President Obama made the case for bombing Syria by saying that if we allow a tyrant such as Bashar Assad to gas his own people with impunity, we risk having other tyrants and terrorists use chemical weapons, eventually against Americans.
After listening to the president’s case against Bashar Assad, I watched Charlie Rose’s hour-long interview with Mr. Assad. It is impossible for me to judge the veracity of anything Mr. Assad said. Equally, however, we do not have the ability to verify the evidence our own government presents to be a factual assessment of what really went on in Syria on August 21.
Here is what we do know: Bashar Assad is a ruthless dictator, who in his own words, is willing to take all measures to win this war. We also know that the US government, as well as intelligence communities around the world, are unreliable.
There wasn’t an intelligence service in the world that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, did not believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. We went to war at the cost of $1.9 trillion, in order to ensure that the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein allegedly had were taken from him. We relied heavily on the words of dissident Iraqis such as Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi and Ahmed Chalabi, who had evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed these weapons. In the end, however, it has become clear that these Iraqi dissidents played Western governments and influenced them to go to war under false pretenses.
How do we know that this is not what is happening again? How do we know that the intelligence the US and its allies claim to have has not been trumped up by the rebels? How do we know that this entire chemical weapons attack was not perpetrated by the rebels in order to co-opt the US military into their fight against Bashar Assad and his forces?
Frankly, both sides in this conflict are evil. It would be unsurprising if Assad used chemical weapons against his people. But neither would it surprise me to learn that al-Qaeda or other extremist groups used the chemical weapons as cynical ploy to draw the United States into the conflict.
Our president and our intelligence services have been naive in the past in believing the claims of dissidents and rebels. Just because the rebels say so, does not mean it is true.
Military strike? Not yetSo should we support a military strike against Bashar Assad and his regime? To me the answer is no, not yet. After all that John Kerry, President Obama and his team have said, there seems to be no convincing evidence, no smoking gun, to prove that this chemical weapons attack was perpetrated by the Assad regime. Unverified intercepted calls and gas masks used by Assad’s troops do not translate into a smoking gun.
If we’ve learned anything from Iraq, it is the following: One, the intelligence community is often dead wrong. Second, military action and the removal of a dictator in the Middle East solves nothing. It may in fact cause a much more complicated situation in which many more innocent people die.
The great philosopher Isaiah Berlin argues that drastic action is almost never justified because of the rule of unintended consequences. Instead he counsels to maintain an uneasy equilibrium, where we can try and use our influence to guide the world to gradual change for the better.
I don’t think that war weariness is reason enough not to go war, but certainly a lack of real evidence, partnered with the inability to predict the consequences, is reason enough to step aside and try to find other solutions to the conflict. What we saw from President Obama in his address to the nation was an elegant climb down from his rhetoric in the last few weeks. Much to John McCain’s chagrin, President Obama did not mention the Free Syrian Army. This was obviously intentional. The administration clearly has no faith in the Free Syrian Army.
We are not in the position to make the judgment of who did what, and frankly, neither are we in the position to make things better. However difficult this is for us to accept, this is the reality.
It seems to me, that as we approach the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, we should be realistic about the things we can change and at the same time, the things we have little influence over. We must focus on what we can change, primarily ourselves, and that way collectively, we can make this world a better and more inhabitable place.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life