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 »
Bill Murray Crashes White House Briefing Room
8 hours ago

In town to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center, Bill Murray casually strolled into the White House Briefing Room this afternoon. A spokesman said he was at the executive mansion for a chat with President Obama, his fellow Chicagoan.

CFPB Decision May Reverberate to Other Agencies
11 hours ago

"A federal appeals court's decision that declared the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau an arm of the White House relies on a novel interpretation of the constitution's separation of powers clause that could have broader effects on how other regulators" like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
12 hours ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
1 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
1 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.


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.