As Britain pushes the case at the United Nations for bombing Syria's military to protect civilians from chemical weapons attacks, the Obama administration is beginning to unveil its evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been using poison gas against his own people.
Exhibit A is reportedly a phone call between two Syrian military commanders that was intercepted following an attack last week that killed hundreds of people behind rebel lines outside Damascus. The U.S. plans to unveil more information as soon as Thursday when it declassifies an intelligence report on how the attack was carried out.
Unsurprisingly, skeptics are drawing connections between the administration's justification for possible missile strikes against Syria and the faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, which was used to rally support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Hans Blix, who was the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector in Iraq from 2000 to 2003, says the WMD issue is a "poor excuse" for a foreign military intervention in Syria. The U.S. and its allies, he says, are getting ahead of due process in Syria as surely as they did in Iraq.
"If the aim is to stop the breach of international law and to keep the lid on others with chemical weapons," Blix tells The Huffington Post, "military action without first waiting for the U.N. inspector report is not the way to go about it."
Blix isn't alone. Alan Reynolds at National Review says that the U.S. appears to be jumping the gun, especially since there have been suspicions that Syrian rebels have launched chemical attacks, too. If nothing else, Reynolds says, the parallels between the certainty expressed by the Bush and Obama administrations should serve as a reminder that it is far easier to rush into armed conflict than it is to get out. "The last WMD hysteria rationalized nearly nine years of war," Reynolds says. "One simple lesson of the Iraq War should not have to be relearned: Haste makes waste."
But there are key differences between Syria in 2013 and Iraq in 2003. As Jay Newton-Small at TIME says, "Obama, who ran on a platform in 2008 of ending Bush's wars in the Middle East, isn't Bush, and there are important distinctions between the two scenarios."
For one thing, Newton-Small says, Bush was selling a massive, open-ended invasion aimed at regime change, while Obama is merely trying to protect civilians by sending Assad the clear message that he will pay dearly for violating treaties banning the use of poison gas. And, she says, while Bush charged in over the objections of much of Europe — remember Freedom Fries? — and the entire Arab world except Kuwait, Obama has more support, including the possible participation of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
And there is another, more compelling, argument for dismissing comparisons between Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, weapons inspectors questioned whether Saddam really had a WMD stockpile, or was trying to build one — directly contradicting much of the U.S. intelligence. "In the case of Syria, however, no country — not even Assad's allies — question that the regime has stockpiled massive amounts of chemical weapons," Michael Wilner points out at The Jerusalem Post.
So while the outcome of hitting Syria's military with a volley of missiles might be uncertain, one thing Obama and his allies don't have to worry about is the embarrassment of finding out that Assad didn't really have WMD after all.
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