Syria: The Shrek/Onion Paradigm

syria speechAny speechwriter’s toughest assignment: what words to use when the policy is in utter disarray? President Obama’s team last night made the best of a dismal job.

Syria is a classic example of what I call TSOP: The Shrek/Onion Paradigm. Issues are like onions are like ogres: they have layers. Look at some of Syria’s layers, in ascending order of abstractness. National borders that make no intrinsic sense. Sharp religious/community differences (Bosnia, but far bigger). Lebanon’s stability. Arabs v Israel. Saudi Arabia v Iran. Arab national socialism v Modernity. Russia v USA. The World v WMD. Peace v Justice.

It’s not surprising that within all these layers Western leaders grapple to find and articulate any policy involving Syria that combines intelligent ambition, coherent principles, and (above all) a plausible chance of making a ghastly situation rather better. This last one has been the key flaw in all the talk of a military strike against the Assad regime following the chemical weapons atrocity in Damascus: no-one has been able or willing to spell out why blowing up some Syrian buildings and Syrian people will improve prospects for anything positive.

Western leaders, and above all, the President of the United States, might prefer to stay quiet when confronted with a ghastly problem like Syria that has so many obviously harmful ramifications. But voters and the chatterati demand that their leaders earn their salaries and show leadership. Thus the doomed attempts of President Obama and his team to tip-toe between sounding strong in general, while not getting committed to anything in particular.

Even if it perhaps is excusable in the confusion of the Syria conflict to have no clear idea of what to do, it’s professionally unforgiveable to make inconsistent, ill-coordinated statements that project indecision and weakness. Assad must go! (But he won’t go.) Use of CW is a red line! (But it’s the world’s red line, not mine.) Assad must be bombed! (But let me check with Congress first.) Above all, it makes no sense to froth up rhetorical comparisons between the actions of the Syrian regime and Munich 1939 or the Holocaust, then signal that the USA is going to respond only with “a shot across Assad’s bows” or an “unbelievably small” attack.

The result of sustained lack of policy grip is policy defeat. First, UK Prime Minister David Cameron failed to convince Parliament that further UK military action against a Middle Eastern country was acceptable. This compelled President Obama likewise to turn to Congress, where until yesterday he too was struggling to win the day. Then along came Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff jibe suggesting that Assad could avoid military action by handing over all his chemical weapons within a week. Moscow pounced on this specious idea.

Thus President Obama’s speech last night.

As speeches go, it was superficially smooth and plausible. It kept on the table the threat of military action against the Assad regime:

… “a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective:  deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.” (Note that there are two objectives here, the first much more slippery than the second.)

Plus the action would not be as ‘unbelievably small’ as John Kerry had suggested:

“The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.  Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.  I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force – we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next.  But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.”

President Obama announced that he would hold back from any such action to explore with Russia and China a UN resolution requiring Syria to surrender and “ultimately” (sic) destroy its CW stocks under international supervision. He concluded elegantly:

“[F]for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security.  This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them.  The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them…

America is not the world’s policeman.  Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.  But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different.  That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Good words. Unfortunately, what the President is suggesting can’t and won’t work.

As I wrote for the London Daily Telegraph website yesterday, destroying CW stocks is a complex and expensive operation, even under calm conditions. Both the United States and Russia have both heavily failed to meet internationally agreed deadlines for destroying their massive Cold War legacy chemical weapons stocks. There is no precedent for attempting anything like this in a country wracked by civil war. No Syrian chemical weapons will be destroyed or “handed over” quickly.

Not only that. As we have immediately seen, the Russians will duck and weave to avoid any binding UN resolution that leaves open any option for the use of force if Syria fails to comply. So, the problem simply hops to another layer. Can Washington with London and France manoeuvre Moscow (and Beijing) into vetoing a resolution that is tough enough to matter? And if so, aren’t we just where we were, but with political and diplomatic momentum dissipated?

The real risk in President Obama’s new approach is this. The protracted painstaking negotiation needed to set up a credible international monitoring and destruction regime for Syria’s CW stocks will give Assad and his state apparatus a massive boost of renewed confidence and legitimacy. Before long Washington may find itself locked on to implicitly or even explicitly supporting Assad in his civil war as the best chance to get some sort of internationally agreed CW destruction programme delivered in Syria.

That won’t be a victory for restrained US diplomacy. It will be a dramatic success for Vladimir Putin and his strident anti-Western noises. The human and political cost in Syria and beyond of Assad staying in power will grow and grow. No speech, however subtle and well-crafted, will hide that disaster.

Charles Crawford Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website or @CharlesCrawford

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  • blinick

    nicely put. How a president can udo US reputation in more than one fell swoop. it will take a few more presidents to undo the undone.

  • DanC

    Useful insights.

    Trying to understand sentence in piece quoted below.

    “Can Washington with London and France manoeuvre Moscow (and Beijing) into vetoing a resolution that is tough enough to matter? ”

    Surely West want Moscow to accept resolution (I.e. not vetoe)??

    • Fair point. I condensed the thought a bit too much.

      I was trying to say that Russia of course will not accept a tough resolution that has a 'use of force' stick in it explicitly or implicitly. So Western capitals then have a choice: to go along with a more or less hollow resolution that has no way of dealing with Syrian non-compliance (ie a waste of time), or forcing the issue to a vote that Russia then vetoes.

      That veto would then expose Russia as the main obstacle to doing anything at all meaningful in Syria, thereby (perhaps) leaving military force as a slightly more credible 'last resort' option.

      Even then, what to blow up? And will blowing it up effect any valuable improvement in real life?

  • HCav

    Perhaps it's not the worst thing that destroying the CW stocks (if that course of action is pursued) will be done slowly. Their presence in Syria is not what's driving the Civil War. And the search for, and disposal of the weapons will keep the international eye on Syria, which seems to have been lacking before a few weeks ago…

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