In the aftermath of the latest suspected chemical attack in Syria, the Russian government borrowed a tactic from President Trump. First, it denied the evidence: “False information is being planted about the alleged use of chlorine and other toxic agents by the Syrian government forces.” Then, it gave the allegations a familiar label: “fake news.”
After that, it blamed the attack on a humanitarian organization, the Syrian White Helmets - an extraordinary group of volunteers who pull people out of the rubble after bombs go off - and not for the first time. The White Helmets have been the focus of an intensive smear campaign, going back many years, involving hundreds of false articles and fake videos. The organizers of this effort have made shrewd use of social media algorithms to spread their accusations far and wide: On a friend’s suggestion, I typed “White Helmets” into YouTube’s search engine a couple of days ago. Seven of the first 10 results were links to attacks on the organization broadcast by RT, the Russian state propaganda channel.
The campaign is part of a broader attack on trusted organizations and a broader promotion of doubt and suspicion in the international conversation. And no wonder: The White Helmets not only offer humanitarian aid (thus proving that not all opponents of the Syrian regime are terrorists), but also they document Syrian and Russian war crimes. Like Trump’s attacks on the “mainstream media,” the Russian campaign against the White Helmets is an attempt to undermine an organization that strives to tell the truth.
Nor is it Russia’s only version of events. As in the past - after a missile linked to Russia took down a Malaysia Airlines plane in eastern Ukraine, after an ex-spy was poisoned in Britain - the Russian government is also attacking the truth by producing multiple conflicting stories. The Russian Embassy in Washington is blaming the suspected chemical attack on “terrorists,” while the Russian Embassy in Abu Dhabi says it didn’t happen at all. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov now says the attack was “staged” by an “anti-Russian” government. The Russian Defense Ministry went further, blaming … Britain.
With a different American president, it might be possible to overcome this torrent of contradicting story lines. Neutral international institutions such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will report on what happened. So will reputable news organizations. But Trump has never expressed any support for neutral international institutions, and he has exerted great efforts to weaken trust in reputable news organizations. Above all, his personal reputation for dishonesty makes it difficult for him to be the credible face of a Western consensus.
Instead of offering a clear interpretation of events, Trump adds to the confusion. Over the past several weeks he has alternately declared that he wants to pull out of Syria; that he wants to send missiles to Syria (“nice and new and ‘smart!’ “; and that maybe he won’t in fact bomb Syria (“could be very soon or not so soon at all!”).
In this context, many of the normal arguments for or against an American use of force make no sense. Many have argued in the past that Washington should oppose the use of chemical weapons on principle. As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said a couple of days ago, “Some things are inexcusable, beyond the pale, and in the worst interest of not just the chemical weapons convention, but civilization itself.” Others believe that the United States, having stated its opposition to the use of chemical weapons, needs to make a gesture to maintain its credibility.
But in the current context, the United States has no credibility. Nobody believes that this White House has a long-term strategy in Syria or any real policy toward chemical weapons. Nobody believes that an attack on a Syrian chemical weapons facility or an airfield would end the use of these weapons either; certainly the last one didn’t. While Russia seeks to undermine any assessment of what is happening on the ground, Trump undermines the United States’ authority to do anything about it.
Anne Applebaum is a columnist with The Washington Post.