Rhetorical ‘red line’ on Syria clearly crossed

US Letter: memory of Iraq has raised standards of scrutiny and proof in military matters

Ake Sellstrom (C), the head of a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team, stands outside Yousef al-Azma military hospital in Damascus. Photograph: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

Ake Sellstrom (C), the head of a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team, stands outside Yousef al-Azma military hospital in Damascus. Photograph: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri


As the United States readies itself for a military strike against Syria’s Assad regime that is becoming more inevitable by the day, the Obama administration has taken the brunt of scrutiny that was absent a decade ago when George W Bush justified war in Iraq on evidence that was later proved to be wrong.

A feisty exchange at the state department’s daily press briefing on Thursday summed up the lengths the media in the US is going to probe the administration that the evidence to support military action this time around is irrefutable.

The briefing room at the department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters in downtown Washington can be lively most of the time as reporters shoot rapid-fire questions at well-prepared spokespeople.

On Thursday, spokeswoman Marie Harf, a formidable performer, made clear at the outset that US intelligence supported two claims – that chemical weapons were used on August 21st in the attack on a suburb of Damascus controlled by the opposition in Syria; and that the Assad regime was responsible for that use. She later said the intelligence gathered by the Americans supports these “two facts”.

Facts vs claims
One reporter jumped on her use of the words “claims” and “facts”, pointing out that many claims can later be shown to be untrue but that a fact is incontrovertible. “You do this very slick thing where you go from supporting claims to facts,” he said. “I’m not actually trying to be slick here,” Harf responded.

The discussion about semantics continued when Harf was asked what political leaders in Congress were likely to hear from senior administration officials in a private briefing about Syria.

“It’s safe to assume that our conversations with Congress are fulsome on this,” said Harf. A reporter responded: “The word ‘fulsome’ – I don’t think means what you think it does.”

“Are we going to do definitions today, or are you going to let me finish?” asked Harf. “Yeah, I think if you look at the main definitions on ‘fulsome’ you’ll find that it means almost probably the opposite of what you intend it to mean,” said the reporter, somewhat harshly.

Harf, in response to reporters pointing out the comparisons between Iraq and Syria, stressed the situations were “in no way analogous”.

The spectre of Iraq lurks everywhere in the crisis on Syria and the state department exchange shows again the importance of language in this debate. The words used in US foreign policy rhetoric over the past year have played a significant role in the pressure on the Obama administration to take military action against a Middle Eastern government embroiled in a bloody civil war.

Careless words
For a president always measured in the words he uses in carefully choreographed public appearances, his description of chemical weapons use in Syria as a “red line” issue at another press briefing, in the White House on August 20th, 2012, was uncharacteristic.

Such a loaded phrase pointed Obama towards military action, leaving him with little choice in the event of a chemical weapons attack in Syria, despite immediately tempering his answer a year ago by saying that it was a “red line” that would “change my calculus” and “change my equation”. He did not say the red line would necessarily lead to military action but this was how it was interpreted.

Behind the deep parsing of official language used by the Obama administration in this crisis over Syria is the lingering memory of how the Bush administration brought America to war on the basis of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

This has left Congress and the American people wary of the White House acting independently in their name, even though legally it can under the flexible terms of the War Powers Act. Almost four in every five Americans said they want the approval of Congress before using force in Syria, according to a poll by NBC News yesterday, but this support will prove tricky to secure as Congress doesn’t return from its summer recess until September 9th.

While stressing the president was keen to hold the Assad regime responsible for the attack, US secretary of state John Kerry said yesterday it was important to get congressional support and to “ask the tough questions and get the tough answers before taking action and not just afterwards”.

As the US published four pages of intelligence showing what the administration believed with “high confidence” was evidence Assad was behind the attack, Kerry spoke of how the administration was “mindful of the Iraq experience”.

The memory of Iraq has raised standards of scrutiny and proof in military matters not just for America’s media, but also for its government.

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