The Obama administration tottered on the edge of launching a cruise missile attack on Syria this past August and September. Obama hesitated and decided to seek congressional approval before blowing up many targets on the Syrian landscape. After Americans made it loud and clear that they did not want another war, congressional opposition helped curb his bellicosity. But he came close to plunging the United States into another war, and the episode provides warnings for the next foreign-policy brouhaha.
After it accused the Syrian regime of launching a chemical-weapons attack that killed masses of civilians, the administration harangued Americans to support going to war on the basis of blind faith in the president’s character and wisdom. On August 28, a front-page Washington Post headline blared, “Proof Against Assad at Hand.” But that hand remained hidden. On a Sunday talk show on September 8, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough admitted that the administration lacked evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” proving that the Syrian regime had carried out the gas attack. But McDonough asserted, “The common-sense test says [Assad] is responsible for this. He should be held to account.”
But was it “common sense” for Americans to accept Obama’s case for war even though his administration’s numbers were even shakier than its explanations for last year’s Benghazi debacle? Secretary of State John Kerry was emphatic that Assad’s alleged gas attack on August 21 had killed 1,429 people, including 426 children. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared, “With this 1,400, he crossed a line with using chemical weapons.”
The Los Angeles Times noted, “The casualty figures are important because the administration is resting its case for military action in part on the scale of the attack.” But no credible sources invoked such high casualty numbers. The French and British concluded that only a few hundred people were killed in that attack, as did the nonprofit organization, Doctors Without Borders. The Los Angeles Times reported that the most reliable source on local casualties — the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — scoffed at the administration’s 1,429 number as wildly exaggerated. Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of that organization, explained, “America works only with one part of the [Syrian] opposition that is deep in propaganda.”
McDonough sought to buttress his “common sense” test by declaring that “nobody is rebutting the intelligence; nobody doubts the intelligence” purportedly showing that Assad carried out the attack. But that was a brazen falsehood: several members of Congress who attended confidential briefings on the case for attacking Syria found the Obama team’s evidence either circumstantial or shaky. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) commented,
The evidence is not as strong as the public statements that the president and the administration have been making. There are some things that are being embellished in the public statements. The [classified] briefings have actually made me more skeptical about the situation.
The Obama team has continually asserted that the Assad regime possesses chemical weapons. Apparently, that charge alone was supposed to establish the regime’s guilt in the August attack. But should Americans use the same standard to judge federal agencies? The Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies have recently purchased hundreds of millions of rounds of ammunition, helping to spark a nationwide ammo shortage. Does “common sense” prove that the feds will soon commence warring on the American people?
The administration relied on pictures of supposed victims to justify attacking the Assad regime. On September 9, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power tweeted, “Video from Senate Intelligence Committee classified briefing on Syria. Such searing suffering. Such clear evidence.” If prosecutors could use the same ploy — merely showing a photo of a corpse and then pointing at a supposed perp — every murder trial would end in a conviction. But judicial procedures developed over the centuries because the civilized world recognized the folly of executing people solely on the basis of accusations of government officials. Apparently, the worse the alleged atrocity, the lower the standard of proof should be.
The Obama administration’s “common sense” also insisted that attacking Syria would boost American “credibility.” But unless “credibility” is defined solely as assuring the world that the president of the United States can kill foreigners on a whim, that is a poor bet. This type of credibility is more appropriate for a drunken brawl in a bar than for international relations.
Did “common sense” require assuming that Obama was more honest on Syria than on the NSA? It was only a few months earlier that administration officials ridiculed people who accused the National Security Agency of illegally vacuuming up millions of Americans’ emails and phone records. After NSA internal documents began leaking out three months ago, Obama ludicrously asserted that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court is “transparent” and denied that the U.S. government has a “domestic spying program.”
American history has not been kind to the standard the Obama team invoked for going to war. It was “common sense” that the Spanish government blew up the USS Maine in the Havana harbor in 1898 — even though that pretext for war never held water. It was “common sense” that the North Vietnamese attacked U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 — even though Pentagon officials quickly recognized that Lyndon Johnson was lying about that incident. It was “common sense” to assume that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — even though American intelligence had serious doubts. It was “common sense” to assume that toppling Muammar Qadaffi would bring peace to Libya — though the result has been chaos and the triumph of terrorist cohorts.
Nor is there good reason to expect the U.S. government to be honest about an alleged atrocity that the president invokes to sanctify his foreign policy. For instance, during World War II the Roosevelt administration worked ceaselessly to present Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as a friendly quasi-democratic type — “Uncle Joe.” However, in 1940, after the Soviets seized much of Poland, the Soviets executed 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn Forest in western Russia. When the German army discovered the mass grave site in 1943, the Roosevelt administration rushed to blame the killings on the Nazis.
Whitewashing the Katyn Forest massacre helped blindfold both American policymakers and the American public regarding the brutality of the Soviet Union. That deceit helped the Soviets cement control of Poland and other East European nations after World War II.
Last year, the National Archives finally declassified a thousand pages of documents that exposed the U.S. government coverup of Soviet responsibility. The Associated Press noted, “The White House maintained its silence on Katyn for decades, showing an unwillingness to focus on an issue that would have added to political tensions with the Soviets during the Cold War.” The record showed that the United States had plenty of proof from 1943 onwards that the Soviets were guilty. But when Polish-American radio stations in Detroit and Buffalo began broadcasting the details of the killings during World War II the Roosevelt administration “brusquely silenced them,” as historian Thomas Fleming noted in his book The New Dealers’ War.
Last year’s revelations happened in large part because of pressure from U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, whose Ohio district includes many Polish Americans. It took 69 years for the U.S. government to disclose that it had deceived the American people regarding one of the war’s landmark atrocities.
If it takes as long to find out what the U.S. government knew regarding recent alleged Syrian attacks, we will not have the full story until 2082. And perhaps our descendants will not even learn the truth then unless there are members of Congress who bludgeon the facts out of the government’s archives.
Does “common sense” demand that Americans now defer to politicians who want to start unnecessary wars? “Presidents have lied so much to us about foreign policy that they’ve established almost a common-law right to do so,” George Washington University history professor Leo Ribuffo observed in 1998. And the more power government seizes, the more easily it can suppress the truth. Obama has aggressively used the “state secrets” doctrine to cover up the U.S. government’s involvement in torture and other high crimes. There is no reason to expect he would be more candid regarding an opportunity to showcase his moral greatness by killing supposed bad guys.
What would have happened if an American cruise missile inadvertently struck a Syrian oil refinery or other flammable target and ten thousand civilians perished in the resulting explosion? A White House official would presumably issue a statement of regret while assuring Americans that the blame for the deaths rested with the Assad regime, since it had angered Obama.
Unfortunately, if Obama had whacked Syria, it would have been effectively impossible to hold him legally liable for any wrongful killings. In 1998 Bill Clinton launched a missile strike against a Sudan pill producer after U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. After the U.S. government failed to offer any evidence linking its target in Sudan to the terrorist attacks, the owners of Sudan’s largest pharmaceutical factory sued for compensation for damage. In 2009 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decreed, “President Clinton, in his capacity as commander in chief, fired missiles at a target of his choosing to pursue a military objective he had determined was in the national interest. Under the Constitution, this decision is immune from judicial review.” As long as the president or spokesmen claim benevolent motives, any killings are legally sacrosanct.
America cannot afford another “trust me” war based on secret evidence. Lies subvert democracy by crippling citizens’ ability to rein in government. Citizens are left clueless about perils until it is too late for the nation to pull back. Regardless of Obama’s lofty invocations, there is no such thing as retroactive self-government. And citizens cannot afford to trust Obama-style “common sense, ” which unleashes politicians to wreak havoc around the globe.
This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.