Pick a Card, Any Card

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 utilized. 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 Organization 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 behavior 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 authorization 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 authorization'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 authorization 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 authorization 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 authorization 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 authorization 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 authorizing 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 authorization from the United Nations Security Council. Although Russia would veto any resolution that explicitly authorized 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 authorization 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 ArmsControlWonk.com, 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 10 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 Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has an inspectorate of about 200 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.


National Security

Keep Us in the Loop

The White House should release the evidence of Syria's chemical weapons attack.

Well, that doesn't seem to have gone very well.

Over the past week, the United States and its allies have begun to make their case for a limited military strike against the Syrian government.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and France have all released documents claiming that the Syrian army conducted a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which the United States claims killed more than 1,400 men, women, and children. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, and President François Hollande have all given speeches (although Cameron's did not have quite the effect he anticipated). And on Sept. 3, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey trudged up to Capitol Hill to persuade reluctant senators of the merits of a military response.

In light of these developments, I believe two things -- and suspect a third. First, that the Syrian government gassed its own people on Aug. 21. Second, that the United States should conduct a limited military strike to degrade Syria's ability to launch further attacks and to punish the Assad regime. But third and most importantly, I suspect that all these documents and speeches haven't persuaded anyone who did not already believe the first two things.

After the United States and Britain released documents claiming that Assad used chemical weapons, I complained that they were disappointing. The approach of the documents, as well as senior officials, has been one of smug assertion, livened up with purple prose about the horrors taking place in Syria. The United States asserts that the Syrians have chemical weapons, used them on Aug. 21, and killed more than 1,400 people. In some cases, U.S. officials deign to assert that certain types of evidence exist to support these claims. What the United States has not done is provide the evidence itself -- the satellite images, communications intercepts, and other data that would allow a fair-minded observer to reach the same conclusion on more than blind faith in the competence and integrity of our political leaders and intelligence services.

On the whole, the United States and its allies have failed to provide new evidence beyond the awful videos available on YouTube and the testimony of nongovernmental groups such as Doctors Without Borders -- evidence that, I hasten to add, I find compelling, if circumstantial. If anything, the recent performance by Kerry, Hagel, and Dempsey convinces me that the administration's approach will not change despite growing complaints that the evidence is too thin to convince reluctant interventionists. (And, no, curating these inadequacies at a little website doesn't count.)

The Obama administration does not understand the two important ways that public opinion has changed since 2003.

First, the sales job that preceded the Iraq War generated a level of popular cynicism about our political leaders and the intelligence community that is astonishing. (And, over the past decade, our political leaders haven't exactly behaved in ways that might have restored a sense of public trust.) It is hard to demonstrate how fundamentally the invasion of Iraq damaged our collective faith in our political institutions. One way is to ask, "What do we find funny?" There is a strong relationship between humor and those truths that are hardest to express plainly, which is why we describe both as being painful. There haven't been many films in recent years funnier than Armando Iannucci's In the Loop, which recounts the madness of the effort to sell the Iraq War from a British perspective. In the Loop is funny precisely because we suspect our political leaders are crass and venal, even on questions as important as war. Yet, I don't think our political leaders understand that is how many people view them. You should watch the real Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's chief spin doctor, confront his fictional alter ego, Malcolm Tucker, in a special viewing arranged for him. As Tucker spins Britain into war, much to the horrified delight of moviegoers, Campbell sits stone-faced. He does not find Tucker nearly as funny as the rest of us, which I think is very telling. The truth hurts.

The second problem relates to the amount of information we have at our fingertips. We have become accustomed to a deluge of open source information, not the dribs and drabs offered by intelligence communities worried about sources and methods. The press is agog over a fellow named Eliot Higgins, who blogs under the name Brown Moses. Higgins has been documenting the appearance of a new Syrian artillery rocket that seems to be linked to many purported chemical weapons attacks. The Guardian, Channel 4, and CNN International have all carried stories on this man, who started blogging about Syrian armaments when he "knew no more about weapons that the average Xbox owner." (That's his description, by the way.) Other sites maintained by N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Jean Pascal Zanders, independent researchers in Australia and Europe, also offer a level of detail that goes well beyond what the security trolls allow to appear in official documents. Most readers expect that the "real" intelligence paid for by tax dollars will be much more compelling than the stuff they get for free on various blogs. When the official stuff doesn't measure up, readers can get sort of surly.

So what to do about all of this? Well, one thing we should not do is cram another horrible litany of lies, half-truths, and distortions into a PowerPoint presentation. I don't think many people are going to be persuaded by something that overtly resembles such a low point in U.S. foreign policy. Besides, I don't think we can persuade Colin Powell to agree to star in the sequel. For better or for worse, people don't hold our political leaders in much esteem, nor are they much impressed by the sort of de minimis unclassified statements on offer.

So here is a modest proposal: Why not just release the vast majority of the evidence? We have a transcript of some Syrian army officer being ordered to gas Ghouta? Release it. (Newsflash: The Syrians know we monitor their communications.) We have satellite images of the units in place during the attack? Release them. (Another newsflash: Other countries know we have imaging satellites with very high resolution.) Release the vast majority of data, with basic information and commentary that would allow the rest of us to make up our own minds.

The purpose of such a data dump is to let independent nongovernmental organizations and private citizens to independently assess what happened in Syria. One of the nice things about having a vibrant civil society is that there are experts all over the country who have something to add to this conversation. I know people at the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Council on Foreign Relations, Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, and, of course, the Monterey Institute of International Studies who would read every word, look at every picture, and listen to every audio recording. Of course, so might old ladies in Dubuque and unemployed Frank Zappa fans in Leicester. That's okay -- you might be surprised by how much they know.

This shouldn't be so difficult for the "most transparent administration in history" right? Yes, that's sarcasm. I know how hard and long American officials fought each other before the Obama administration declassified the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile in 2010. The administration tied itself in knots over the release of one measly number -- something it did once and never again. The bureaucratic barriers to transparency remain significant, almost comically so. The administration, for example, just released a heavily redacted intelligence report on Syria's chemical weapons capabilities -- from 1985. (I suppose the good news is that we can send Airwolf to take out the sites.)

The point of a significant data dump -- excluding, of course, information from human sources who are still in Syria and therefore could be put in danger -- is that it would be the opposite of a sales job. What the administration needs at this point isn't more overwrought language about the horrors in Syria, but credible and independent validators. There are a fair number of people who'd like to turn their eyes away from what's happening in Syria. These people won't openly endorse the various conspiracy theories floating around the Internet, but they wave their hands about seemingly minor differences in the data -- or claim inconsistencies that don't exist -- as an excuse to air deeper suspicions that the government might be making all this up.

That seems pretty irresponsible to me, but it goes to a deeper problem. After Iraq, lots of people do worry the government might be making this all up. That's paranoid, of course, but there has long been a streak of the paranoid in American politics. Building a consensus behind acting in Syria requires more than the government saying "trust us." It requires engaging civil society and the public at large to demonstrate the depth and strength of the intelligence. My suspicion is that doing so -- by releasing the data -- would not disappoint but instead mobilize a significant number of independent voices that would support the administration's case for acting in Syria.

Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images