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Common Sense Voices Pillory US War Hawks on Syria

Despite flimsy evidence and flawed thinking, media pundits continue to push for US military role in Syria

Jon Queally, staff writer

Former New York Times' executive editor Bill Keller is not the only un-'reluctant' war hawk under fire for publicly pushing for US military intervention in Syria, but for those who remember the media debacle that ushered in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he has exemplified the troubling trend among the nation's pro-war punditry class.

Since Keller's column appeared in the 'paper of record' on Monday—following a weekend of disturbing news about Israeli airstrikes inside Syria and amidst shaky reports about "chemical weapons" and "red line" rhetoric—those seeking wiser guidance on the path forward in a deeply fragmented Middle East are hoping that people like Keller, so wrong when it came to Iraq, will be pilloried for their positions on Syria.

Pilloried—then disregarded.

In his op-ed, Keller describes that though his mistaken assessment of the Iraq war may have left him "gun-shy" about Syria at first, he is now of the opinion that the US should flex its military muscle in the war-torn country.

But, stating he was "frankly appalled" by both the "mindlessness" and prominence of Keller's article in the Times, noted foreign policy analyst Jim Lobe argued the piece is "filled with the same kind of arrogance that [Keller] brought to Iraq as a “reluctant hawk” ten years ago."

And's John Glaser characterized the piece as "absurd," writing:

Keller lays out how terribly wrong he was for supporting the Bush administration’s war of choice in Iraq, and is now asking readers not to collapse in laughter as he speaks with an air of authority on why we should invade, or at least bomb, Syria.

Keller explains that “at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy.” How harrowing the experience must have been for you, Bill – using your position as an opinion-shaper at the most widely read newspaper in the country to cheer-lead an illegal war that destroyed an entire country, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and cost trillions of dollars.

The Nation's Greg Mitchell, who literally wrote the book on media malfeasance and the Iraq War, pulled no punches, writing of Keller:

He says he was gun-shy after his Iraq flub—but no more! Now he derides Obama for “looking for excuses to stand pat.” He also provides several reasons why Syria is “not Iraq,” and how now his hawkishness is based on reality: This time we really can hurt the terrorists gathered there, really can calm tensions in the region, and so on. Instead of a “mushroom cloud,” he warns of the next chemical “atrocity.” And he claims there’s a broader coalition of the willing this time.

He even revives the good old “domino theory,” endorsing the view that if we don’t do something in Syria it will embolden China, North Korea and Iran. And I love this one, straight from 2003: Doing nothing “includes the danger that if we stay away now, we will get drawn in later (and bigger), when, for example, a desperate Assad drops sarin on a Damascus suburb….” If a surge in aid for those Al Qaeda–lovin’ rebels fails against Assad, then we “send missiles against his military installations until he, or more likely those around him, calculate that they should sue for peace.” Yeah, how did that work out in Iraq in the long run?

Meanwhile, as a Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting report cataloged on Monday, the recent claims about the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons has been treated by much of the mainstream media with the same limited amount of scrutiny as were Bush administration claims about Iraq's weapons program more than a decade ago. As FAIR reports:

Given the tentative nature of official claims, the media's confidence seemed misplaced, to say the least. But rather than spending time skeptically examining evidence, pundits seem far more interested in arguing that the chemical weapons allegations demanded a military escalation, based on criteria President Obama established last August, when he said that if the United States saw "a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," that would cross a "red line."

In much of the press coverage since the sarin stories broke, that "red line" has been transformed into a promise that any intelligence that suggests any Syrian use of chemical weapons would prompt a U.S. attack.

"The president has doubled-down on this notion several times, that if Syria uses chemical weapons, he will take action," said ABC This Week anchor George Stephanopoulos (4/28/13). "He's kind of put himself in a box."

On CBS's Face the Nation (4/28/13), pundit David Gergen declared:

 Having said there's a red line, having said he would take action, I think it's baffling why, when the evidence comes in, we'll say, "Well, let's take it to the UN and let them sort this out." Take it to the UN? I'm sorry? It implies a lack of seriousness.

But more serious journalism has revealed real doubts about whether the Syrian government has, in fact, used sarin gas against its opponents. A compelling article from the online news site GlobalPost's Tracey Shelton and Peter Gelling (4/30/13) reported:

A closer analysis, however, raises doubts and highlights the challenge of confirming whether the Syrian government--or anyone else--is using chemical weapons.... Looking at video and photos obtained by GlobalPost at the scene, experts say the spent canister found in Younes’ house and the symptoms displayed by the victims are inconsistent with a chemical weapon such as sarin gas, which is known to be in Syria’s arsenal.

The piece raises the possibility that the observed symptoms could have been the result of any number of chemicals, including tear gas. A subsequent GlobalPost dispatch (5/5/13) reported,  "Doctors in Turkey say initial tests of blood samples from victims of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria last month are negative for sarin gas."

In addition, Reuters (5/5/13) reported that United Nations team of investigators heard from victims and medical personnel who claim that sarin has been used by anti-government rebels.

Of course, whether or not chemicals weapons were used, or by whom, refuses a larger point.  What good would a US military campaign possibly achieve?  Looking back on Iraq—even to ignore the justifications of war, say experts—shows that the US is ill-equipped to fulfill its promises to deliver democracy, stability, both, or either.

As Katrina vanden Heuvel writes in the Washington Post on Tuesday, "after war, years of occupation, many lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq, we have not been able to create a stable regime, power sharing or an end to the political violence."

And as Middle East analyst Murtaza Hussain explains in Al-Jazeera, what was perpetrated in Iraq by US forces would also be visited upon those in Syria, who are already victims of a once-hopeful revolution that has descended into a civil war with many foreign interests now serving their own ends at the expense of peace Syrian lives. He writes:

The tragic result of this situation is the vicious proxy war playing out today in the streets of Aleppo, Homs, Deir ez-Zor and countless other cities and towns throughout the country. A once-proud nation - long recognised as the cultural and historical jewel of the Levant - has been reduced to a grim battlefield between the West and its Gulf allies on one hand and the Syrian government and its allies in Iran, Russia and Hezbollah on the other. The Israeli airstrikes perpetrated with impunity onto Damascus this past week are yet another illustrative example of the depths of turmoil to which Syria has sunk.

As analysts openly discuss the "Somaliasation" of Syria and growing factions within the country call for military intervention to break the state up into small ethnic and religious enclaves - literally, "into pieces" - the prospect of a united Syria grows more remote by the day. Again, just as in Iraq, the benefactors of Syria's dismemberment will be the external actors which seek hegemony in the region and have never hidden their desire to see the country collapse.

And though Lobe in his critique lambasted Keller's opinion for the way it attempted to come across as though it ought to be the "final word" on the issue—coming as it was from the high perch atop the New York Times—it was filmmaker Michael Moore's tweet that concluded thus:


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