"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."
- Isaac Asimov
"I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."
- George McGovern
We live in perilous times.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stands accused of ordering a chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, two and one-half weeks ago, and U.S. President Barack Obama intends to punish him by firing cruise missiles at Syria.
A majority of the American people, including liberals, say "no." Some members of Congress say "yes." Some say no. Others are hesitating.
Sen. Joe Manchin is hesitating and, much to his credit, wants to know what we think. You can check out his website or call his Washington office at 202-224-3954.
Obama's trigger finger started itching right after the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, and he moved ships loaded with cruise missiles ($1.5 million per missile) into the Mediterranean Sea.
But then a funny thing happened. Last Saturday, while taking a walk, he decided to check with Congress. Maybe he thought he should give lawmakers something to do besides debate Obamacare and the continuing budget resolution that comes up for a vote in a few weeks. Whatever.
On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a 10-7 vote, gave Obama broad war powers. The full Senate and the House are expected to take up the issue next week. Maybe there will be enough time for some critical thinking.
First question: How many people were killed in the Aug. 21 attack?
Answer: Your guess is going to be better than Obama's. He places the death toll at 1,429 people. British intelligence says 350; French intelligence says 281. Doctors Without Borders says 355.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a generally reliable source, told the Los Angeles Times this week that it has confirmed 502 deaths. The Syrian refugee who runs the organization says some Syrian opposition groups exaggerate death tolls as a way of swaying American politicians. "The U.S. took this high number from one part of the Syrian opposition," he says.
Second question: What's our national security interest in attacking Assad?
Answer: None. Furthermore, some insurgents in Syria are as evil as Assad. Most are linked to al-Qaeda, so attacking Assad would be aiding our enemy.
Third question: What proof does the administration have that Assad ordered a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21?
Answer: Unknown. Proof - not administration lies - is important, because Assad's use of chemical weapons is counter-intuitive.
He's been winning the civil war by conventional means. U.N. inspectors were only a few miles away when the alleged chemical weapons attack occurred. And Assad knew that using chemical weapons would prompt a U.S. response.
Furthermore, Obama's certitude notwithstanding, a report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence says the U.S. intelligence community doesn't have proof that Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons.
Fourth question: Did insurgents (perhaps al Qaeda) use chemical weapons as a way of drawing Obama into their fight against Assad?
Answer: Maybe. Last September, insurgents took control of a military base that had chemical weapons. Leon Panetta, secretary of defense at the time, said the rebels could have absconded with the chemicals.
Fifth question: Who wins if/when Obama launches missiles into Syria?
Answer: Nobody. Our missiles will break things and kill people, many of them innocent Syrian civilians. Assad will retain power. Syria and perhaps Iran might attack Israel with conventional or chemical weapons (more casualties), and the U.S. might be drawn into a boots-on-the-ground defense of Israel (more casualties).
Or or, if Israel is attacked, Obama might wish them luck and walk away, which would destroy our standing in the world.
All things considered, then, an attack on Assad is fraught with peril, and we can all be thankful that lawmakers have a chance to stop the president.
Now they need to do it.