President Barack Obama applauds Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter, U.S. Army, after presenting him with the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Aug. 26, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Deep inside a New York Times sidebar on the impending U.S. assault on Syria was the curious observation that whoever deployed chemicals, apparently inflicting death on hundreds of civilians last Wednesday, used "improvised tube-launched missiles," one more factoid that should raise doubts about the Syrian government's culpability.
The idea of an "improvised" missile would suggest the role of an irregular military force without access to regular armaments. That would seem to implicate the rebels or some paramilitary force outside the government's direct control, although it could also be a case of the government trying to disguise its hand.
Plus, the rebels would have a more obvious motive for staging the attack, just as Syria was allowing in UN inspectors to investigate earlier allegations of chemical-weapons use. Why Assad would launch a chemical attack at that moment is one of the head-scratching aspects of this unfolding mystery. Still, the evidence that "improvised tube-launched missiles" were used poses more questions about the U.S. certainty that President Bashar al-Assad is at fault, since homemade missiles would fall within the capability of al-Qaeda-allied rebels and such extremists are known for ruthless attacks that endanger and kill civilians.
Some neocon commentators were quick out of the gate with their own spin on Assad's supposed motivation -- that he was spitting in Barack Obama's face and showing his contempt for the President's resolve, but that sounds more like neocon agit-propaganda to prod Obama to retaliate than a serious argument.
And, as this hasty march toward war progresses, there's also the troubling behavior of Secretary of State John Kerry and his State Department subordinates who initially demanded that Syria allow UN inspectors to visit the site of the attack but then -- after Syria gave its okay on Sunday -- began insisting that it was "too late" to collect "credible" evidence on the ground.
The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials even pressured UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon to withdraw his inspectors without their going to the scene and collecting evidence. Despite Kerry's statement, many chemical weapons experts say tell-tale signs of Sarin and other chemicals can be detected months or even years after an event.
So, another question must arise: Why would Kerry not want the UN inspectors to do their best to determine what really happened?
Though it's possible that Kerry simply believes that other as-yet unidentified evidence proves Assad's guilt -- and that the UN team is therefore not needed -- there is the troubling deja vu of President George W. Bush's insistence that UN inspectors leave Iraq in March 2003 before they could reach a firm conclusion that Saddam Hussein's government lacked the WMD stockpiles that Bush falsely claimed were there.
Given that history, one might think the U.S. government would be best served collecting as much evidence as possible -- and processing it as carefully as can be done -- before launching another military assault on a Middle Eastern country without approval of the UN Security Council and thus outside the UN Charter.
The Media's Lust for War
The mainstream news media's unseemly lust for another war also recalls those dark days before Bush's invasion of Iraq.
On Monday, as I was waiting for a plane in the Detroit airport, television monitors showed CNN with alarmist headlines indicating that a U.S. attack could come "within hours." To any casual observer, it would appear that CNN had been briefed on a presidential decision to attack and the missiles would fly "within hours."
Only later did CNN revise the headline to indicate that the attack could come "within hours" once the President had authorized it. In other words, no decision had been made, but if one were made, the attack could be launched "within hours" -- a very big if.
But the carelessness of CNN was typical of the U.S. news media's reprise of its performance during the Iraq fiasco. On Wednesday, the Washington Post led its front page with more credulous reporting and the headline, "Proof against Assad at hand. Chemical Attack Timeline Mapped. U.S. military action appears all but certain."
The article reported that...
"...the Obama administration believes that U.S. intelligence has established how Syrian government forces stored, assembled and launched the chemical weapons allegedly used in last week's attack outside Damascus, according to U.S. officials.
"The administration is planning to release evidence, possibly as soon as Thursday, that it will say proves that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bears responsibility for what U.S. officials have called an 'undeniable' chemical attack that killed hundreds on the outskirts of the Syrian capital.