A statistically significant poll of the American adult Internet population reveals that 52.4% believe the US government would mislead them "about a foreign government’s use of chemical weapons in order to justify US military action." 45.7% responded that they did not believe the US government would mislead them, while the remainder (1.9%) provided other responses.
Question: Do you believe the US government would ever mislead Americans about a foreign government’s use of chemical weapons in order to justify US military action?
The IRmep poll administered by Google Surveys has a RMSE score of 5.8 and was fielded July 5-22, just after Seymour Hersh’s stunning investigative report discrediting the official narrative justifying President Trump’s authorization to launch fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Air base in Syria on April 6.
The mainstream media narrative claimed the Syrian government under president Bashar al Assad bombed the rebel-held town of Khan Seikhoun with the deadly nerve agent sarin on April 4. Assad “choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” claimed President Trump. The U.S. Tomahawk strike targeted Shayrat because that is where the chemical weapons were prepared and loaded onto fighter bomber aircraft. According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “We feel that the strike itself was proportional, because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack.”
US mainstream news media uncritically trumpeted the administration’s pretext as fact and that the retaliation was widely supported by the American people. A CBS News survey claimed "57 percent of Americans" approved of Trump’s military strikes. The question ABC presented to respondents (the question is not found within the body of news articles) April 7-9 presumed guilt. "In response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, do you approve or disapprove of the US launching airstrikes against Syrian military targets?"
A later Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted April 9-7 was similarly presumptive, but less conclusive. "Do you support or oppose President Trump’s decision to launch a missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for the Syrian government using chemical weapons against civilians?" Only 51% of Americans supported the strikes, with 40% opposing and the rest offering no opinion.
Mostly excluded from the mainstream narratives were expert dissenting analysts. Robert Parry noticed "All the Important People who appeared on the TV shows or who were quoted in the mainstream media trusted the images provided by Al Qaeda–related propagandists and ignored documented prior cases in which the Syrian rebels staged chemical weapons incidents to implicate the Assad government."
The single most damning assault on the official narrative was offered by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on June 25. Hersh built a reputation for breaking stories that upended official narratives, such as the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Increasingly driven away from American media outlets, Hersh relied on Germany’s Welt to reveal the weakness of official claims about Khan Seikhoun after US publications took a pass.
Hersh wrote that, based on sources inside the intelligence community, the CIA and DIA had "no evidence that Syria had sarin or used it." He recalled that such an attack made no sense, since by the end of March the Trump administration had "abandoned the goal" of pressuring Assad to leave. The Russians, eager to gain US cooperation against Isis, warned the US in advance about the planned attack on the suspected rebel headquarters building in Khan Seikhoun as part of a comprehensive "deconfliction" program. Hersh noted that pictures of the dead and dying victims were uploaded to social media by local activists – in particular the "White Helmets" – who were “known for close coordination with Syrian rebels.”
A few days after the Hersh report, the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons claimed that sarin was present in Khan Seikhoun. However, OPCW neither identified which parties were behind the release of sarin nor their motives. Russia claimed the OPCW analysis was fatally flawed, noting the US unwillingness to permit international inspections of Sha’irat airbase and lack of international inspectors at Khan Sheikhoun.
Many parties that wished to remain in the background are more interested in demonizing Russia, the Syrian government and ultimately precipitating US military attacks on Iran than on proving anything about what happened. In the US these parties include hardline neoconservatives, the Israel lobby and large numbers of interventionists in the Democratic and Republican parties. In their quest to present compelling narratives that bolster their policy preferences, they can be expected to be less interested in facts than irreversible actions that commit the US militarily. The mainstream media has proven – yet again – its willingness to quickly jump on such bandwagons with uncritical reporting and skewed public opinion polls.
Yet despite all the largely one-sided establishment news reporting, the IRmep poll suggests average Americans are twice as skeptical about claims of foreign chemical weapons use as the interventionists and their captured media outlets. Americans appear to be less willing to swallow what look like such tightly coordinated incidents-to-narratives because they have already been burned once by "slam-dunk" (but equally unfounded) claims of WMD’s as a pretext for the disastrous US invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, one hundred days after the Bush administration’s invasion – propelled by claims that Iraq had facilities to create weapons of mass destruction – were discredited 86% of Americans still believed the claims. One hundred days after the Trump administration’s Assad regime sarin claims, a majority of Americans believe the administration is perfectly capable of misleading them about such critical matters. As a US-Russia brokered ceasefire spreads, this popular skepticism is a healthy new development.
This skepticism could be enough to slow future dubious, immediate and allegedly "emotion-driven" US strikes on Iran if a charred Iranian passport were to turn up in a London Bridge-type terror attack. Or if unsubstantiated claims of "Iranian" chemical weapons use were suddenly unleashed across social media platforms – with compelling photos of the dead and dying for mainstream media to regurgitate – in yet another desperate battlefront such as Yemen.
Grant F. Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington and the author of the 2016 book, Big Israel: How Israel’s Lobby moves America and America’s Defense Line: The Justice Department’s Battle to Register the Israel Lobby as Agents of a Foreign Government.