Syria has used chemical weapons, US says. Are we going to war?

Syria has used chemical weapons – sarin nerve gas, to be exact – against its own people, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today.

And while Hagel’s pronouncement at first appeared somewhat uncertain – “The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin” – it’s being taken by the media as meaning the US is certain.

I still find the notion troubling, that “varying degrees of confidence” means “it’s true.”

Interestingly, just yesterday Hagel, channeling his inn-er Biden, said that he was skeptical of Israel’s claims to have found such evidence, which means that Hagel either got new evidence, or got a talking to.

“Suspicions are one thing,” Hagel told reporters traveling with him. “Evidence is another.”

Or not.

Syrian Syria chemical weapons

Syria via Shutterestock

Someone mentioned to me on Twitter, and I have to admit that I had the same thought, that this sounds an awful like “Iraq has WMD.”

I don’t want to go there, I’m not an anti-government conspiracy nut who assumes the government always lies, or always gets it wrong.  In fact, I’m actually a bit of a hawk on foreign policy matters.

But, I don’t like being lied to.  And I don’t like statements such as “assesses with some degree of varying confidence.”  To me, means “we’re kinda sorta maybe certain.”

CNN just showed Hagel’s impromptu presser earlier today, and the Defense Secretary was asked about the apparently hedging in the statement:

“It means that we still have some uncertainties about what was used, what kind of chemical was used, where it was used, who used it. In talking to our intelligence people here the last couple of hours they have a reasonable amount of confidence that some amount of chemical weapons was used.”

Even that uncertainty was uncertain.  We’re uncertain what was used – as in, whether or not it was a chemical weapon? – or only uncertain as to WHICH chemical weapon was used?  And who used it – meaning, whether it was the Syrian military – who else could it be?

If we’re certain that the Syrian government used some kind of chemical weapon against its people, then we should just say that.  But I’m troubled by discussions of “uncertain confidence” when speaking of Middle Eastern countries having and using chemical weapons.  Sounds all too familiar.

CNN is now saying that the US feels “intelligent assessments” are not enough – they want facts, proof.  Me too.

Now, I understand how intelligence assessments work, and you don’t always have certainty – it’s a bit like predicting the weather, or reading the tea leaves in politics (it’s a lot like reading the tea leaves in politics).  You have to make a judgment based on the sometimes-imperfect information you have. And that assessment could very likely include a probability of certainty.

That’s okay.  But, as with the Boston Marathon bombing coverage last week, when the stakes are high, you have to be much more careful about what uncertain information you make public, as the consequences of being wrong are much graver.

So I don’t fault the intelligence assessment.  I fault the immediate conclusion that this assessment means that Syria HAS used chemical weapons.  In fact, the assessment sounds like a strong “may,” “probably,” or “likely” – rather than a “has.”

And when John McCain goes on TV, like he just has, and says he’s “certain” that Assad has used chemical weapons, that’s enough for me to want someone to double-check.

Why does this all matter?  Because President Obama has earlier said that if President Assad uses chemical weapons against his people, that would be a “game changer” in terms of whether the US intervenes in the Syrian civil war.

And I’m for helping the Syrian people, if we can, if it makes sense (if such help will help achieve a positive outcome).  But damn, we’re cutting Medicare and Social Security, the sequester is bleeding government agencies dry, but we always find money when it comes to blowing something up.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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