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.
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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."

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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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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