Call it the Iraq Syndrome. Because the United States and its allies invaded Iraq a decade ago under the erroneous assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron are encountering skepticism when they argue that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against civilians.
The Iraq Syndrome was in evidence Thursday when the British House of Commons debated -- and then decided to oppose -- a punitive military attack on Syria. The vote came despite a report from Britain’s joint intelligence committee concluding that it was “highly likely” that the government of Bashar Assad was responsible for chemical attacks. After the defeat for Cameron, Britain’s defense secretary said that “we understand that there is a deep well of suspicion about military involvement in the Middle East stemming largely from the experiences of Iraq in 2003, and that’s a reality that we have to face and that in turn has affected parliamentary opinion.”
As Kerry spoke Friday, pointing to evidence that the Syrian government had engaged in chemical warfare, the Twitterverse was filled with references to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations in 2003 insisting that Iraq was concealing a chemical weapons program. Kerry said that in reviewing the evidence from Syria, the intelligence community was “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.” That won’t quiet the doubters, of course.
Yet the differences between Iraq and Syria are as notable as the similarities. In Iraq, the question was whether Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons; in Syria, it seems undeniable that such weapons exist and were used. The question is whether they were deployed by the Assad government, either on orders from the top or as part of a rogue commander’s operation.
The evidence offered Friday by the Obama administration strikes me as supporting its “high confidence” that the Syrian government was responsible for a poison gas attack. (Whether that evidence justifies a punitive military attack is another question.) But I know that in saying that, I am inviting objections along the lines of “They said that about Iraq too.”
Fighting the last war is an occupational hazard not only for generals and politicians but for their critics.