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.