There are three fallacies floating around Washington regarding a war with Syria, rhetoric that has the potential to dangerously dictate how Congress will determine authorization. A failure to address these fallacies, furthermore, puts us squarely on the cusp of another intractable war, one that risks engulfing any remaining parts of the Middle East that have yet to implode.
The first fallacy is that America has a ‘moral’ imperative, placed upon us by the international community, to do something in Syria. What is being pitched by the pro-war camp is that the world is watching and is expecting America to lead — lest some moral scale be tipped in favor of all things wicked. The messaging coming out of the White House, echoed by multiple Members of Congress, intimates an unidentifiable “other” expecting the U.S. to do something.
While the world may be watching – given our propensity to invade – they are not watching for the right reasons. Ask anyone on the streets of Baghdad, Kabul, Sana’a, Cairo or Karachi. They are not expecting America to act nobly now, as they know how that has worked out. They watched America unseat democratic leaders in Iran, support military autocracies in Egypt for decades, turn a blind eye to religious fundamentalism and gender oppression in Saudi Arabia, create and sponsor a violent mujahideen movement in Pakistan, and more. If we truly want to lead, and regain the world’s respect, correcting our inconsistencies would be a start.
We have used the “world-is-waiting-for-us-to-act” morality frame to justify invasions in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and more. In each intervention, we always claim to fight the virtuous war. Syria is no different. As former Washington Post editor and reporter, Henry Allen, said this week in the Post that beyond our battles for oil, “we fight for virtue”. We launch our missiles while simultaneously saying “we’re doing it for your own good”. And yet, according to Allen, we keep losing. He’s right. “Since World War II, says Allen, “we have failed to win any land war that lasted more than a week: Korea (a stalemate), Vietnam, little ones like Lebanon and Somalia, bigger ones like Iraq and Afghanistan….all intended to be good wars, saving people from themselves.” On Syria, then, we must resist this false moral narrative.
The second fallacy has to do with the notion that Administration-produced proof on the chemical weapons is, somehow, irrefutable. Keep in mind that there’s been no third-party verification of Administration assertions and, as Washington Post’s Walter Pincus pointed out this week, it’s time to show and tell on Syria. The Obama Administration claimed on Friday that it had “intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21”. If we want these assertions to appear credible to critics, within America or without, let’s confirm them in concert the international community, especially if we want to build consensus.
In fact, the evidence is apparently more shaky than sound. According to an investigation by McClatchy Newspapers, “the Obama administration’s public case for attacking Syria is riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence” and that Secretary of State John Kerry claims “were disputed by the United Nations, inconsistent in some details with British and French intelligence reports or lacking sufficient transparency for international chemical weapons experts to accept at face value.”
The American people want transparency from their government more than ever before. To claim, as the Administration has done in their intelligence report, that “Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred” is insufficient. This proves little. We need this evidence substantiated, especially in light of past precedent by past U.S. presidents. As both the president and secretary of state intoned, we are a war weary nation. We agree. But we are equally untrusting of multiple White Houses claiming evidence for war but failing to provide it publicly or have it verified by credible, third-party sources. This practice must change if we are to regain the American public’s trust in their government.
The third fallacy is that America is having a free and open debate in Washington about whether or not war is worth it. This is not happening. The mainstream news outlets were out in full force over the weekend, selling Barack Obama’s war. This was especially true of cable news companies like CNN, Bloomberg TV, MSNBC, as they were devoting entire shows to Syria war strategy and spin. Interestingly, it was FOX News that was more willing to discuss the Arab League opposition to a U.S. invasion, differentiating League support for a UN role in Syria from their objection to a U.S. military one.
One wonders if cable companies were called upon by the White House to sell the war. Defense Department file footage of missile strikes streamed constantly. Stories of President Clinton’s 78 days of air strikes in the former Yugoslavia (that’s nearly three months of shelling) were promulgated as exemplary humanitarian interventionism, implying that the US could replicate the same model in Syria, irrespective of vastly different facts on the ground and realities in the region. Talk shows accepted and accentuated the President’s new numbers of 1429 casualties from chemical weapons — not the 355 dead that Doctors Without Borders had researched and reported — without question. The war rooms were in full effect, with former military types cleanly and clinically mapping out – in full 3-D visualization, what an attack should, could, and would look like, how to do it, and where the targets are located.
This war will not be as clean-cut as Washington pundits and policymakers claim, which is why it is so essential that any fallacy be ferreted out sooner than later. Oscar Wilde was right: “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” A war with Syria will have some hard truths that America must face before, not after, we invade. Thus, we cannot let “morality” messaging and media spin mislead the American public into a war it doesn’t support. The time for truth-telling is now, before our Tomahawk missiles misguide us into another Middle East war that we cannot sustain.
Image courtesy of Freedom House.