Thursday, August 29, 2013

Syria intelligence: "Undeniable," but not "slam dunk?"

This morning, the Associated Press reported, Intelligence on Weapons No Slam Dunk. And it's first sentence is a doozy, "The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no 'slam dunk,' with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say." Now I don't want to get all metaphysical here, but that sure doesn't go along with Secretary of State John Kerry's claim that the intelligence was "undeniable."

I was directed to the article by "bloody good war" proponent Jonathan Chait who is now a bit concerned about the whole thing, Obama Better Have the Goods on Syria. His caution is understandable. Even if Syria used chemical weapons on its people, the United States doesn't have a great justification for bombing them:

The clearest justifications for military action don't apply. This is not a case of self-defense, or defense of an ally, or the prevention of genocide. There is an international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but Syria didn't sign it, perhaps correctly calculating that it would one day need to use such weapons. We would be enforcing an informal norm against the use of chemical weapons against civilians. 

Chait goes on to explain that he still thinks that enforcing this norm is a good idea. But you have to wonder: does the United States have the moral authority to do this? After all, we've done nothing while chemical weapons were being used in the past. In fact, we've even provided at least tacit approval. That doesn't stop us from starting a new policy, of course. But I seriously doubt that we would do anything if it was a despot we liked better or even just one that isn't on The List.

Supposedly, the Obama administration is going to present its evidence against Syria today. And I understand that people like Chait really do care that we get this right. But does it really matter? Remember Colin Powell's slam dunk at the United Nations? It doesn't much matter what the administration says. If they say it forcefully enough, the US press will shout headlines like "Undeniable!" And intelligence officers will privately shake their heads and mutter, "Here we go again."

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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