Horrific scenes of dead and injured civilians in Syria have been a part of the conflict there over the past several years, but the reports of a chemical attack of some sort last week in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta have led U.S. policymakers and the Obama White House to threaten to attack in a matter of days.
There is still no firm public evidence that would tie these specific attacks to the Assad government. But all around the U.S. media the signs are clear that war is on the way. The front page of USA Today (8/27/13) displays U.S. bombs:
While on ABC's This Week (8/25/13) viewers saw a computer simulation of an attack from a U.S. warship:
One tendency in the corporate media seemed to be to jump to the conclusion that the chemical attacks were launched by the Assad regime, while admitting that perhaps this was not yet proven. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson (8/27/13) wrote that "Obama has to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's homicidal regime with a military strike"–before admitting:
If it is true that the regime killed hundreds of civilians with nerve gas in a Damascus suburb last week–and Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday that the use of chemical weapons is "undeniable"–then Obama has no choice. Such use cannot be tolerated, and any government or group that employs chemical weapons must be made to suffer real consequences.
Of course, providing convincing evidence that the attacks actually were the work of the Syrian government should be the first order of business. But when news accounts, like one from USA Today (8/27/13), open with this–"A limited strike against Syria might convince the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons again"–it's hard not reach the conclusion that some have already made up their minds. On CBS's Face the Nation (8/25/13), Reuters journalist David Rohde said: "There has to be a price for gassing hundreds of civilians. There has to be."
So far, the U.S. government has mostly made emphatic assertions–often anonymously. In the August 26 New York Times, readers learned that "a senior Obama administration official said Sunday that there was 'very little doubt' that President Bashar al-Assad's military forces had used chemical weapons against civilians last week."
The report, by Scott Shane and Ben Hubbard, added:
The official, in a written statement, said that "based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident."
The statement, released Sunday morning on the condition that the official not be named, reflected a tougher tone after President Obama's meeting at the White House on Saturday with his national security team, during which advisers discussed options for military action.
It is curious that this "tougher tone" comes from officials whom the paper will not name.
Today's edition of the Times (8/27/13) gives readers the headline "Kerry Cites Clear Evidence of Chemical Weapon Use in Syria." Earlier versions of the piece were less definitive (the headline read "Kerry Accuses Syria of Chemical Weapons Attack"), and it was difficult to see just what the clear evidence was–other than the acknowledgment that some sort of chemical attack had occurred, which is hardly in dispute.
The paper went on to report:
In the coming days, officials said, the nation's intelligence agencies will disclose information to bolster their case that chemical weapons were used by Mr. Assad's forces. The information could include so-called signals intelligence–intercepted radio or telephone calls between Syrian military commanders.
If there is such evidence, one would assume it would be made public as soon as possible. Instead, unnamed officials are telling the New York Times that they'll share it someday soon.
What would more skeptical coverage look like? Patrick Cockburn of the Independent (8/21/13) wrote that it is vital to be skeptical, since "the Syrian opposition has every incentive to show the Syrian government deploying chemical weapons in order to trigger foreign intervention." Cockburn adds that there are plenty of reasons for the Syrian government to not launch a chemical weapons attack, but
the obvious fact that for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons would be much against their own interests does not prove it did not happen. Governments and armies do stupid things.