Foreign Policy SEPTEMBER 10, 2013 - by Jeffrey Lewis


How Brian Eno explains Obama's Syria policy.

Last week, I wondered if the administration was making policy on Syria using Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies.

In case you don't know, Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards. Eno - Roxy Music keyboardist, ambient music pioneer, and uber-producer - created the deck with his friend Peter Schmidt, a painter, to provide inspiration when facing an artistic block. Subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, each card in the deck is printed with a cryptic aphorism - e.g., "Change specifics to ambiguities." Selecting a card at random is intended to encourage you to look at a problem differently. "The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts," Eno explained, "which said, 'Don't forget that you could adopt this attitude,' or 'Don't forget you could adopt that attitude.' The first Oblique Strategy said 'Honour thy error as a hidden intention.'"

Honour thy error as a hidden intention, indeed! I had been kidding about the whole Eno thing. But then John Kerry opened his big mouth and stumbled his way out of the morass that is the president's policy on Syrian chemical weapons. Someone send that man a copy of Here Come The Warm Jets.

Let's recall that this entire policy is, more or less, the result of an off-the-cuff remark. A year ago, in August 2012, President Obama ad-libbed a red line, announcing "that a red line for us [in Syria] is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

"You are an engineer."

I don't think the president meant it. Or he wouldn't have meant it had he thought about it before saying it. His every action to build public support since Syria conducted a mass gas attack on August 21 betrays what looks to me like regret. The president's decision to throw himself on the mercy of the U.S. Congress seems particularly designed to evade responsibility.

And, yet, he may be saved by another off-the-cuff remark. In response to a question about whether there was anything Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid a military strike, our verbose secretary of state chose to make policy on the fly: "Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week - turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting."

"Assemble some of the elements in a group and treat the group."

And just like that, the Russians and Syrians said, "Yes!" (It must have been a new experience for Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who has inherited the title of "Mr. Nyet" from Andrei Gromyko.) Lavrov seized on the idea, stating, "We are calling on the Syrian authorities not only [to] agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons."

The Syrians were delighted. Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said that "the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people."

Early reports suggest the administration is cool to the idea, though not openly hostile.

"Mute and continue."

Now, let's not get giddy here. Bashar is probably jerking us around. Saddam did the same thing -- remember that Hugh Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed he named the 1998 strike against Iraq "Desert Fox" because Saddam would always make an empty concession at the last moment to head off a strike. This time, Shelton said, he wanted to be "sly like a fox" and catch Saddam with "his pants down." Assad, too, is making a last-minute concession to head off an airstrike. But his motives matter less than the fact that he is, apparently, eager to avoid a military strike. So are the Russians. Some have derided the proposed strikes as mere symbolism. Assad's behaviour suggests he thinks airstrikes would be painful. That's the first good news we've had in a while.

The Russians and the Syrians almost certainly believe that President Obama is facing a disastrous result when the authorisation for the use of military force comes before the House. Assad, who apparently leaves C-SPAN on the television in his presidential palace, may well think that a last-minute offer would be the final nail in the authorisation's coffin. I think he is wrong.

"Look at the order in which you do things."

We have an opportunity here, if the Obama administration can think beyond the next off-the-cuff sentence. The president should announce a dual-track policy: He will accept Syria's offer to negotiate a verifiable renunciation of Syria's WMD programs, while at the same time seeking authorisation from Congress in response to the massacre at Ghouta. As commander-in-chief, he can hold strikes in abeyance, giving the diplomatic track with Syria and the United Nations enough time to succeed. If negotiations collapse, the United States will have forces in place and legal authorisation for a prompt effort to degrade Syria's capabilities and punish the Assad regime. Operation Steadfast Caucus might not be a total goat rodeo after all.

A dual-track policy would make it very hard for Congress to reject the president's request for the authorisation of the use of military force. It is, after all, the threat of force that has prompted Syria to propose renouncing its chemical weapons stockpile. If Congress rejects military force now, then Assad will certainly renege on his offer and keep his stockpile of chemical weapons. The president stands a far better chance to win authorisation to use force in support of a plausible diplomatic effort than for a punitive strike to save him from the embarrassment of an impulsive remark. Congress can find acceptable language that expresses support for diplomatic efforts to secure Libya's renunciation of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, while authorising the president to use force if he determines negotiations have failed.

"Go outside. Shut the door."

A dual-track approach would also move the United States closer to authorisation from the United Nations Security Council. Although Russia would veto any resolution that explicitly authorised U.S. military action against Syria, the United States can push for a resolution calling on Syria to renounce its chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, one that invokes U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 and Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Such an invocation would provide at least implicit authorisation to use force if Assad reneged on his disarmament commitments or used chemical weapons again.

Simply opening up negotiations with the Syrian government should shore up support for the president in both Washington and New York.

"Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them."

And, of course, it might actually work. I've posted a slightly longer discussion of the modalities at, but the outlines of an agreement are relatively clear: Syria would sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and publicly state that the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical weapons in internal conflicts. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria would be obligated to declare its chemical weapons holdings within 30 days and destroy them within ten years. The United States should insist that Syria accept an expedited schedule under the auspices of an international team that would help secure and remove Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons and precursors.

"Don't be frightened to display your talents."

The mechanics are not impossible, although the work of inspectors will be slowed by the security situation. It would probably take about two months for technical personnel to begin their activities. In 1991, the United Nations was able to commence its first chemical weapons inspection in Iraq about two months after Iraq accepted U.N. Security Council Resolution 687. Similarly, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has an inspectorate of about two hundred personnel, was on the ground in Libya overseeing the destruction of chemical agents about two months after Muammar al-Qaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction in December 2003.

It is important to have realistic expectations about what Syria's disarmament would look like. Although the Bush administration was fond of the phrase "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" disarmament, the reality in Libya fell short of those lofty goals. The Libyans were not entirely forthcoming in the early stages. Some commanders were reluctant to turn over chemical weapons stockpiles, fearing that Qaddafi was engaged in some sort of perverse loyalty test. At the end of the day, Bush administration officials were forced to admit that their confidence in Libya's disarmament was a judgment call. When Qaddafi fell in 2012, the OPCW found a remaining stockpile of mustard gas, as well as empty shells.

"You can only make one dot at a time."

Still, what remained was a fraction of Qaddafi's original arsenal. Most importantly, the stockpile remained in a storage depot for the duration of the conflict. Qaddafi, who had used chemical weapons in Chad and Sudan, was unable or unwilling to gas the opposition as his hold on power crumbled. Disarmament need not be perfect. After all, an airstrike would be even less likely to destroy the entirety of Syria's capacity to make and use chemical weapons. If Assad surrenders the larger portion of his chemical weapons stockpile and refrains from further large-scale gas attacks, that outcome is far preferable to what we might achieve through force alone - to say nothing of what happens if the president suffers a humiliation at the hands of Congress. If the deal completely collapses in six months or a year, the president will still be in a better position than he is today.

This does not, of course, achieve justice for the men, women, and children murdered on August 21. But it may very well stop more gas attacks. Often, in international relations, we have to settle for preventing further atrocities. Justice, when we are very lucky, only comes later.

Or, as Brian Eno said in one of his cards: "Left channel, right channel, centre channel."

I chose the oblique strategies in the column at random. If you find them insightful, that's your insight, not mine.