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
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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.

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