Neocons Red-Faced Over ‘Red Line’

Exclusive: Official Washington’s neocons love to condemn President Obama for not enforcing his “red line” after a sarin attack in Syria in 2013, even though one neocon now admits that U.S. intelligence lacked the proof, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has penned an opus on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy which starts with a long segment dissecting Obama’s supposed failure to enforce his “red line” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using sarin gas to kill hundreds of civilians outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013. For Official Washington’s foreign-policy elite, Obama’s flinching from a bombing campaign against Assad was a historical inflection point for which Obama deserves hearty condemnation.

But if you read far enough into this story of Obama’s “feckless” behavior, you encounter a curious admission from Goldberg: that U.S. intelligence was unsure whether Assad was responsible for the attack.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Syria at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 30, 2013. [State Department photo]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Syria at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 30, 2013. [State Department photo]

As Goldberg writes, “Obama was … unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a ‘slam dunk.’

“He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a ‘slam dunk’ in Iraq.”

What I was told by intelligence sources at the time was that the evidence against Assad was anything but a slam dunk. It was not even “robust,” as Goldberg insists. There were serious doubts among intelligence professionals about many of the “certainties” that Official Washington’s neocon-dominated foreign policy establishment had quickly accepted as true about the sarin attack, blaming Assad.

In the face of that “group think,” Clapper surely did not want to go too much against the grain – he’s far too timid a bureaucrat for that – but his analysts were balking at once again being pushed into justifying another hasty war.

This resistance from the U.S. intelligence community should have been easy to spot, except that the neocons were whipping Official Washington into another war stampede. They saw the sarin attack as the catalyst for another “regime change,” so the last thing they wanted was a sober analysis of the evidence. They wanted a “group think” to take hold and to bait a reluctant Obama into action by portraying him as a wimp if he didn’t start bombing right away.

Rush to War

The neocon strategy almost worked. Across Official Washington and the mainstream U.S. news media, there was a classic rush to judgment. However, when Secretary of State John Kerry made a bellicose case for war on Aug. 30, 2013, and released a supporting “government assessment,” what was most remarkable to me was that there was not a shred of verifiable evidence implicating Assad.

Indeed, it made little sense that Assad would have launched a sarin attack when United Nations inspectors had just arrived in Damascus to examine suspected chemical weapons cases that Assad was blaming on jihadist rebels.

The fact that Kerry had to rely on a new confection, called a “government assessment” prepared by political operatives rather than the traditional “intelligence assessment” expressing the consensus judgment of the 16 intelligence agencies, was a further tip-off that the U.S. intelligence community was not onboard. After Kerry’s speech, I reported on the startling lack of evidence in the “dodgy dossier.”

So, on Aug. 31, 2013, when Obama began to back away from the rush to war, the President deserved praise for showing reasonable caution. After all, what sense would it make to punish the Syrian government for launching a sarin attack if, in reality, the atrocity was carried out by someone else, in this case, one of the radical jihadist groups trying to trick the U.S. government into intervening in the war on their side?

It’s now clear that if Obama had launched a major bombing campaign against the Syrian military, he might have inadvertently cleared a path for Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front or the Islamic State to seize control of Damascus, touching off an even more devastating human catastrophe. But “regime change” in Syria was a neocon obsession, even if it carried the risk of terrorist groups gaining control of a major Middle Eastern nation.

In the weeks and months after the sarin attack, the case against Assad continued to crumble. The U.N. inspectors recovered only one rocket carrying sarin and it was incapable of traveling the distance that would have indicated that it was fired by the Syrian military. Then, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported in 2014 that intelligence officials had traced the attack to radical jihadists in apparent collaboration with Turkish intelligence. More recently, I’ve been told that U.S. intelligence now agrees with Hersh’s reporting.

In other words, Clapper’s recognition that there was no “slam dunk” case implicating Assad has been vindicated by subsequent evidence. But Official Washington’s foreign-policy elite simply can’t accept these findings, instead maintaining the myth that Assad flouted Obama’s “red line” and that Obama lost his nerve and thus undermined U.S. “credibility.” This myth is so beloved among neocons and their liberal-interventionist allies that it can’t be surrendered regardless of its lack of evidentiary support.

After all, admitting that another neocon “group think” was dangerously misguided – after the Iraq War WMD fiasco – might finally topple some of these self-important pundits from their endowed think-tank chairs. Americans might finally recognize that these pompous know-it-alls are really just vacuous know-nothings.

So, instead of an article praising Obama for his realism and restraint – for demanding hard evidence before launching another U.S. war in the Middle East – we get Jeffrey Goldberg’s opus analyzing why Obama chickened out on the “red line” and how that failure has impaired U.S. foreign policy.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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34 comments for “Neocons Red-Faced Over ‘Red Line’

  1. Bob Van Noy
    March 10, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    “Americans might finally recognize that these pompous know-it-alls are really just vacuous know-nothings.” Robert Parry…

    We do, Hillary helped so much in the debate. So much for “think tanks”, they should probably be called consensus tanks. We used to have to support our theories in college with facts. What happened to that approach with this crowd at State?
    Thanks Robert Parry.

  2. Yuliy
    March 11, 2016 at 4:41 am

    Just yesterday there was a report on NPR that an ISIS operative captured by American special forces has provided a lot of valuable information, including the fact that ISIS has had access to chemical weapons and had used them in Siria and Iraq… I’m wondering if anyone in the official media will “notice” that fact and connect the dots… The very fact of mentioning this on NPR sounded like an accidental leak…

    • Anonymous
      March 11, 2016 at 5:25 am

      The Kurds have been complaining that Turkey, or Turkish-supported ISIS terrorists, have been using chemical weapons against them. Don’t expect Obama to acknowledgement the truth of that even if sarin residue is found a foot thick in Kurdish villages.

    • dolphin
      March 14, 2016 at 9:06 am

      Yuliy – “wondering if anyone in the official media”

      NPR *is the official media – no?

  3. Anonymous
    March 11, 2016 at 5:19 am

    That momentary hesitation was the only time Obama has failed to embrace a military solution to serve the neocons’ many narratives. He eagerly jumped at the opportunity to support a coup in Ukraine, arm the putch government to the teeth, and encourage them to commit genocide against their own ethnic Russian population. He’s still hanging tough on all that whilst disingenuously blaming Russia for not implementing the Minsk 2 agreements that American stooge Poroshenko sabotages daily. The ensuing New Cold War with the militarization of Eastern Europe by NATO wherein the weapons intended for World War III are actively being stockpiled in caves was eagerly embraced by Mr. Obama, as was the opportunity to confront Russia in Syria rather than cooperate to extirpate the terrorists he earlier ensconced there. Then there was Libya, the Afghanistan “Surge,” a re-visit of Iraq, drone attacks in various and sundry countries and a small taste of the Saudi action in Yemen. Mr. Obama has no small talent for war. Red lines? He don’t need no stinkin’ red lines.

    • Greg
      March 14, 2016 at 3:15 pm

      If you dig a little deeper into Ukraine, you’ll find the neoCON Zionists used NGO’s (Non-Government Organizations) to pump billions of dollars into the destabilization of Ukraine and the over-throw of the lawful Government. But, Joe Biden’s son is making money there now .. so we should all be happy?

  4. March 11, 2016 at 11:13 am

    It shouldn’t be forgotten – and Obama certainly hasn’t forgotten to judge by one story in today’s Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/10/david-cameron-distracted-libya-conflict-barack-obama – that the British parliament voted against an attack on Syria in August 2013, which left Obama without the support of one of his chief allies.
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/29/cameron-british-attack-syria-mps

    • David G
      March 13, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      Although Consortiumnews for some reason largely ignores it in the pieces published here, I think that the UK parliament’s 2013 vote was a very big deal, and was a major part of derailing the US march to war at that point.

      I’ve always felt that Tony Blair was maybe the person best positioned in the whole world to stop the Bush gang from invading Iraq in 2002/2003, and the outcome when Britain decided to slip the leash a bit in 2013 reinforces me in that opinion.

  5. bill
    March 11, 2016 at 11:45 am

    A key question in estimating Obamas motives for backing away from the rush to war surely has to be whether or not he had approved Kerrys i would say wickedly reckless attempts to stampede the process on August 30th through his so-called government assessment ….?

  6. Leo K
    March 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    Dear Mr. Perry,
    good to find Consortium back in the air!
    You were sincerely missed.
    Regards,

  7. Dan
    March 11, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    Good to be reminded of all this. Thanks.

  8. Lois Gagnon
    March 11, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    The first rule of the Washington Consensus is never admit you were wrong about anything ever regardless of evidence to the contrary. That’s known as being weak. Doubling down on criminal stupidity is seen as strength I guess.

  9. Pablo Diablo
    March 11, 2016 at 7:20 pm

    They are not “vacuous know-nothings”. They know exactly what they are doing, getting rich off of continuous war. They get rich whether they win or lose as long as MIC gets well fed.

  10. Abe
    March 12, 2016 at 12:15 am

    Leading the propaganda parade are Elliot Higgins and the Bellingcat site with a new surge of blaming Russia for “war crimes” in Syria.

    The UK-based fake “citizen investigative journalists” Higgins and Bellingcat cite UK-based fake “human rights organizations”:

    — Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) headed by Fadel Abdul Ghan. SNHR functions as a propaganda arm of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, an assembly of terrorist forces backed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

    — Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) run out of a two-bedroom terraced home in Coventry by Rami Abdulrahman

    The propaganda merry-go-round works like this:

    — Fake “human rights” NGOs based in the UK manufacture “evidence” of “war crimes”

    — Fake “independent journalists” based in the UK cite this “evidence” in fake “investigation reports”

    — US and NATO governments cite the fake “reports” in “Government Assessments”

    I have posted numerous comments on Consortium News explaining how Higgins and Bellingcat operate as deception conduits for US and NATO propaganda about the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. See the comments section at https://consortiumnews.com/2015/12/22/a-call-for-proof-on-syria-sarin-attack/

  11. Abe
    March 12, 2016 at 12:24 am

    The WhoGhouta site is an open collaborative effort to overcome governments’ propaganda and disinformation about the 21 August 2013 chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria.

    All evidence relating to the chemical attack indicates it was carried out by opposition forces.

    According to the most likely scenario, the opposition forces used looted incendiary rockets, refilled them with sarin they manufactured themselves, and launched them from a rebel-held territory 2 km north of Zamalka http://whoghouta.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-conclusion.html

    WhoGhouta has a review of the Turkish MP’s allegations concerning the attempted purchase of chemicals for production of sarin by Al-Nusra operatives.

  12. WG
    March 12, 2016 at 3:07 am

    I could prove that Assad didn’t use chemical weapons back in 2013 using only publicly available information, on the day it happened.
    The entire scenario is predicated on Assad deciding to do this (use chemical weapons) at the same time as UN chemical weapons inspectors are headed to their hotel only a few miles from the location of the attack.
    If you believe that a government would do something so stupid right under the noses of the people whose job it is to find chemical weapons… After Obama threatened that using chemical weapons was the ‘red line’ that Assad better not cross… If you’re stupid enough to believe the above scenario then you’ve been drinking too much water from Flint Michigan. Not a slam dunk… How disgusting.

  13. Herman
    March 12, 2016 at 11:30 am

    As I recall, it was Putin who was instrumental in the deal that the Syrian government would remove any poison gas stocks which gave Obama the hook he needed to call off the bombing. Without it, you have to wonder although Britain’s refusal to go along, mentioned earlier had to be critical, too. Then there is the possibility that Obama chose to be presidential since he wasn’t running for election again. I think he displayed that with the Iranian debacle, as well. Thank goodness for lame duck presidents.

  14. onno
    March 12, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    Syria’s president Assad possible use of Sarin gas against its own people sounds like the same accusations from Washington against Saddam Hussein possessing the so-called ‘Weapons of Mass destruction’ which were NEVER found. Both being an excuse for the NEOCONS in Washington to bomb Syria and invading a sovereign nation like Iraq without a UN Mandate.
    Having studied the US wars all around the world since WW II I come to the conclusion that USA was violating and invading sovereign nations 218 times to bring Democracy which never materialized. But US aggression certainly was able to bring destabilization and destruction for the only purpose to keep US military employed plus US economy stable and the US defence industry profitable. The millions of people who lost their lives – including US military personnel – come under the same denominator ‘Collateral Damages’. The same US aggression we see today in the Middle East and Ukraine by financing and supporting the opposition of the ruling government which constitutes another violation of the UN Charter.
    My conclusion is that Washington is NOT policing this planet but only expanding its hegemony with the help and arming local criminal organizations. When the US Neocons are caught in the act, they call ‘FOUL PLAY’ like Obama (Noble Laureate) is doing today. Obama is similar to former president Bill Clinton= smooth Billie or call them the Teflon presidents!

  15. Bob Van Noy
    March 12, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    “I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”I’ve read the link that Robert Parry provided back to the Atlantic article (thank you Mr. Parry) and came up with this statement by the President:

    “I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

    As I read further, I vividly remembered the Kennedy brothers talking between themselves after a Joint Chiefs meeting and agreeing that they (the Chiefs) were crazy. President Kennedy needed Bobby to validate his more humane reaction, and I realized that President Obama seems more isolated with his own “more rational” side. Whatever the true dynamic’ the President made the better decision on that Red Line… I think.

    • Bob Van Noy
      March 12, 2016 at 8:54 pm

      Sorry, should read:

      ”I’ve read the link that Robert Parry provided back to the Atlantic article (thank you Mr. Parry) and came up with this statement by the President:

      “I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

      As I read further, I vividly remembered the Kennedy brothers talking between themselves after a Joint Chiefs meeting and agreeing that they (the Chiefs) were crazy. President Kennedy needed Bobby to validate his more humane reaction, and I realized that President Obama seems more isolated with his own “more rational” side. Whatever the true dynamic, the President made the better decision on that Red Line… I think.

      • Don G.
        March 14, 2016 at 1:23 pm

        No doubt Bob, that Obama and Putin snookered the US hawks out of their planned war with Syria. We outside the US have had that one figured out for quite a while now. Why, just listen to the hawks scream bloody murder on Obama’s red line speech that only needed to be complied with to stop the war plans.

        But something more interesting comes to mind. John and Bobby worked together way back then and that’s quite likely the reason why they had to whack John. Then Bobby too because he was up to the same no good peacenik surrender monkey tricks.

    • Jim Morris
      March 14, 2016 at 10:58 am

      One thing for sure. Obama didn’t get any support from Hillary and the Valkyries at the Dept of State when he decided not to pull the trigger.

  16. Andoheb
    March 12, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    Russia offer to help destroy Syrian chemical weapons gave Obama a face saving way to avoid war.

  17. March 12, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    The REAL reason Obama did not bomb Syria is that the United States corporation and the Federal Reserve are dissolved.

    Read every Amicus curiae in the Readme at the top of http://www.courtofrecord.org.uk/ re U.S.

  18. Ray G Johns
    March 13, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    President Obama didn’ t buy into the neocon war cry to bomb or invade Syria ,but instead he wisely used the neocon war threats as a pressure point linked to his smart diplomacy/soft power approach to convince Assad to agree to take his chemical weapons out of his military calculus . An agreement was reached to allow U N inspectors to haul the weapons out of the country and safely take them to a safe destruction site. All this without firing a shot! The Obama diplomatic success was also a triumph for American- Russian international cooperation . It is rare in the history of the Middle East that two Great Powers worked together to take weapons off the battlefield and destroy them.

    • Don G.
      March 14, 2016 at 1:15 pm

      You’ve got it Ray, even though you’re going to be hated for saying it. Now the important question for me is deciding which of the following scenarios is correct:
      1. Obama snookered Putin into a peace deal on Syria.
      2. Putin snookered Obama into a peace deal on Stria.
      3. Obama and Putin worked in concert to concoct the red line speech and then satisfy it’s demands.

      I really do like #3 because it’s the most likely, but also the most satisfying to ponder! LOL

  19. Medusa
    March 14, 2016 at 11:53 am

    And why do media like The Atlantic continue to employ these idiots?

    • Carroll Price
      March 14, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      Surprised you haven’t noticed. They serve the vital function of instigating wars.

  20. Don G.
    March 14, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    Hold it! The story shouldn’t be about whether Sarin gas was used or not by Assad, Obama decided to reject the propaganda. That’s how Obama differed from other presidents. He could have easily just ignored the facts the same way Bush2 did on Iraq. Nobody outside the US who is seriously interested believes that the Bush2 regime didn’t know the WMD’s didn’t exist!

    And the other part of the story is that it’s likely that Obama and Putin worked in concert to stop a US led war on Syria. Obama states the red line and Putin offers the initiative for Assad to get rid of his chem/bio weapons. Which he probably did gleefully and laughing all the way to the bank. Why not? It was a sure thing that it would stop the US war plans!

    Sorry Americans but that darn uppity president seems to have snookered the hawks on Syria, with Putin’s help. Or Putin did with Obama’s help? Whatever? And the fact that the Obama admin has dismantled the US’s PNAC agenda on Iran shouldn’t go unmentioned either. There’s no way the rest of the parties to the agreement are going to allow a US led war on Iran now. LOL

    It just looks like the US is going to be more careful of not falling into a trap in the future by making phony claims about the evil foe having wmd’s or gas or something terribly awful, awful.

    • Carroll Price
      March 14, 2016 at 4:45 pm

      If you give Obama the benefit of the doubt, I agree he’s due a measure of praise for refusing to allow the neocons to rush the US into another disastrous war for the sake of clearing the way to make Israel’s dream of a Greater Israel a reality. And without the benefit of ANY doubts, Obama is way past due for extensive praise for negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement that will always gall Israel’s ass to no end. So yes, Obama is due considerable praise, but when you take the nearly 100 percent, brain-dead Republican party members, and add them to an almost equally large percentage of left wing, intellectual, pro-Israel Democrats, there’s not that many sane individuals left to do any praising.

  21. David Doppler
    March 14, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    I know it’s paranoid, but one should not rule out the possibility that the attack was initiated by those who wanted the US in the war, and were using the “redline” statement as set up for covert action to generate their “casus belli.” After all, Patrick Clawson at WINEP outlined a strategy for how thru covert action tensions with Iran could be escalated into a shooting war in just those terms. http://www.richardsilverstein.com/2012/10/02/wineps-clawson-advocates-u-s-sinking-iranian-sub-to-provoke-war/

    Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to start wars.

  22. Greg
    March 14, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    We need a RED LINE against neoCON Zionist warmongers! The American people are tired of wars of aggression and the neoCONs should be charged with war crimes for what they’ve done to the middle east. Shame on them and the NGO’s they use to circumvent the US Government. Isn’t it strange how ISIS showed up shortly after Obama REFUSED to attack Syria for them. Thank you President Obama! Please fire the whole lot of them and leave a legacy of PEACE for yourself.

  23. Carol
    March 14, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    It was Putin who stopped the U.S. war on Syria. Kerry was asked by a news reporter if Assad got rid of his chemical weapons would the U.S. still bomb Syria? This was international news. Kerry stated ‘of course not as we would not have any reason to overthrow Assad’. Putin jumped on that immediately and the interview was all over social media. Putin immediately worked with Syria and the U.N. to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons even though it was not Assad’s chemical weapons responsible for the chemical attacks at the time. Obama had no choice but to stop the U.S. military intervention because of Kerry’s statement on international news. According to U.S. military officials, they were within minutes of starting that attack. Putin, not Obama, should be thanked for this de-escalation.

  24. Arthus
    March 20, 2016 at 5:04 am

    Any prospective Syria attack was finally blocked when Obama changed his prior position that he could and would act without seeking Congressional authority, and then instead sought it. The American people flooded Congress at 100-1 rates in opposition to military involvement in Syria, and Congress got their message.

    If this happened because Obama had decided against the attack, despite his prior clearly stated intent to attack, then it was a brilliant gambit, and it worked. That’s assuming he knew Congress wouldn’t approve an attack. But the war party is the majority in Congress, and they were already taunting him and calling for blood. Wouldn’t he assume they’d approve it? Maybe he was just looking for bipartisan cover for his action, and still planned on doing it. He had come under attack for saying he’d do it without the Congress. Did that force his hand, and yield an unforeseen public rebuke?

    Or was he calling their bluff? Did he know the American people would react the way they did? The timeline of when he reversed his public position (and if he did) is the key factor. I can see it both ways, and we may never know.

    This was a good outcome, and I lean to giving him the benefit of the doubt, mainly because of the Iran agreement. His policy in Ukraine works in the opposite direction, though. The decision matrix for going to Congress and its expected outcome is the key evidence to examine.

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