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To be charitable to President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry et al, their case for starting war against Syria now is no worse than Bill Clinton’s and Madeleine Albright’s excuse for attacking Serbia in 1999 or George W. Bush’s and Colin Powell’s justification for attacking Iraq in 2003. It is slightly better than the Gleiwitz incident (August 31, 1939), immediately followed by Germany’s attack on Poland, or the Red Army’s shelling of Mainila three months later, which preceded Stalin’s attack on Finland. It is almost as good a casus belli as the 1898 sinking of USS Maine, or the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The Administration’s stated case—that Syrian government forces used sarin gas on August 21 to kill 1,429 people, including 426 children—is scandalously weak. The claim that there exists additional classified evidence, which is ironclad but cannot be disclosed at this time, is worthless. The suspicion that the attack was a rebel false-flag operation carried out in order to provoke foreign intervention not only makes sense, it is now supported by fresh evidence which is under-reported and at least worth some scrutiny. The projectiles apparently used in the attack on August 21 were rockets of a do-it-yourself type which could have been made by the rebels. The White House assertion that “Syrian regime has the types of munitions that we assess were used to carry out the attack on August 21” is therefore meaningless. It does; so does the other side.
“We assess the Syrian opposition does not have the capability to fabricate all of the videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs, and other information associated with this chemical attack,” the Administration says, overlooking that fact that the rebels have been producing increasingly sophisticated propaganda videos for years. As noted in The Washington Blog’s point-by-point rebuttal of U.S. case for war, posted on September 3, no one is saying that the tragic and horrific deaths were faked. “The question is when and where they occurred, and who caused them.” It quotes one of the world’s leading experts on chemical weapons, who points out that it is difficult to know how to interpret the videos: “It doesn’t tell me who would be responsible for it. It doesn’t tell me where the films were taken. It just tells me that something has happened, somewhere, at some point.”
The cheat sheet on Syria was impressively long even before the White House formally presented its case on August 30. “We assess that the opposition has not used chemical weapons,” says the latest White House missive. Interesting wording, which leaves open the possibility that “the opposition” has used deadly yet non-weapons-grade chemicals. As it happens, the rebels have had access to chemical weapons for a long time, and have almost certainly used them. (Of course, on the basis of Syria’s freedom fighters’ treatment of POWs, Christians, and other unreliable elements Washington may have “assessed” that “the opposition” would not even dream of committing war crimes—such as using lethal gas—in pursuit of discrete political ends.)
The numbers first. How does John Kerry know that the figures “1,429” and “426” are correct? The only attribution was “a preliminary government assessment.” The term “preliminary” is hardly consistent with such numerical precision. It is at 4:1 odds with the British assessment of “at least 350 fatalities” and at 5:1 variance from the latest French intelligence report, issued on September 2, which claimed 281 fatalities. Even the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a pro-rebel group – claimed no more than “at least 322” deaths. Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that Kerry was “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” which Obama was then forced to round off at “well over 1,000 people,” thus creating “a mix of contradictions over the most basic facts.” Cordesman added that all this was reminiscent of “the mistakes the U.S. made in preparing Secretary [Colin] Powell’s speech to the U.N. on Iraq in 2003.”
If the numbers are suspect, then every other claim should be assumed to be false until proven otherwise. A case in point is the Obama administration’s claim that the UN inspection team arrived too late for the findings to be credible, and that in any event could not provide any information that the United State didn’t already have. This is not true. The claim was flatly contradicted by the United Nations as early as August 27: “A delay in accessing the site is not believed to negatively affect the investigation. Speaking to journalists in New York, a UN spokesperson said that ‘with hundreds of human fatalities, the passage of such few days does not affect the opportunities to collect valuable samples and to perform witness interviews.’ For example, Sarin can be detected in biomedical samples up to months following its use, he added.”
Foreign forensics teams sent to northern Iraq in 1992 found traces of sarin and mustard gas four years after Saddam had used them. Just like in Iraq in 2002-2003, we are witnessing a concerted attempt by the government of the United States to discredit and derail UN weapons inspectors, and to dismiss their findings even before they are presented, if they are suspected of not being willing to rubber-stamp Washington’s own assertions.
“We assess with high confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” the White House says, “based on multiple streams of information including reporting of Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks and laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin.” In fact chemical weapons experts are skeptical and the chain of custody is suspect. We are not told where the samples came from, when they were taken, who delivered them to the U.S. or what was the methodology of American intelligence gathering.
Especially intriguing is the administration’s assertion that U.S. intelligence had “collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence” that showed the regime preparing for a chemical attack three days before August 21, with regime personnel coming to an area known to be used to “mix chemical weapons, including sarin,” and that Syrian army soldiers prepared for the attack by putting on gas masks. The implication is that as early as August 18 the United States had reason to believe that a chemical attack was being prepared, but failed to warn its rebel friends of the danger. “[T]hey knew three days before the attack and never alerted anyone in the area,” says Siyad Ziyadeh, a pro-rebel activist who runs the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Everyone was watching this evidence but didn’t take any action?” If the U.S. really had reason to suspect that an attack is imminent three days before it happened, the response was very different from the alarm that the Administration raised last December over Syria’s alleged preparation for a chemical attack. If the claim is true, the absence of warning is indicative either of criminal indolence or else of the desire to let Assad tighten the noose around his neck – never mind the dead.
A series of unsupported claims, opinions, and outright non-sequiturs are presented by the Administration as factual evidence. “We assess that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory,” the White House statement says:
“In this regard, we continue to judge that the Syrian regime views chemical weapons as one of many tools in its arsenal, including air power and ballistic missiles, which they indiscriminately use against the opposition. The Syrian regime has initiated an effort to rid the Damascus suburbs of opposition forces using the area as a base to stage attacks against regime targets in the capital. The regime has failed to clear dozens of Damascus neighborhoods of opposition elements, including neighborhoods targeted on August 21, despite employing nearly all of its conventional weapons systems. We assess that the regime’s frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21.”
As noted in The Washington Blog’s rebuttal, this is “like claiming Saddam was using weapons of mass destruction right before the Iraq war started, without refuting the actual fact that Saddam didn’t have any WMDs.” As for the claim that on August 21 “a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including the utilization of gas masks,” it should be recalled that Assad has repeatedly warned that the rebels might use chemical weapons on civilians. The use of gas masks “could have been a preventative measure because the Syrian government had received word that the rebels might carry out a chemical attack.”
The White House case smacks of despair at times. Its “multiple streams of intelligence” include alleged evidence “that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21”: “Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.”
The Washington Blog stresses that the area in which attacks occurred was heavily contested by the both government and the rebels, and both sides were in and out of the area. Ninety minutes before the first attack is “an eternity” in a heavily-contested battlefield, and would have provided plenty of time for rebels to slip in and fire off chemical weapons. As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has wondered, “Do rockets take 90 minutes to reach their targets? Does nerve gas escape from rockets 90 minutes after impact, or, once released, take 90 minutes to cause symptoms?” No social media-savvy pro-rebel tweeter or blogger would wait an hour and a half before reporting a momentous event after which, as Kerry put it, “all hell broke loose in the social media.” There is no logical link between the “rocket barrages” and the reports of gassing.
A decision to go to war requires at least as much scrutiny and as high a standard of proof as a criminal trial. In no civilized country would an accused be convicted on the basis of evidence as unreliable, as tainted and misleading, as the U.S. government’s stated case for war against Syria remains five days after its unveiling. Ultimately the strength of evidence is irrelevant even if the government in Damascus had carried out the gas attack on August 21, it would have been absurd for the U.S. to go to war over it.
THE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEM is that we have had a disconnect between the ends and means of American power for decades. The question “What should we do” about Syria (or Egypt, Iran, North Korea etc.) produces ad-hoc responses in Washington—unrelated to the broad picture —which have one thing in common: “we” must do something. The most important questions facing political decision-makers, foreign-policy practitioners, and their advisors are invariably discussed in isolation from each other. America’s grand strategy is never mentioned.
Grand strategy is an overall blueprint for action that matches a state’s resources to its vital interests. A sound grand strategy enables a state to deploy its political, military, economic, and moral resources in a balanced and proportionate manner, in order to protect and enhance its security and promote its well-being. It is the brains behind diplomacy and military power: if a viable grand strategy is articulated, no actual or potential hot spot will be considered in isolation from others, and apart from the broad picture.
Great Britain successfully pursued a grand strategy during the two centuries that separate the War of the Spanish Succession from Versailles. That strategy had two pillars: the maintenance of a Continental balance of power and the development of a maritime trading empire, with unhindered access to vital resources and markets secured by a mighty navy. Britain’s crisis-response strategies—in the wars against Napoleon, in the naval race with Germany, and during the July Crisis of 1914—were clearly correlated to this grand strategy. Disputes over policy details could be contentious at times; on the fundamentals of higher strategy, however, the British political class maintained a solid consensus until after the Great War.
The Third Reich and the Soviet Union after Stalin were powers devoid of grand strategy. Until the attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler was a successful opportunist; thereafter, a doomed dilettante. Conquering the eastern Lebensraum, while murdering and enslaving millions of Untermenschen in the process, was not a grand strategy but a demonic vision doomed to failure. Having run out of ideological appeal abroad and economic and social dynamism at home during Stalin’s final years, the Soviet Union could not win the Cold War. Its piecemeal strategies of subverting the West and promoting Marxist insurgencies in the Third World were a poor substitute for a grand strategy that needed to be defensive to prolong the Soviet state’s life. Its adversaries recognized the extent of its fundamental weaknesses only toward the very end.
In its infancy, the American Republic was an autarkic continental power pursuing a limited grand strategy. Its rationale was summed up by George Washington when he warned the United States to preserve her fortunate distance from the affairs of other countries and not to enter into lasting pacts with them: “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” The same strategic vision was echoed by John Quincy Adams, who noted approvingly that America “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings . . . But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” These were rational statements by geopolitical realists. They were comfortable with the idea of a U.S. monopoly on power in the Western Hemisphere, but free from the present-day delusion that America herself is the embodiment of some “principles.”
The conquest of the West and the rapid growth of industrial capitalism created the conditions for a paradigm shift, which was articulated in the strategic vision of Alfred Thayer Mahan. His emphasis on sea power signaled a reinvention of Manifest Destiny in the guise of imperialism. After 1898, America emerged as the third naval power in the world, with overseas possessions and protectorates, bases and coaling stations. Her grand strategy came to resemble that of Great Britain. The parallel expansion of political, financial, and economic power—primarily in Latin America—fortified and extended her traditional hemispheric sphere of influence.
Lord Bryce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913, quipped that “the subject of foreign policy in the United States is like the subject of snakes in Ireland.” He was wrong: America may have entered the century without a mature apparatus for managing her foreign policy, but Theodore Roosevelt changed that and made her a great power. He also sowed the seeds of two unfortunate heresies: the notion that the exportation of American values would have a redeeming effect on the world, and the tendency of the chief executive to bypass Congress while aggressively pursuing his foreign schemes. “We may be replacing Britain as the gyroscope of world order,” Col. Edward House declared at a time when Woodrow Wilson was busy devising his grand schemes for a new postwar order.
The boast was premature. It was only after 1945 that the United States started assuming British security responsibilities, but the Wilsonian Conceit was only temporarily shelved. World War II transformed America from a great power into one of two global superpowers. The objective was not balance, but worldwide containment; the alliances were fixed; the paradigm was a zero-sum game. In the end, the grand strategy based on George Kennan’s “long telegram” was successful, but America was fundamentally transformed during that half-century. With the rise of the military-industrial-congressional complex and the imperial presidency, the republic morphed into the national-security state, and—most recently—into the Surveillance State.
After the Cold War it made sense to disarm and “come home,” but the process proved to be irreversible, and foreign-policy elites opted for the historically unprecedented model of unipolar global hegemony. Having declared itself the leader of an imaginary “international community” in the 1990’s, the U.S. government started treating the entire world as an American sphere of interest. Under Bill Clinton came the expansion of NATO and the Kosovo war—neither of them justifiable in grand-strategic terms. The formal codification of hyperpower hegemonism came in September 2002 with George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy. It claimed the right of unilateral American action against “rogue states” and “potentially hostile powers,” in pursuit of an end to “destructive national rivalries.” Such audacious goals required the United States “to keep military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”
The Obama administration’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance was a rehash of the strategic assumptions of the Bush era. In Obama’s words, our “enduring national interest” is to maintain the unparalleled U.S. military superiority, “ready for the full range of contingencies and threats” amid “a complex and growing array of security challenges across the globe.” The Guidance itself asserted that the task of the U.S. was to “confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.”
This is not a strategy, let alone a grand strategy, but a blueprint for disaster—especially when combined with the urge to “confront and defeat”… not only “aggression” but also bloodshed and violations of human rights resulting from internal conflicts (Egypt, Syria) and putative threats to regional stability (Iran). It does not accept any limits of American power and does not correlate that power with this country’s security and prosperity. It is inflexible and fails to balance military and nonmilitary, short and long-term capabilities. It rejects the fact that the world is becoming multipolar again while the relative power of the United States is in steady decline.
The absence of a viable grand strategy produces policies that are disjointed, nonsensical, and self-defeating. Had Saddam stayed in power, Iraq would have acted as a significant check on the spread of Iranian influence. Instead, following the U.S. withdrawal, Iraq is emerging as Iran’s key regional ally. The Shi’ite-controlled government has provided Iran with crucial flow of foreign currency at a time when sanctions were squeezing its economy; and it has allowed Iranian planes to use Iraqi airspace to ferry supplies to Syria. Not having a grand strategy, the United States went to war in Iraq for all the wrong reasons, and the intervention distorted the regional balance to the benefit of Iran. A similar result will ensue from the U.S. government’s policy of providing al-Qaeda with an air and missile force against Bashar al-Assad.
Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last Monday that if there is no U.S. attack on Syria “the regime is going to use chemical weapons and to kill, I’m afraid to say that in the coming days, not coming weeks, to kill more than 20,000 or 30,000 people, of our people … and that’s why we are waiting now for our friends in the Congress to make the right decision to support the president’s decision.” In other words, it is an even bet that there will be another attack, just in time for the congressional debate. (Idris also denied that if the U.S. were to send weapons they could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda, claiming—falsely—that only a small fraction of rebel fighters were linked to terrorist groups, and promising “any kind of guarantee” that aid from the U.S. would only go to the right hands.)
At a time of domestic financial weakness and cultural decline, the American interest requires prudence, restraint, and a rational link between ends and means. Abroad, it demands disengagement from distant countries of which we know little; at home, a sane immigration policy. Making Syria safe for jihad is as idiotic—and almost as ruinous to America’s future—as granting amnesty to twenty-odd million mostly unassimilable illegal aliens.
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