Spinning us along the path to military intervention

By Simon Barrow
August 28, 2013

The performance of the young US State Department spokesperson on BBC Newsnight this evening (27 August) was extremely chilling, not least for the insouciant way in which a series of necessarily probing questions about a military strike on Syria were simply waved away with stock remarks like, "we'll factor that in".

Marie Harf is the deputy press secretary at the State Department. She describes herself as an alumnus of the CIA, as well as Obama 2012, Indiana University and Ohio. She is a relatively smooth operator, but also, at the end of the day, a functionary whose job is to reiterate and reinforce 'the line'.

That line, it seems, is to inform the rest of the world, including junior partners in the UK, that a decision about whether to escalate armed intervention in the Middle East will be conducted by President Obama, not by anyone else, and that "we will operate decisions on our own timeline". Of course, that is instantly followed by a genuflection to "the international community" or somesuch, but the air of undisturbed confidence from Ms Harf tells you, more than words ever could, that this is merely a diplomatic afterthought.

So what about the danger that a strike against Assad will unleash war with Israel?, asked presenter Kirsty Wark. "We'll factor that in". What about the ramifications for the wider region? "We'll factor that in". What about objections or questions in the international community? "We'll factor that in". What about waiting for the UN inspectors' report, not least to maintain dialogue with China and Russia? "We will operate decisions on our own timeline". And so on...

Evidence that the recent use of chemical agents was commissioned and executed by Assad and his cohorts? The US will be "releasing the information to the world" (courtesy of Israeli intelligence, no need for the pesky UN -- though that wasn't mentioned) soon and/or "when it's appropriate".

It was like listening to a gently smiling automaton who was looking at you, but in fact through you. It left the distinct impression that the decisions had already been taken, or if they hadn't, they were none of yours or anybody else's business.

If you're not already willing, you're not part of the coalition -- that is, our coalition... See?

Ms Harf's State Department briefing on Sunday 26 August was full of the same sort of polite evasion and PR obfuscation, as this exchange on the promised "additional information" on the use of chemical weapons (i.e. some semblance of evidence) indicates. It would be amusing if it wasn't so serious.

Question: What kind of information is that? And when he says he – it will be provided in the days ahead --

Ms Harf: Mm-hmm.

Question: -- provided to whom?

Ms Harf: Well, it’s the kind of information that the intelligence community is looking at as part of their assessment. Clearly, part of that is open-source information. Clearly, part of that is the type of intelligence that we gather when we’re trying to make determinations, similar to what we did when we made the last determination about chemical weapons use. So when we have something further to share on that assessment and that detailed information, we will be sharing it with the public in the appropriate venue, and also we’ve been sharing it with our partners around the world at the same time.

Question: Okay. I’m sorry. Maybe I’m not making myself clear. What --

Ms Harf: I think I answered your question.

Question: No, you didn’t.

Ms Harf: With the public.

Question: You didn’t come – (laughter) – you didn’t – I asked --

Ms Harf: I said – who are we going to be sharing with? – with the public.

Question: Yes. That’s nice that you’re going to be sharing it with the public --

Ms Harf: Okay.

Questions: -- which means us [the media], too, correct?

Ms Harf: You are part of the public, yes, still.

Question: Excellent. Excellent. Still? (Laughter.) Until I end up in a --

Ms Harf: Until further notice.

Question: -- Moscow airport someplace, right? But what is this additional information? Is it intelligence report? Is it the soil sample kind of thing? Is it – I don’t know – skin samples, blood work?

Ms Harf: Well, I’m not going to get into specifics about what that information is. We will share those specifics when it’s appropriate.

So there you have it. The United States announces itself to be in an advanced state of preparation for a strike against Syria, and with regard to the pretext for it, it's still, "We will share those specifics when it’s appropriate."

That simply means 'as and when we see fit, in our own interests', by the way. You can read the whole briefing here. http://tinyurl.com/oeltn8h

We deserve so much better. We really do.

Meanwhile, interviewed as a panellist on the same programme, former Labour MP Clare Short, who ultimately resigned from her ministerial post under Tony Blair over the Iraq war, commented: "This rush to action is making me very suspicious." Rightly so.

* 'Syria: what lies behind the clamour for military strikes?', by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18911

* More on Syria from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/syria

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter @simonbarrow

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.