Can Obama Make the Case for an Attack on Syria?

With America's credibility tarred, persuading anyone other than France and Britain will be difficult.
Demonstrators hold placards outside the Houses of Parliament in London August 29, 2013. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

It was perhaps the greatest "Perry Mason moment" in the history of the UN Security Council. When U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson challenged his Soviet counterpart, Valerian Zorin, to admit that the U.S.S.R 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."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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