If the arguments being presented by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for attacking Syria seem increasingly shrill and disjointed that might well be because a legitimate case cannot be made for going to war. The central argument—i.e., that punishing al-Assad will “change his calculus” and dissuade him from using chemical weapons against rebel forces embedded within the civilian population—relies on demonstrating that al-Assad has already done just that, a case that has not been credibly made thus far. Nor would a “shot across the bow” strike be likely to influence the thinking of a regime that theoretically might find itself with its back against the wall, willing to use all resources at hand to defeat a ruthless enemy. Still less does the argument that Washington must act lest the chemical weapons fall into the hands of terrorists and be used against American and other Western targets convince. Such a scenario is much more likely if the rebels, who undeniably include many extremists, are empowered through military action to such an extent that they might eventually triumph. If Washington wishes to prevent possible weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists, it should be doing everything it can to support the Syrian government. Any scenario that involves attacking the very soldiers who are presumably guarding the chemical weapons is a recipe for disaster.
As has often been the case in other situations over the past 12 years, Washington has maneuvered itself into a new crisis because it is failing to see the Syrian situation in all its complexity, preferring simple solutions that do not involve any commitment or long-term strategic planning. One former intelligence colleague has called it “a very poorly defined problem” that will not be solved by lobbing a few Tomahawk cruise missiles towards Damascus. That is the issue precisely—failing to understand what the problem is frustrates any attempt to devise a reasonable solution.
It should be no secret by now that much of the U.S. intelligence community is troubled by the quality of the information being used to justify a new war in the Middle East. It should also surprise no one to learn that former and current intelligence officers network and share information. For what it’s worth, one circle that I connect with has been buzzing over the past week with a discussion of the intelligence produced by the administration to justify war. A preponderance of roughly ten to one of our correspondents believe that the administration’s case for military intervention is greatly flawed, judging by the intelligence that has so far been revealed to justify an attack. The several dissenters from that view agree that the administration argument as expressed in its brief “Government Assessment” is lacking in corroborative detail and is a poorly written political document that pretends to be an intelligence assessment. But they are not yet at the point where they can support any single one of the alternative explanations for what took place in Syria three weeks ago and are willing to give the White House the benefit of the doubt. Which is not intended to suggest that anyone thinks that attacking Syria is desirable, either from a political, military, or practical point of view.
Read the rest of the article at the American Conservative.