U.S. President Barack Obama’s case for punitive military action against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is haunted by events a decade ago, when his predecessor based his case for invading Iraq on false intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
After President George W. Bush took America and its allies to war in Iraq over non-existent WMDs, Obama and allied leaders must overcome heightened scrutiny of their arguments justifying retaliation against Assad’s regime for a chemical attack.
The effort is made more difficult by the fact that, so far, intelligence on Syria doesn’t absolutely prove that the Aug. 21 attack, which killed hundreds of civilians, was ordered by Assad or his top commanders.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, facing resistance to military strikes by members of both his Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party, acknowledged the credibility concerns when he spoke to the House of Commons yesterday.
“The well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode, and we need to understand the public skepticism,” said Cameron, who in the past criticized his predecessor, Tony Blair, for issuing a “dodgy dossier” on alleged Iraqi WMDs.
“The answer is we must do the right thing and in the right way,” Cameron said. “We must be sure to learn the lessons of previous conflicts.”
After Cameron spoke, the House of Commons rejected a motion endorsing, in principal, military strikes against Syria.
Obama, too, is seeking to persuade Americans and the international community that he’s not seeking a pretext to intervene in the Syrian civil war, in which the UN estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed by conventional weapons.
“We can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about,” he said Aug. 28 on PBS’s “NewsHour.”
The Iraq WMD episode “creates a very long shadow,” said Greg Thielmann, who had been a dissenting State Department intelligence official before the Iraq invasion.
“Now, particularly when the storyline has some similarities with the story line in the past, it is much harder to believe what the U.S. administration says,” Thielmann said in a phone interview.
That’s the case “even though you have some very fundamental differences, starting with a very different kind of president and an intelligence community which in some fundamental ways has reformed the kind of procedures and characteristics that led to the problem in the past,” said Thielmann, now a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington.
While the intelligence community knew that the Bush administration was set on invading Iraq and “was not interested in hearing about any kind of doubts,” Obama is “just the opposite,” he said.
“This is an administration that would much rather not have the information that it finds itself with, but is compelled to follow through on what needs to be done,” he said.
Michael Stephens, a Doha, Qatar-based research analyst for Royal United Services Institute, said the U.K. parliament’s debate makes it look “like they are they are tortured by what happened in Iraq” -- though Iraq-Syria comparisons are “very facile and incorrect.”
“It’s interesting to note that Cameron, at Parliament, cited publicly available information such as YouTube videos and humanitarian accounts to justify action on Syria,” he said. “Whereas in Iraq, intelligence was the main source of our justification for going into war.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf yesterday said there are “considerable differences” between the current Syria situation and the debate preceding the Iraq war, a conflict that the Pentagon says claimed the lives of 4,410 U.S. military personnel.
In the case of Iraq, “the U.S. was trying to prove the existence of weapons of mass destruction,” Harf said. “In Syria, we not only know they exist, but they were used.”
In making its case to the public, the administration will withhold some intelligence, such as communications intercepts, that relies on sources and methods the U.S. will want to protect. Other intelligence may be less than definitive in a war in which each side blames the other for using chemical weapons in previous smaller incidents.
“Do we know with certainty who used these vile weapons? No,” Jacques Myard, a French opposition lawmaker who sits on the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, said in an e-mailed statement. “Once bitten, twice shy: The Iraq affair remains on everyone’s mind.”
The Obama administration is preparing to present its case against the Syrian regime in what Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, calls the “most important single document in a decade.”
In February 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell presented in the UN Security Council a detailed -- and ultimately wrong -- account of Saddam Hussein’s WMD program. He has since said he regrets having presented false information that he thought at the time was correct.
The administration plans to make public, perhaps by the end of the week, an unclassified intelligence assessment that points to the culpability of the Syrian regime for the use of poison gas last week near the capital, Damascus. The report “will either redeem the reputation of the U.S. government and U.S. intelligence community or undermine it in ways that may take decades to recover from,” said Cordesman.
“Every error, every overstatement or fact in that first report that does not prove out over time, will impact on U.S. credibility indefinitely into the future,” he said in an analysis posted on the research group’s website. “The limits and flaws in what that initial report says will fuel every anti-American conspiracy theory in the region.”
Because the intelligence is limited, inconclusive and in some cases contradictory, the best the administration may be able to do is hold the dictatorial Syrian government -- not Assad himself -- responsible for everything that happens with its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, three U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.
That was the course Obama took in the interview with PBS, saying: “We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”
Similarly, Britain’s intelligence assessment made public yesterday was hedged. It found “no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility.” What remains unclear, the assessment said, is Assad’s “precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence, the three U.S. officials said intercepted Syrian communications provide no conclusive evidence that Assad or members of his inner circle ordered the attack, and two of them said the intercepts indicate that he didn’t know about it in advance and demanded that his subordinates explain what had happened.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the leaders of other U.S. agencies will be blunt in pointing out what the U.S. doesn’t know with certainty as well as what it knows with “high confidence,” in intelligence parlance, the three officials said.
A fourth U.S. official, alluding to the Bush administration’s use of false intelligence, expressed concern that Obama administration officials have gotten ahead of the evidence in trying to pin responsibility on Assad.
A team of UN weapons inspectors, which was already in Damascus when last week’s attack occurred, will provide an independent assessment of chemical weapons use, though it’s not empowered to determine who was responsible. The Bush administration disparaged a UN weapons team in Iraq when it failed to find evidence of WMDs before the invasion.
“This is not like Iraq; what we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different,” Cameron said in the House of Commons yesterday.
“We are not invading a country, we are not searching for chemical or biological weapons,” he told lawmakers. “The fact the Syrian government has and has used chemical weapons is beyond doubt.”
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