Jean Bricmont


monográfico · La navaja escéptica


On War and War Propaganda

Jean Bricmont


All wars need preparatory war propaganda and usually are justified by lies and gross exaggeration. Sometimes major wars can be averted, sometimes not. The Cuban missile crisis is an example of the first category, the Tonkin Gulf incident an example of the second. In both cases, exaggerated claims and fears led or did nor lead to wars with catastrophic consequences. A nuclear war and annihilation of a great part of mankind in the case of the Cuban missile crisis and the mere slaughter of a few million Indochinese in the case of the Tonkin Gulf.

The most famous recent example of a war with catastrophic consequences that are still with us is of course the Iraq war, based on the lie of weapons of mass destruction. It must be noted that a tentative scientific evaluation of the number of deaths in the “war on terror” arrives at a total of 1.3 million deaths,1 which dwarfs the “crimes” attributed to Assad, Putin, Gaddafi, even put together.

Here, I will consider another example of what is very likely a war-provoking lie, but that so far has not led to a major war, namely the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in August 2013 in the East Ghouta near Damascus.

Of course, there have been many claims, by Human Rights Watch and the New York Times, among others, of having “proofs” of the responsibility of the Syrian government in those attacks.2

But one should also consider contradictory evidence. A significant example is a study entitled: “Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013”3. It was jointly written by a former UN Weapons Inspector, Richard Lloyd and a Professor of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at MIT, Theodore A. Postol.

The conclusions of their study are unambiguous:

  • The Syrian improvised chemical munitions that were used in the August 21 nerve agent attack in Damascus have a range of about 2 kilometers.
  • The UN independent assessment of the range of the chemical munition is in exact agreement with our findings.
  • This indicates that these munitions could not possibly have been fired at East Ghouta from the “heart”, or from the eastern edge, of the Syrian government controlled area shown in the intelligence map published by the White House on August 30, 2013.
  • This mistaken intelligence could have led to an unjustified US military action based on false intelligence.
  • A proper vetting of the fact that the munition was of such short range would have led to a completely different assessment of the situation from the gathered data.
  • Whatever the reasons for the egregious errors in the intelligence, the source of these errors needs to be explained.
  • If the source of these errors is not identified, the procedures that led to this intelligence failure will go uncorrected, and the chances of a future policy disaster will grow with certainty.

It is unlikely that a former UN Weapons Inspector and an MIT professor would deliberately distort information out of love for the Syrian government, specially given the ideological climate in the United States. It is also unlikely that they would make an error in their analysis, given that it is based on rather elementary physics.

Another piece of evidence comes from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who wrote: “British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.”4

In a response to criticisms leveled against Seymour Hersh, the authors of the above-mentioned study, Richard Lloyd and Ted Postol wrote: “We do not claim to know who was actually behind the attack of 21 August in Damascus. But we can say for sure that neither do the people who claim to have clear evidence that it was the Syrian government. The mainstream American media have done a disservice to the public by allowing politically motivated individuals, governments, and non-government organisations to misrepresent facts that clearly point to serious breaches of the truth by the White House.”5

Yet, these facts are rarely brought to the attention of the public or of the politicians. Indeed, when the former French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, left office, he still complained, in February 2016, that Obama had not enforced his “red line”, namely the use of force in case the Syrian government uses chemical weapons.6

It is interesting to see what was written at the time of the Ghouta attack in the American and Israeli press.

The Times of Israel headlined: “Israel intelligence seen as central to U.S. case against Syria.”7

Then, in Haaretz: “AIPAC to deploy hundreds of lobbyists to push for Syria action”8. Or, in U.S. News and World Report: “Pro-Israel lobby Seeks to Turn Tide on Syria Debate in Congress”9. According to Bloomberg: “Adelson New Obama Ally as Jewish Groups Back Syria Strike”10. And also, according to the Times of Israel, “U.S. rabbis urge Congress to back Obama on Syria”11.

The New York Times explained some of the logic behind the pressure: “Administration officials said the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC was already at work pressing for military action against the government of Mr. Assad, fearing that if Syria escapes American retribution for its use of chemical weapons, Iran might be emboldened in the future to attack Israel. … One administration official, who, like others, declined to be identified discussing White House strategy, called AIPAC ‘the 800-pound gorilla in the room,’ and said its allies in Congress had to be saying, ‘If the White House is not capable of enforcing this red line’ against the catastrophic use of chemical weapons, ‘we’re in trouble’.”

According to cables obtained by Wikileaks, Hillary Clinton, when she was United States secretary of state, wrote that: “The best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad.” The logic being that, with a new regime in Syria, “Hezbollah in Lebanon would be cut off from its Iranian sponsor since Syria would no longer be a transit point for Iranian training, assistance and missiles.”12

Even so, it is not certain that Israel’s war aim would be to overthrow Assad, at least in the near future. A clue to Israel’s intentions is provided by a September 5 article in the New York Times11: “Israeli officials have consistently made the case that enforcing Mr. Obama’s narrow ‘red line’ on Syria is essential to halting the nuclear ambitions of Israel’s archenemy, Iran. More quietly, Israelis have increasingly argued that the best outcome for Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, at least for the moment, is no outcome. For Jerusalem, the status quo, horrific as it may be from a humanitarian perspective, seems preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.”

“This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”13

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, stressed the same points in August 2016: “The West should seek the further weakening of Islamic State, but not its destruction..

Allowing bad guys to kill bad guys sounds very cynical, but it is useful and even moral to do so if it keeps the bad guys busy and less able to harm the good guys. The Hobbesian reality of the Middle East does not always present a neat moral choice. The West yearns for stability, and holds out a naive hope that the military defeat of IS will be instrumental in reaching that goal. But stability is not a value in and of itself. It is desirable only if it serves our interests….

Moreover, instability and crises sometimes contain portents of positive change. Unfortunately, the Obama administration fails to see that its main enemy is Iran. The Obama administration has inflated the threat from IS in order to legitimize Iran as a “responsible” actor that will, supposedly, fight IS in the Middle East. This was part of the Obama administration’s rationale for its nuclear deal with Iran and central to its “legacy,” which is likely to be ill-remembered.

The American administration does not appear capable of recognizing the fact that IS can be a useful tool in undermining Tehran’s ambitious plan for domination of the Middle East.”14

At the time of the Ghouta attack, and in order to add to the dramatization, images of the Holocaust were brought into the fray. The Cleveland Jewish News published a letter from “leading rabbis” urging Congress to support President Obama’s plans to strike Syria. “We write you as descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees, whose ancestors were gassed to death in concentration camps,” the letter said. By authorizing bombing raids, the rabbis said, “Congress has the capacity to save thousands of lives.”15

Without this dramatization one would realize that, as the examples of Iraq and Libya show, the best way to promote human rights and protect populations is not to wage unilateral wars, destroy what is left of the international legal order and spread chaos.

One of the factors that led the Obama administration to give up its attacks on Syria, besides the information that he may have received (according to Hersh) contradicting the official reports, was the vote of the British Parliament against the war and the mobilization of the American public, putting pressure on the United States Congress not to authorize this adventure.

If Hillary Clinton is the next president of the United States, it is likely that steps toward open war in Syria will only increase. It is incumbent upon Western citizens to demand that claims justifying wars be examined with the utmost scientific rigor and that all point of views be heard and not only those with a militaristic agenda.


2 For a critique of the NYT-HRW claims, see The August 2016 UN report that accuses the Syrian government of having used chemical weapons does not deal with the 2013 events:

For a discussion of this UN report, see

3 For more discussion of the « evidence », see also Gareth Porter: How Intelligence Was Twisted to Support an Attack on Syria,

4 The Red Line and the Rat Line London Review of Books Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014

5 Whose Sarin? London Review of Books Letters, Vol 36, No 10, 22 May 2014










15 Cleveland Jewish News, 9/6/2013


Jean Bricmont

 Theoretical physicist and philosopher of science at the Université catholique de Louvain