Reprinted from Consortium News
In late August 2013, with Barack Obama on the verge of launching retaliatory airstrikes against the Syrian military for its alleged role in a lethal sarin gas attack, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper informed the President that U.S. intelligence doubted that Bashar al-Assad's government was actually responsible, causing Obama to pull back from the attack.
That new detail was disclosed in Jeffrey Goldberg's opus for The Atlantic on Obama's foreign policy, but Goldberg -- in an extraordinary display of cognitive dissonance -- then wrote the rest of his lengthy article as if he had forgotten his own reporting. He made his story conform to the powerful Washington "group think" that Assad had carried out the attack and thus had crossed Obama's "red line" against using chemical weapons.
But the disclosure of Clapper's warning that U.S. intelligence lacked "slam dunk" evidence implicating Assad's forces confirmed reporting at Consortiumnews and a few other independent news outlets in 2013 -- and also underscored how President Obama then joined in lying to maintain the anti-Assad propaganda themes.
Not only did the White House issue a "Government Assessment" on Aug. 30, 2013, trying to pin the blame for the attack on Assad's regime -- and not only did Obama dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to make the dubious anti-Assad case to the country -- but Obama himself asserted Assad's guilt in his Sept. 24, 2013 address to the United Nations General Assembly.
"It's an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack," Obama said. Yet, the President knew that many of his own intelligence analysts doubted that the Assad regime carried out the attack.
In other words, if Obama's statement is taken literally, he was asserting that much of the U.S. intelligence community was either dishonest or crazy. But, more likely, Obama was just reading the words of a speech prepared by State Department propagandists who understood the need to knock down the growing suspicion that the attack was a provocation committed by Islamist extremists trying to trick the United States to join the war on their side.
Obama must have recognized that his words were deceptive but he didn't have the integrity or the courage to strike them from the speech. He just went along like a willing puppet of the foreign-policy establishment mouthing falsehoods prepared for him rather than acting decisively as America's Commander in Chief to protect his own and his nation's credibility.
Obama's U.N. speech puts into a different context the narrative that Goldberg presented in The Atlantic article. There, Obama seems to relish his refusal to go along with what he "calls, derisively, 'the Washington playbook,'" which dictates a military response to foreign challenges like the Syria sarin case.
Goldberg wrote that Aug. 31, 2013, when Obama backed away from the widely anticipated Syrian bombing campaign, "was his liberation day." But several weeks later, Obama went before the United Nations and denounced as irrational anyone who raised exactly the doubts that had been central to his decision not to bomb.
So, what is one to make of Obama's passive-aggressive resistance to the military imperative mandated by the "Washington playbook" while succumbing to its propagandistic tactics to justify war? Even as he resisted the demands to bomb, he could not challenge the Washington establishment enough to explain to the American people that U.S. intelligence analysts were uncertain about Assad's guilt.
Instead, Obama allowed his subordinates to pile on the calumnies against Assad -- with Secretary of State John Kerry doing so in belligerent speeches and the White House releasing a "Government Assessment" fingering Assad's forces -- while Obama let those distortions go unchallenged and, indeed, reinforced them in his U.N. speech.
Telling the American People
By contrast, Obama could have taken his case to the American people. He could have given a speech saying that war is too serious and solemn an act for a president to go off half-cocked. He could have said he would not launch military strikes if the U.S. intelligence community wasn't sure who was guilty.
The American people would have surely understood that point of view -- and they would have been empowered by being brought in on what the U.S. government knew and didn't know. Yes, it would have undermined the propaganda campaign then underway to demonize Assad, but if you believe in democracy and the concept of an informed electorate, wouldn't that have been a good thing?
What I was told at the time -- and what the Clapper disclosure in The Atlantic confirms -- is that in the days after the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack, Obama knew quite well that there were serious questions about who had fired the one home-made, sarin-laden rocket that U.N. inspectors recovered in the Zamalka neighborhood outside Damascus.