An Excuse for Syrian ‘Regime Change’?

Across Official Washington including the neocon Washington Post and “liberal” MSNBC pundits are demanding U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war. But the furor over alleged use of chemical weapons represents just the latest dubious argument for regime change, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Once again people are getting spun up over elusive details about what a Middle Eastern regime is or is not doing regarding unconventional weapons. Participants in public debates over policy get seized with questions such as the significance of a soil sample or whether certain victims of Syria’s civil war had dilated pupils.

People wait with bated breath on whatever else intelligence can tell us about such things. It is as if the wisdom, or lack of it, of intervening in that civil war hinges on whether a particular regime has made use, however small, of a particular category of weapon. It doesn’t.

Much has been said about avoiding mistakes that were made over a decade ago in leading up to the Iraq War. Certainly we should try to avoid repeating mistakes. But the biggest mistake that is being made now, and repeats a fundamental mistake in the public discourse prior to the Iraq War, is not an interpretation of evidence regarding somebody’s unconventional weapons but instead is the false equating of an empirical question about weapons with the policy question of whether launching, or intervening in, a particular war makes sense.

Whether Saddam Hussein did or did not have WMD turned out to be one of the less important realities about the Iraq War. Even if everything that was said on this subject to sell the war turned out to be true, the human and material cost of the war would have been just as great (maybe even greater, if Saddam’s forces had possessed and used such weapons), the post-Saddam political and security situation in Iraq would have been just as much of a mess, and launching the war still would have been a blunder.

In Syria today, whether any chemical weapons have been used does not inform us that the Assad regime has a brutal streak; we already knew that. Nor does it tell us that many Syrians are suffering in this civil war; we already knew that, too, and the suffering does not depend on any use of unconventional weapons.

Most important for the policy question facing the United States, facts about chemical weapons use would tell us essentially nothing about the net effect of various forms of external intervention in the civil war, the likely course of the war with or without intervention, and possible political futures of Syria.

There is another parallel between today’s debate about Syria and the counterpart discourse before the Iraq War. In each case the issue of unconventional weapons has been used as a convenient selling point by those favoring involvement in a war for other reasons.

With Iraq, the WMD question was only, as later acknowledged by Paul Wolfowitz, a convenient topic that could be agreed upon by those who might disagree about other matters. With Syria, most of the current agitation is coming not from longstanding chemical-weapons-control enthusiasts but instead from those who had already been agitating for intervention on other grounds.

The agitators on Syria have been aided by President Barack Obama’s unwise earlier declaration about how use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a “game-changer.” Perhaps the President said this to help fend off the pro-intervention pressure he already was feeling at the time. If so, the remark was a short-sighted tactic. It opened the way for pro-interventionists to argue that U.S. credibility will be harmed if it does not now intervene in Syria.

That argument is also a familiar one associated with mistakes of the past. It also is invalid, as a matter of how people and governments actually assess the credibility of other governments. The argument was at the center, not just as a public selling point, but as a matter of genuine belief by policy-makers, of the decision to intervene in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. That war also was a blunder.

One might think, based on the current chemically-fueled commentary about Syria, that the ranks of the policy elite in Washington are filled with arms control aficionados whose fondest cause is to eliminate the scourge of unconventional weapons from the Middle East. Anyone who thinks that can be jolted back to reality by Egypt, which this week announced that it was pulling out of an ongoing review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to protest the continued inaction on a resolution dating back to 1995 that calls for establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East.

That proposal was later expanded to envision a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, to include chemical and other unconventional weapons as well as nuclear ones. A conference, arranged under the leadership of a senior Finnish diplomat, was set to convene last December to discuss the proposal. But Israel refused to attend, and so the United States said it wouldn’t go either, and the conference was called off. One barely heard a peep about that in the United States.

The country that balked, Israel, is of course the only Middle Eastern owner of nuclear weapons. That’s nuclear weapons, which really are weapons of mass destruction, unlike chemical weapons, which aren’t. In fact, the Israeli arsenal is so potent it is the only one that poses an existential threat to any other country in the region (and specifically to Iran).

U.S. policy, and American discussion of policy, about unconventional weapons in the Middle East have long been riddled with inconsistency. Nuclear weapons are perceived where they don’t exist, and ignored where they do. The hyperventilation about possible use of chemical weapons in Syria is in the same tradition of inconsistency.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “An Excuse for Syrian ‘Regime Change’?

  1. Fran Larson
    May 6, 2013 at 12:10

    Didn’t you read the Reuters report that it was the rebels in Syria that used the chemical weapons….that needs to be common knowledge before the neocons win out and get Obama into another middle east war.

  2. Paul G.
    May 3, 2013 at 05:10

    The justification for intervention is one thing. The track record of the US is another; every time they intervene since WWII(and it is now known much of the bombing then was counter productive) they leave a mess. The idea of second and third order consequences appears to be beyond the comprehension of the strategic geniuses in Washington.

    I had a political science professor who once announced in class(1968) that a “great power has the right to intervene in other countries’ affairs because it is a great power”~~. I, of course confronted him on this piece of arrogance and circular reasoning and he backtracked. He should have said, “finds it necessary”, because in retrospect he was sort of correct; the rub is in the role of a “great power”, “policeman of the world” etc. Any country that considers itself in that self appointed role is going to think it needs to take out other countries’ disliked governments. As long as this role is part of the national psyche(as particularly promoted by the neo-cons); these disasters will continue. The solution obviously is to give up the role; for which any POTUS would be crucified given the present state of retardation of our leadership and mass media mavens.

  3. Don Bacon
    May 2, 2013 at 20:47

    The United Nations was established to obsolete these sorts of judgments. But the US doesn’t recognize the UN Charter, in effect. This, from today’s press conference at the Pentagon, Hagel (US) and Hammond (UK):

    On Syria, Secretary Hagel and I reaffirmed our shared view that the Syrian regime must end the violence, stop the slaughter of its own people, and recognize that it is no longer the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

    Hagel and Hammond may have those objectives, but there is no UN Security Council resolution calling for regime change. There couldn’t be, because Russia and China don’t support it.

    The UNSC Resolutions 2042 and 2043 adopted in April, 2012 called for a cessation of violence and established a a United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) to observe it. The UNSC has not called for a transition government. That came from an “Action Group for Syria Final Communiqué” on June 30, 2012 which has no international legal standing.

    So the “objectives” are bogus. The government can’t unilaterally end the violence when it is facing determined groups well-armed by the U.S. and others, and Syria is under no legal obligation to “recognize that it is no longer the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

  4. Bob Loblaw
    May 2, 2013 at 17:20

    Decrying chemical WMD in Syria without acknowledging the Depleted Uranium used to horrific effect in Iraq is the height of hypocritical jingosim.

    DU shells left a swath of death and ongoing birth defects and health problems for surviving Iraqis. The US invasion ruined the country, established backward oppressive warlords that regressed Iraq from a post modern state to somewhere this side of the dark ages.

  5. lastcamp2
    May 2, 2013 at 13:30

    What is one to conclude?

    That these wars, or contemplated wars, are not about the things we are told. That leaves us to speculate, and in the peculiar position of having speculation be more credible than the rationales being provided to us by those who are supposed to know, and those we are supposed to trust.

    Yet we are expected to have faith in our government.

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