes, Steven­son went on to make a power­ful case be­fore the world that the U.S. was jus­ti­fied in tak­ing hos­tile ac­tion — in this case a block­ade — against Cuba.

A little over 40 years later, in early 2003, Sec­ret­ary of State Colin Pow­ell had far less suc­cess be­fore the same U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil when he in­fam­ously dis­played a lot of trumped-up in­tel­li­gence to make the case for war against Ir­aq.

When it comes to Amer­ica’s cred­ib­il­ity, things have pretty much gone down­hill from there. And that may well be the biggest prob­lem Pres­id­ent Obama faces in the next few days.

Now Obama must put his in­tel where his mouth is — back­ing up the un­com­prom­ising as­ser­tions made by his ad­min­is­tra­tion in re­cent days that Syr­i­an dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad used chem­ic­al weapons against his own people. And the pres­id­ent will have a very high threshold to clear when he makes his case this week. It’s not just that the world re­mem­bers well how shoddy the case against Ir­aq was. Obama is also dogged by sus­pi­cions about the in­tel­li­gence that un­der­lies his ag­gress­ive drone pro­gram, and he’s un­der cri­ti­cism from gov­ern­ments around the world over how he col­lects in­tel­li­gence through the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams.

The stakes in Syr­ia are not quite as high as the Ir­aq in­va­sion, of course, and cer­tainly they are noth­ing like the Cuban Mis­sile Crisis, when nuc­le­ar war hung in the bal­ance. By most ac­counts, Obama plans a very lim­ited air strike, per­haps with cruise mis­siles, that will en­tail little risk to Amer­ic­an lives. Non­ethe­less, there is con­cern about how well the ad­min­is­tra­tion will make its case at a time when anti-Amer­ic­an feel­ings are already run­ning high in the Ar­ab world and al-Qaida-linked groups are on the rise again.

Ac­cord­ing to a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who is privy to the in­tel­li­gence case be­ing pre­pared, the plan is that “once our in­tel­li­gence com­munity has made a form­al as­sess­ment, we will provide the clas­si­fied as­sess­ment to the Con­gress, and we will make un­clas­si­fied de­tails avail­able to the pub­lic.  I ex­pect that will oc­cur some­time this week.”

Though the ad­min­is­tra­tion is be­ing vague about how the case will be presen­ted, early sig­nals in­dic­ate that it will steer clear of any­thing as dra­mat­ic or de­tailed as Pow­ell’s ap­pear­ance be­fore the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, which in­cluded highly un­usu­al ref­er­ences to Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sig­nals col­lec­tion.  “It is im­port­ant to re­mem­ber that the pro­tec­tion of sources and meth­ods must be taken in­to ac­count when the in­tel­li­gence com­munity de­term­ines what in­form­a­tion can be de­clas­si­fied and re­leased to the pub­lic,” said the of­fi­cial, who would dis­cuss the rol­lout only on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity.  “While the Con­gress will re­ceive a clas­si­fied ver­sion of the as­sess­ment that in­cludes the broad range of in­tel­li­gence col­lec­ted, the in­tel­li­gence in­form­a­tion we are able to provide pub­licly will be lim­ited in scope.”

But the Syr­i­ans along with their Rus­si­an al­lies, and even many in Con­gress, are already rais­ing ques­tions about the le­git­im­acy of an at­tack, again put­ting Obama’s cred­ib­il­ity on the line. In a let­ter to U.N. Sec­ret­ary Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon, the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment claimed that rebels them­selves are us­ing chem­ic­al weapons, and it asked the U.N. to in­vest­ig­ate that con­ten­tion. Rus­si­an for­eign min­istry spokes­man Al­ex­an­der Lukashev­ich, in a state­ment, pree­mpt­ively sug­ges­ted Obama was already at­tempt­ing to “by­pass” the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil  “to cre­ate ar­ti­fi­cial ground­less ex­cuses for a mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion.”  Xin­hua, the of­fi­cial Chinese news agency, said the West was rush­ing to con­clu­sions about who may have used chem­ic­al weapons be­fore U.N. in­spect­ors had fin­ished their in­vest­ig­a­tion.

Re­pub­lic­ans, mean­while, are be­gin­ning to de­mand in­sist that Obama get con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al for any strike. “It is es­sen­tial that you provide a clear, un­am­bigu­ous ex­plan­a­tion of how mil­it­ary ac­tion “¦  will se­cure U.S. ob­ject­ives and how it fits in­to your over­all policy,” House Speak­er John Boehner wrote in an open let­ter to Obama. ” I re­spect­fully re­quest that you, as our coun­try’s com­mand­er-in-chief, per­son­ally make the case to the Amer­ic­an people and Con­gress for how po­ten­tial mil­it­ary ac­tion will se­cure Amer­ic­an na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests.”  

It wasn’t en­tirely clear wheth­er Boehner was in­sist­ing on a con­gres­sion­al vote, but he told Obama, “it is es­sen­tial you ad­dress on what basis any use of force would be leg­ally jus­ti­fied and how the jus­ti­fic­a­tion com­ports with the ex­clus­ive au­thor­ity of Con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion un­der Art­icle I of the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment Wed­nes­day that she had already seen enough to be con­vinced. “I have been briefed by the in­tel­li­gence com­munity on last week’s chem­ic­al weapons at­tack in Syr­ia and I be­lieve the in­tel­li­gence points to an at­tack by the As­sad gov­ern­ment, not the op­pos­i­tion,” Fein­stein said. 

But the ques­tion re­mains: Will the pub­lic, and the rest of the world, see and hear enough to be as per­suaded as Fein­stein is? For­eign Policy magazine re­por­ted this week that, in ad­di­tion to the hor­rif­ic video im­agery of dead wo­men and chil­dren and chem­ic­al ana­lys­is, a key piece of evid­ence against the Syr­i­an re­gime con­sists of “in­ter­cepts” of tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions between an of­fi­cial at the Syr­i­an Min­istry of De­fense and a lead­er of a mil­it­ary chem­ic­al weapons unit. If so, the NSA was prob­ably in­volved in pick­ing up that bit of evid­ence, and in or­der to de­liv­er up his best case the pres­id­ent will have to thrust an un­pop­u­lar agency back in­to the news. 

It won’t be easy.

What We're Following See More »
VENEZUELA, NORTH KOREA ADDED
White House Announces Enhanced Vetting for Eight Countries
24 minutes ago
WHY WE CARE
"President Trump is replacing his controversial travel ban with a targeted list of restrictions that will enhance vetting for nationals from eight countries, senior administration officials announced Sunday. The eight countries on the modified list of countries are Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen."

The officials say these states failed to comply with the U.S. information-sharing requirements that aim to make vetting processes stronger.

Source:
TRUMP SPEECH “AN ASSAULT ON OUR MOST CHERISHED RIGHT”
Every NFL Team Protests Trump in Some Way
24 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"Every team that played on Sunday participated in some form of demonstration" of President Trump's comments about players who kneel during the National Anthem. Some "players, coaches and executives ... stood together arm-in-arm along the sidelines" while "others sat, knelt or raised a fist" and some entire teams "stayed in the locker room or tunnel for the duration of the anthem." The Broncos' Von Miller, who knelt with 31 of his teammates, said, "We felt like President Trump's speech was an assault on our most cherished right—freedom of speech. So, collectively we felt like we had to do something before this game."

Source:
TUESDAY ADDRESS AT GEORGETOWN
Sessions to Address Campus Free Speech
24 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"Trump isn't the only member of his administration fighting a culture war this week; his Attorney General Jeff Sessions will make a "free speech on campus address" on Tuesday at Georgetown University law school in D.C. It's going to get testy." Sessions will tell the students: "Whereas the American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas — it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos."

Source:
FAR-RIGHT MAKES BIG GAINS
Merkel Wins Reelection but Party Loses Seats
24 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"Angela Merkel will once again lead Germany, but her governing coalition is going to have to deal with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which rode a wave of anti-immigrant anger to claim a sizable chunk of seats in the Parliament for the first time. ... AfD, a hard-right, anti-Islam group not even represented in parliament in 2013, has become the third largest party. That might mean big changes to the character of a parliament that, thanks to the long shadow cast by Germany’s Nazi past, was largely free of hardline nationalism. Elsewhere, the environmentalist Greens and classical liberal, centrist Free Democrats (FDP) both grew their share of the vote," at the expense of socialists and Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Source:
VOTE TO GO FORWARD
Collins, Cruz Appear to Oppose Health Bill
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

Republican opposition to the GOP health care bill swelled to near-fatal numbers Sunday as Sen. Susan Collins all but closed the door on supporting the last-ditch effort to scrap the Obama health care law and Sen. Ted Cruz said that "right now" he doesn't back it. White House legislative liaison Marc Short and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the measure's sponsors, said Republicans would press ahead with a vote this week." Collins said she doesn't support the bill's cuts to Medicaid, while Cruz said it wouldn't do enough to lower premiums.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login