The Realist Prism: At G-20, Obama Finds No Political Cover for U.S. Strikes in Syria

The Realist Prism: At G-20, Obama Finds No Political Cover for U.S. Strikes in Syria

President Barack Obama apparently failed to change any minds on Syria when the leaders attending the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, met for a working dinner Thursday night. Instead, according to Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the divisions over Syria “were confirmed” at the dinner.

One of the problems facing the Obama team is that there remains widespread skepticism about the veracity of U.S. intelligence claims. Even as lab results from Britain's Porton Down laboratory seem to confirm that sarin gas was used in the attack on three Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, Russia, along with some other countries, continues to insist that chemical weapons might have been used by the Syrian opposition. So far, the president has not been able to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin or other skeptics that there is solid proof to back up U.S. assertions, in part because Obama did not present his fellow world leaders with clear and convincing evidence, such as satellite imagery or transcripts of intercepted communications. While members of Congress have received more classified briefings, Secretary of State John Kerry has argued that what has been released publicly, and what serves as the basis of the American case at the G-20, is “unprecedented” and “sufficient” to support the U.S. claims.

The problem is that the Obama administration is reaping the legacy sown by the speech delivered by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003. Powell told the council that while he could not reveal everything the U.S. knew, he would share "an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior" that would prove that "Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction." Powell presented a mix of audio intercepts and other intelligence snippets to present a prima facie case, one that later turned out to be highly inaccurate. Other U.S. promises—about a swift campaign followed by rapid and cost-effective reconstruction of a post-Saddam Iraq into a secular, prosperous democracy, with little or no destabilization of the Middle East—also proved to be unfounded.

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