On Syria, Obama's problem with GOP could grow worse

Republicans on Capitol Hill have some compelling reasons to oppose U.S. military intervention in Syria. They fear there is a significant presence of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups within the Syrian opposition. They don’t see the logic of attacking Syria over a chemical weapons attack that reportedly killed 1,400 people after doing nothing in response to conventional weapons attacks that killed perhaps 100,000 or more. They worry that the authorization to use military force, once given, can’t be limited. And perhaps most of all, they have no faith in Barack Obama to deal with the Syrian situation effectively.

One objection most Republicans have not raised is the fear the administration is exaggerating or cherry-picking the evidence concerning the chemical attack in Syria. But that is precisely what is being heard from a few sources on the left, including at least one Democratic member of Congress. If some Republicans, now returning to Washington to assess the administration’s case for war, join those doubters ??? then Obama’s problem will be even worse.

“[Secretary of State] John Kerry has said repeatedly that this administration isn’t trying to manipulate the intelligence reports the way that the Bush administration did to rationalize its invasion of Iraq,” wrote Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson in a weekend New York Times op-ed. “But by refusing to disclose the underlying data even to members of Congress, the administration is making it impossible for anyone to judge, independently, whether that statement is correct.”

Grayson’s doubts have been echoed in various places around the fringes of the left, on websites like Truthout and Counterpunch. And a few individual voices too. On Sunday, when I sent a tweet asking why more liberal critics of intervention did not cite the calamity of Libya as a reason to stay out of the Syrian civil war, Valerie Plame, the former CIA agent at the center of the long and bitter fight over intelligence in the Iraq war, answered with this: “Perhaps it is the sense that once again the intelligence used to justify policy is being manipulated.”

The question for most of the doubters is not whether a chemical weapons attack occurred; there seems to be widespread acceptance of that fact. The question is whether there is really evidence that convincingly links the Assad regime to the attack. In addition, some question whether the administration’s claim that 1,429 people died in the attack is too high. The bottom line, as Grayson, Plame, and others have suggested, is that they believe the Obama administration might be manipulating the evidence for war the way they accused the Bush administration of doing so back in 2002 and 2003.

So far Republicans have not joined in the questioning. (One exception is Rep. Justin Amash, who told CBS on Sunday that the administration may have “embellished” the evidence.) Since most Republicans who were active in politics a decade ago defended the Bush administration’s use of Iraq intelligence, perhaps they just don’t want to raise a similar issue about Syria now, which would inevitably involve re-litigating a dispute from years ago. But most GOP lawmakers are just now returning to Washington to hear the administration’s case. If some of them join in the doubts heard on the left, then the president’s job of convincing lawmakers will become even harder.