To persuade skeptics about Syria, Obama should follow Reagan’s example

President Obama hopes his prime-time speech on Tuesday evening will allow him to eke out enough votes from Congress to authorize military action against Syria. But eloquent oratory is not likely to win the day this time.

The president needs to come up with something new and persuasive to link Syrian President Bashar Assad to the chemical exposures on Aug. 21 near Damascus.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough did his best on the Sunday talk shows with the mantra:

“Nobody now debates the intelligence, which makes clear — and we have high confidence about this — that on August, in August, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people . . . The entire world believes that.”

Ever since John Kerry on Aug. 30 advertised the “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on Aug. 21, 2013,” the administration’s approach has been to require acceptance of that “assessment” as Bible truth and move directly to what the “consequences” should be.

Yet, some honest soul did manage to insert into that assessment: “Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation.” (emphasis added)

On Sunday, the proof that McDonough fell back on was what he called “common sense” that Assad was responsible for the chemical attacks: “Now do we have irrefutable, beyond reasonable doubt evidence? This is not a court of law, and intelligence does not work that way,” McDonough told CNN.

Many senators and representatives remain reluctant to join “the entire world” of believers. The slew of Congressional briefings held since Aug. 31, when President Obama asked Congress to authorize a military strike on Syria not only have been unsuccessful, but apparently counterproductive. House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a strong supporter of military action against Syria, said he thought it “very clear” that the president lost support in the last week.

That the case against Assad is apparently coming apart at the seams is seen in Sunday’s comment by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. — no peace-monger he. “They haven’t linked it [the evidence on the use of chemical agent] directly to Assad, in my estimation.”

What everyone, from Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., to the Russians to Assad himself is demanding is that Washington make public the evidence that allegedly ties Assad directly to the August chemical event near Damascus.

Last week, Grayson asked Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel to comment on reports that the administration has mischaracterized post-incident Syrian military communications. The White House has been saying they show Assad’s complicity in the chemical incident; others claim that the intercepted communications actually show the Syrians expressing surprise at the attacks.

At this point, President Obama needs to follow the example of Ronald Reagan, who recognized that sometimes more damage is done to U.S. national security by “protecting” sources and methods than by revealing them.

He acted on that understanding when he was confronted by a highly skeptical world after U.S. forces attacked Libya in retaliation for the Libya-sponsored April 5, 1986 bombing at the La Belle Disco in West Berlin.

The bombing in Berlin killed two U.S. servicemen and injured more than 200 people, including 79 U.S. troops. Intercepted messages between Tripoli and agents in Europe made it clear that Libya was behind the attack. Here is an excerpt:

At 1:30 in the morning one of the acts was carried out with success, without leaving a trace behind.

Ten days later the United States retaliated, sending over 60 aircraft to strike the Libyan capital of Tripoli and the city of Benghazi. Col. Gadhafi survived, but his adopted 15-month old daughter did not, and at least 15 other civilians were killed.

As world indignation grew, Washington made public the intercepted, decoded message sent by Libyans in East Berlin acknowledging the “success” of the attack on the disco, and adding the ironically inaccurate boast “without leaving a trace behind.”

Reagan decided to sacrifice a highly sensitive intelligence source — the ability to intercept and decipher Libyan communications to greater purpose. And once the rest of the world read the intercept, international grumbling subsided.

This is the time for Obama to do likewise. Continuing to dance around with generalities and “assessments,” rather than releasing hard evidence (if any), is likely to feed suspicions that the evidence against Assad is nowhere near as conclusive as the administration claims.

Ray McGovern served as a CIA analyst for 27 years and conducted one-on-one morning briefings for President Reagan’s most senior national-security officials.

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