Robert Bennett: Important questions surrounding a potential U.S. attack on Syria

Published: Monday, Sept. 9 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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Now that President Barack Obama has decided to ask Congress for authorization for an attack on Syria, members of Congress can't hide behind general statements about how difficult the situation has become. They are going to have to have a full debate and then cast a hard vote, which is a good thing.

For some, of course, the vote is not hard. Howard Dean says that Obama is the president and we should automatically back him; Sarah Palin says if Obama's for it, she's against it.

The decision shouldn't be that knee-jerk, either way. While in the Senate, I faced three such votes on giving the president authorization for military action; in Kosovo, Iraq and, again, Iraq. Before deciding, I attended every classified briefing I could and weighed the evidence and possible outcomes as carefully as I could. Different circumstances led me to different conclusions: I was against Clinton on Kosovo, with him on Iraq, and with George W. Bush on Iraq.

In all three of these situations, the president did not propose that we act alone. Kosovo was a NATO exercise, supported by all the other European countries. Both Iraq actions were supported by United Nations resolutions; in the second one, under Bush, other nations' troops joined our troops on the ground.

That will not be the case if we attack Syria. Ironically, as President Obama was in Sweden saying that the "red line" of which he spoke was not drawn by him but by the whole world, the prime minister of Sweden said he would not support military action to enforce it. If we act in Syria, we act alone.

If I were faced with this vote, I would withhold my decision until I had attended every classified briefing and gathered as much information as I could. These are the questions I would ask:

How sure are we that chemical attacks were carried out on Assad's orders? Putin insists that they were not, that our intelligence is faulty. Do we have enough proof to show the world that he is wrong?

What specific targets do we have in mind? His air power? His military command and control capability? His chemical weapons factories? Something else? I wouldn't seek to know locations, just functions.

How will hitting those targets affect the outcome of the civil war? What is Assad's capacity to rebuild them? How much collateral damage will there be; that is, will we kill more civilians than were killed by chemical weapons?

How will our actions affect other nations in the region? What are the likely repercussions if we go in or the consequences if we stay out? When Bush went into Iraq, every one of Saddam Hussein's neighbors was quietly cheering us on, hoping we would make short work of him. Does the same hold true here?

All these questions, together with the others that should be asked, add up to a single, big, overall question, one that particularly applies to President Obama's "shot across the bow" concept, his pledge that the attack would be "limited and narrow" in scope.

If we do this, what difference will it make?

Unless there is a satisfactory answer to that one, we should not proceed, and as of now, I don't see how a "limited and narrow" one-time strike by the U.S. will change things for the better in Syria.

There are some very wise and good people who are supporting Obama on this, and I respect them. I hope they are doing so because of things they know that the rest of us don't — not just because they want to be loyal to the president.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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