Whacking the hornets' nest

Whacking the hornets' nest (KAL/The Economist / September 5, 2013)

As some people who served in our government under President George W. Bush acknowledge the ever escalating tragic consequences of going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, now seems the perfect time for those of influence on both sides of the aisle to ask some desperately needed questions regarding our seemingly pending attack on the government of Syria.

Should these decision-makers and people of influence desire to speak from the moral high-ground on this issue, they need only listen first to the tens of thousands of American families who either lost a son or daughter in Iraq and Afghanistan or had a loved-one crippled in those countries. If they choose to listen, they will hear one question over and over again: "Why?" They will next hear: "What was honestly accomplished with the sacrifice of my child?"

With regard to Iraq, it is clear to all that we left a broken country in our wake, killed thousands of Iraqis, and created the circumstances which allowed for Sunni on Shia sectarian civil war which resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of more Iraqis, many of them women and children killed and tortured in the most horrific of ways. In Afghanistan, most or all of the lessons of the former Soviet Union's humiliation in that country were lost on the decision makers in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

Soon after September 11, 2001, some asked whether our special forces could have punished the Taliban just as well as an invasion that committed tens of thousands of young American soldiers to the conflict. The same question was asked with regard to Saddam Hussein and the rationale for going into Iraq. But those voices were not heeded.

The Obama administration is now pushing Congress to approve military strikes to "punish" Syrian President Bashar Assad and his government. Based on our recent tragic history in the area, below are a few questions the White House may want to contemplate:

•What is the end-game of such an attack? Will it simply be a "face-saving" gesture from President Barack Obama that involves some cruise-missile and Predator strikes? The sectarian violence in Syria is already increasing drastically. What happens if we shift the balance of power with an attack? Do we in fact escalate the loss of more innocent human life?

•Is the Obama administration as confident as the Bush administration was with regard to Iraq and its supposed weapons of mass destruction that they have a "slam-dunk" case? Is there absolutely no possibility that the opposition to Mr. Assad (including al-Qaida terrorists) used the chemical weapons, as the Russian government is now strongly claiming, knowing the Assad regime would be blamed and subsequently attacked?

•There have already been almost 100,000 Syrians killed in this civil war. The Obama administration did not act in response to those deaths. Does it only matter how a Syrian is killed? Bullets and bombings are acceptable, but chemical attack is not?

•Most importantly, what will be the reaction from Russia should we attack? Even the most partisan supporters of President Obama will admit that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has little or no respect for our president. Should we attack, how will Mr. Putin respond? Will he escalate the Russian presence in Syria? Will he draw his own line in the sand? Do we dare to call Mr. Putin's future "bluffs?"

Beyond the White House, Congress has an obligation to ask these questions and many more.

During his campaign for president, then-Senator Obama was fond of saying that the definition of insanity was "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Doesn't attacking Syria at this moment exactly fit his definition?

Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the memoir "Rolling Pennies In The Dark" (Simon & Schuster, 2012). His email is douglas.mackinnon@dentons.com.