Syria Skepticism and Informed Opinion

Steve ClemonsThere was something interesting on The Rachel Maddow Show last night. The Washington editor from The Atlantic, Steve Clemons, was on the show to explain how he believed the government is correct that Syria has been using chemical weapons. He said that in the past he’s been skeptical of government claims. And I don’t doubt that he is sincere. According to him, he was against the Iraq War and the “surge” in Afghanistan. But I’m not convinced in this case.

This really struck me at the end of the interview. Rachel Maddow said to cap it, “Steve Clemons… somebody who is well connected and very candid.” That is part of the problem, isn’t it? After all, Judith Miller was well connected in the run up to the Iraq War. All that being well connected does in these situations is make you vulnerable to a coordinated propaganda campaign from Washington. And there doesn’t even have to be any intent to deceive. Conventional wisdom in Washington is no more likely to be right than anywhere else.

Look: if I had to take a stand on this matter, I’d say it was a toss up. So there’s a good chance that Syria did it. And there’s a good chance they didn’t. And there’s a chance that it isn’t a chemical attack at all. Remember yellow rain? What I do know is that our track record of rushing into war is not good. And even when the cause is just, our interventions do a great deal of harm.

Maddow seems to be pretty much on board. She ended the segment by saying, “It is remarkable hearing what Steve said there about how the overall strategic idea here is about reestablishing that international normal—that international allergy—on weapons of mass destruction while the UN weapons inspectors are there in that country, that we would act before we heard from them what they found is very conflicting direction.” In other words: it’s deja vu all over again.

It’s interesting that there are those of us who are always skeptical. And then there are those who are always ready to go to war. But in the middle are those who just go with our last adventure. In this case, the waters are muddy because Libya worked out reasonably well, but most people still look back to Iraq and Afghanistan. But if it turns out that Syria is indeed using chemical weapons against its people, the next time the onus will be entirely on us skeptics. And we will be off and running after another “bloody good war.”

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I don’t mean to suggest that this intervention will turn out well. But if Syria is using chemical weapons, people will throw it in my face the next time I counsel caution. And it won’t matter if the intervention is a total fiasco. This could be the start of World War III, and afterwards the hawks would be saying, “But: chemical weapons!” By tradition, the Trojan War sparked the destruction of the great Greek city states of that time. “They raped our queen, we raped their city, and we were right…” Brilliant!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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