The president’s efforts to whip up some enthusiasm for war in Syria are not going well. Members of Congress from both parties are reluctant to authorize military action, international opinion is almost entirely against it, and the latest revelations in the news aren’t likely to bolster the president’s case.
A story appeared Thursday in The New York Times, formerly a reliable friend of the president, which portrayed the Syrian rebels who are likely to benefit from American intervention as a bloodthirsty bunch of Islamist fanatics who have summarily executed prisoners of war and committed various other atrocities. The unsavoriness of our Syrian allies is also being widely reported in the European press, and Britain’s The Telegraph tells of the rebel’s brutal treatment of Christians in a captured town. Even the State Department is citing the rebels’ suicide bombings and frequent attacks on civilians in its warning against travel in Syria, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances to Congress that only 15 to 20 percent of the rebels are “bad guys.”
Such unfavorable coverage of our potential allies makes it hard to win support for their cause, and it also adds to the nagging doubts about who was responsible for the chemical weapons attack that is the president’s sole justification for taking action against the Syrian government. The administration is adamant that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ordered the attack, and has lately elevated its language from “a high level of confidence” to “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” but the few pages of evidence it has offered for the claim are being widely disputed. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has provided the United Nations with 100 pages of argument that the rebels launched the attack to lure America into the country’s civil war, Florida’s ultra-Democratic Rep. Al Grayson is telling anyone who will listen that evidence of Assad’s guilt has been “manipulated,” and after the failure to find stockpiles of chemical weapons in Iraq after they were offered as one reason for a war there many people in between are bound to be suspicious.
We have no fondness for Putin or Grayson, or those who insist that the intelligence reports preceding the Iraq war were deliberately deceptive, but there is a troubling plausibility to their suspicions. The Syrian rebels seem quite capable of murdering a thousand of their countrymen in a false flag operation designed to dupe an American president, the president does seem quite capable of falling for it, and it is hard to explain why Assad would cross a presidentially-declared “red line” and possibly provoke American intervention and international scorn by using chemical weapons at a time when he seemed to be winning without them. The evidence against Assad might justify a high level of confidence, but at this point it does not seem beyond the shadow of a doubt, and it would be highly embarrassing to America if proof emerges that it has punished an innocent party and brought about the victory of the guilty.
Making a case that will overcome these doubts would be hard for any president, but this one is especially ill-positioned to make it. As a candidate he had happily exploited the public’s doubt about the intelligence that led to Iraq war, insisted that presidents don’t have the constitutional authority to order military action without congressional approval, argued that favorable international opinion was also required to fight and promised that he would be the one who would win it, and has president he now has to repudiate all of it. We’re told that some sort of action is needed to restore the president’s credibility, but his credibility is already a casualty of a war that hasn’t yet begun.
— Bud Norman