From left, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey, US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the first hearing on Syria held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3, 2013. (AP Photo)
Maybe the cruise missiles will fly on September 11: wouldn’t that be grand?
It was eleven years ago, a year after September 11, 2001, in the runup to war in Iraq—and my, how time flies—when I published a piece about what George W. Bush was doing to Americans’ power to exercise their muscles for critical citizenship. It began by recording Richard M. Nixon’s envy at Chinese commissars who got to decide what would be in the next day’s People’s Daily. George Bush, too: “Dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier,” he’d said a few months before expressing how impressed he was when China’s President Jiang Zemin ended a joint news conference with him by walking away after the second question. I called the piece “Surrender to Trust,” and in it I tried to pound some basic points of democratic theory: “Secrecy and power are intimates: Both tend to corrupt; both, when absolute, tend to corrupt absolutely; and both can steal up like an addiction. The cover-up, even of an innocent error, can be worse than the crime. That is why any break in any check or balance in our constitutional power structure should make the front page. Every time. But they almost never do.”
Maybe we’re a little bit better now. But maybe not. “With the World Watching, Syria Amassed Nerve Gas,” Judith Miller’s old paper headlined yesterday. But they didn’t really offer any evidence. John Kerry and Barack Obama now say the evidence is indisputable that President Assad ordered a chemical attack. But listen to Congressman Alan Grayson’s devastating argument from Saturday: “The documentary record regarding an attack on Syria consists of just two papers: a four-page unclassified summary and a 12-page classified summary. The first enumerates only the evidence in favor of the attack”—and “cites intercepted telephone calls, ‘social media’ postings, and the like, but not one of these is actually quoted or attached.”
He says, “I’m not allowed to tell you what’s in the classified summary, but you can draw your conclusion.” (My conclusion, duh: Grayson’s trying to tell us that the extra eight pages add nothing important.) The House Intelligence Committee told him there was no other documentation available for him to examine prior to his vote. That committee hasn’t received access to the intelligence reports on which the conclusions are based.
Grayson notes a media report “that the Obama administration had selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes in Syria, with one report ‘doctored so that it leads a reader to just the opposite conclusion reached by the original report’ ”—the conclusion was that some evidence suggests that Assad didn’t himself know about the chemical weapon attack, which may have taken place in defiance of the orders of his general staff.
He writes that John Kerry “has said repeatedly that this administration isn’t trying to manipulate the intelligence reports the way that the Bush administration did to rationalize its invasion of Iraq.”
In other words, Kerry says, Trust me.
The American people seem to get it. According to polls, they’re saying, No way. Do Democratic congressional representatives get it? Not enough, I’m afraid. On NPR, the bright young comer Adam Schiff of California says, “I’m convinced about the evidence. I think there’s really compelling evidence that Assad has gassed his own people, and not once but multiple times; this being the worst occasion. I also think that a military strike could have the effect of deterring him from doing it again.” But, oops, not even United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power seems particularly confident about that.
Kerry then suggested maybe Russia’s proposal to give Assad a chance to turn over any chemical weapons wasn’t such a bad idea—that if this happened, America’s objective would be achieved. Then, basically, a spokesman said: just kidding. He “was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.” That’s George W. Bush–style thinking—that the administration’s mind is made up: a bad guy is a bad guy, and if you entertain any possibility of rationality on the part of evildoers, you’re just being a naive sucker.
But that’s not how the founders of our nation wanted it. They didn’t want us to trust any politician. As I wrote, “Our Federalist Papers forefathers once wrote something wise enough to deserve to be affixed to our civic doorposts: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.’ We need not wonder whether [the president] is angelic to make the point: Both external and internal controls are falling by the wayside in this White House.” Only it was eleven years ago, and I was writing—then—about George Bush.
When the president speaks, think about this: after a day when the The New York Times writes about an activist journalist arrested and threatened with over a hundred years in jail for linking to a URL the security establishment didn’t like, and with a White House that demands unprecedented power over reporters to change quotes at will, I don’t see any reason the arguments we used to make about George Bush and trust don’t apply equally to Barack Obama as well. Listen to Grayson: why should we trust Obama? After all, he clearly doesn’t trust us.
Greg Mitchell reviews public opinion polls on intervention in Syria.