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Who Cares if UN Visits Chemical Site?

There is much diplomatic hand-wringing about whether or not United Nations inspectors will be able to visit East Ghouta, the site of last week’s apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria. Within the United Nations, different departments are debating whether the situation is safe enough for the inspectors to leave the Four Seasons Hotel in which they are staying. Some politicians and diplomats are seeking “definitive proof” before reacting, a call made more acute by Russian and Syrian regime suggestions that the opposition staged the chemical weapons attack.

I addressed the issue briefly in my Friday New York Daily News analysis, but diplomats seeking definitive proof are like politicians promising to consider: too often, both presage inaction. Definitive proof after the Halabja chemical weapons strike let Iraqi President Saddam Hussein off the hook for months if not years. It became too easy for the Iraqi regime to buy a few agents of influence to throw up enough doubt to provide anyone prone to equivocation with an excuse to equivocate. Earlier, diplomats and analysts deliberately twisted intelligence regarding Soviet violation of the Biological Weapons Convention in order to undercut any excuse for action.

Iraq in 2003, of course, is the elephant in the room. But the notion that the Bush administration lied its way into war should be relegated to the same fringe as 9/11 “truthers” or wacky Obama birth certificate conspiracies. Intelligence was faulty, but that rested in Saddam’s lying to his own generals and the Iraqi regime’s refusal to allow unhampered inspections.

Bill Clinton’s 1998 cruise missile strike on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan also became subject for a lot of hand-wringing, with a number of officials second-guessing the intelligence that led Clinton to choose that target from the menu with which he was presented. He shouldn’t have lost sleep: Had Sudan not put itself in a position in which it would be reasonable to assume its guilt, and then it never would have been hit. Clinton never even considered hitting Luxembourg, Tunisia, Malawi, or Indonesia because none flirted with terror sponsorship.

The fact of the matter is that “definitive proof” is more a journalistic concept than a firm intelligence category. And the nature of intelligence is that it is never firm enough when policymakers need to make a decision. The preponderance of evidence seems to suggest the Syrian regime is behind the attack and that should be enough. Even if by some chance that’s not the case, Syria’s involvement with chemical weapons–a red line clearly articulated by President Obama–clearly shows that action is needed. Whether or not UN inspectors step outside the Four Seasons is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.