War drums are beating in Washington, DC, in response to the recent chemical attack that killed almost 1500 people, including over 400 children, in the city of Damascus in Syria on August 21st. Earlier today, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in which he argued that the government of Bashar al Assad, the dictatorial president of Syria who has been fighting to retain his power amid civil war for two years, was responsible for the attack. In the aftermath of the attack, the President is considering “limited” military action against the Assad regime. Britain appears unwilling to join in such action, while France’s president Hollande has expressed support.
The big, looming issue here, of course, is the memory of Iraq. Every American recalls the guarantees proffered by the White House and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that Saddam Hussein’s government was preparing WMDs and thus constituted an imminent threat to the US and the world. This putative threat was used as an excuse to invade that country, resulting in a decade-long war that cost thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives; no WMDs were ever uncovered.
So is Syria like Iraq? One highly imperfect way to consider this question is to compare the intelligence report the US intelligence community released today against this recently-declassified secret report from 2002 which states, repeatedly and in bolded letters, that intelligence services were overwhelming ignorant of the actual status of WMDs in Iraq (see below). The obvious problem with this tactic is that one of these reports was secret and therefore frank, while the other was explicitly written for public consumption. This video of the White House spokesperson dodging questions about “certainty” is also worth a look.
Public report on the Syrian nerve-gas attack: usg-assessment-on-syria
De-classified report on Iraq’s supposed WMDs: Sept-5-2002-US-Iraq-WMD-Report