I am among those who are pleased and relieved that President Obama has decided to take his case for bombing or missile attacks on Syria to Congress. It will be the task of members to assess the evidence presented by the administration as carefully as possible, and then, assuming that they are persuaded that the Assad regime was indeed responsible for the use of chemical weapons, to consider the prudence of punishing the regime with military attacks. Since such attacks could have catastrophic consequences—-up to and including igniting a regional war—-members must take their responsibilities extremely seriously. Here is a useful and balanced account of what is publicly known about the evidence on which President Obama and those supporting his desire to punish the Syrian regime with bombs or missiles are relying.
In their deliberation, I have no doubt that many members of Congress—-and not just Republicans—-will (as they should) bear in mind what turned out to be the administration’s flagrant dissembling regarding the terrorist attacks in which Ambassador Stevens and others were killed in Benghazi, Libya. Readers will recall that the President himself and top officials of the government (including Secretary of State Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice) deliberately led the American people to believe that Stevens and the others were murdered by a mob enflamed by an anti-Muslim movie. (This tale was even told by Secretary Clinton to the families of those killed.) Of course, it turned out that there was no mob. Stevens and his colleagues were killed by terrorists, affiliated with Al Qaeda, in a pre-planned and well-executed attack timed for the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The truth was known by American intelligence officers and administration officials within a day of the attack. Yet the lie about the mob and the movie kept being told for weeks. It fit the myth—-one that was politically handy in the context of the presidential election campaign that was then in full swing—-that Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations had been “knocked back on their heels,” and no longer constituted the grave threat they had once represented.
I have long been puzzled as to why so little was made of this deception, not only by the media, but by politicians, including Governor Romney in the course of the campaign. (Romney made what appeared to be an attempt to raise the issue in the foreign policy debate, but moderator Candy Crowley seemed to knock him back on his heels by a mistaken intervention supporting Obama’s story.) As Malcolm X and Jeremiah Wright might put it, however, eventually “the chickens come home to roost.” Now, as we face the question of whether to punish the Syrian regime with military strikes, is a time when the President’s credibility truly matters. Is he telling the truth as he believes it to be? Or is there spinning, Clintonesque word-parsing (“meaning of ‘is’”), dissembling, and deceving going on?
Presidents and those serving in key positions in their administrations need to make difficult decisions based on the best intelligence and evidence available to them. Sometimes the intelligence they are relying on turns out to be wrong—-even spectacularly wrong. It would be unreasonable to hold any president, including President Obama, to the standard of never being wrong about the facts. But we can and should hold all presidents, including Obama, to the standard of telling us what they honestly believe to be true. When they don’t do that, their credibility suffers in ways that not only hurts them, but eventually hurts us, too.