Having once misled the public during the year prior to the invasion of Iraq, the media appear to be reprising that role in order to lend an air of inevitability to potential U.S. military intervention in Syria. Exhibit A is the appearance of Christiane Amanpour on The Daily Show. While lecturing viewers that the media must provide factual context for the news, and not just repeat the talking points of one side or the other, she proceeded to repeat the talking points of the only side with influence in foreign affairs -- the side favoring military intervention.
She spoke of both a moral and strategic imperative of the United States to intervene in Syria, although without coherently explaining why. According to her logic, the large number of war refugees flowing from Syria to neighboring countries should impel the U.S. to act with military force. But wars since time immemorial have created refugees. That is what wars do. Is it the duty of the United States to act -- not just to assist the refugees, but to become a warring party -- in all of them? By Amanpour's reasoning, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which caused about two million war refugees (a million of them fleeing to Syria), would have given Syria a moral and strategic imperative to intervene against the United States!
Jon Stewart, the supposed iconoclast, did not question her premises but instead acted as her straight man. His critical comments were confined to attacking the quality of CNN news -- an observation about as iconoclastic as remarking that the sun rises in the east. Otherwise, he fawned over her sagacity and foreign policy expertise. From whence came Amanpour's expertise? Being married to James Rubin, the former State Department press secretary in charge of justifying U.S. intervention during Bill Clinton's Balkan adventure, might be one source (Rubin recently served as an informal advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was also in favor of intervening in Syria).
What about the sarin gas whose use in Syria both Amanpour and Stewart took as a given? A few questions are in order:
Are we certain chemical weapons were used? The invasion of Iraq was the most recent instance of the U.S. government using weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war, which ought to make us skeptical. That example is well known, but there is another: the United States carried out a cruise missile strike in August 1998 against a factory in Sudan because U.S. intelligence agencies insisted that soil samples taken from around the site proved it was producing nerve gas. But what the samples contained was possibly commercial weed killer. Weaponized nerve agents are only a hexyl group away from readily available products like weed killer or insecticide, but policy makers saw only what they wanted to see. This may well be the case in Syria. Alternatively, several regional intelligence services, as well as jihadist groups operating in Syria, would have the motive, means, and opportunity to plant doctored soil samples in a false flag operation designed to draw in foreign intervention and topple the Assad regime.
If chemical weapons were used, are we certain who used them? The Syrian regime would have little incentive to use chemical weapons, given the high probability that such an action would trigger the very intervention the world is now debating. A United Nations investigator has suggested that the available (albeit fragmentary) evidence actually points to rebel use of gas. Predictably, the U.S. government has pushed back against that assertion, causing the U.N. (equally predictably) to backpedal from a claim that might complicate the agenda of the organization's main funder.
What shape would intervention take, and how might it succeed? The overriding rationale for U.S. intervention in Syria would be rapidly to secure all the chemical weapons in that country; that is the whole point of the exercise in view of all the theatrical breast-beating about red lines. But the task is easier said than done. One report claims that Syria possesses a "stockpile of approximately 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, stored in some 50 different cities." Airstrikes, the usual U.S. option of choice, then become a dicey proposition: they could release nerve agent into the atmosphere, thus triggering the catastrophe that intervention was supposed to avert. And bombing that failed to completely destroy a site and left some munitions undamaged would merely enable looting. What about ground troops? U.S. forces, with large teams of technical experts in tow, spent a year combing through Iraq after "mission accomplished" until they concluded there was no WMD. Ground units would have to undertake the same mission in Syria in the middle of a full-scale civil war to assure themselves all chemical agents were secured.
Needless to say, all these points were missed amid the mugging and fawning that went on between Amanpour, the crack foreign correspondent, and Stewart, the irreverent speaker of truth to power.