Foreign Policy Blogs

Yes, I Speak Intervention

John Kerry speaks on Syria

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, mid – sales pitch.
(credit: The Guardian; Michael Reynolds/EPA)

With a nod to Clausewitz, sort of, the language of politics is also the language of war. Arguments promoting a certain philosophy can also justify (or condemn) military action and be another weapon on the battlefield.

And so the first shots — er, sound bites — rang out Tuesday morning in the US, from entrenchments of the media and diplomatic field officers, while I surveyed the battlespace on cable TV.

After Monday when evidence began to implicate Assad’s Syrian forces in an egregious chemical attack against rebels, American talk shows and press conferences launched a strike of their own: rhetorical operations.

Tenet 1 – Your own position is good, protective, and worldly. Your opponent’s is evil, self-interested, and short-term oriented.

There was movement at dawn. As I stirred coffee, NBC News aired videos showing disfigured victims of chemical attacks, tugging on viewers’ heart-strings with crying refugees, and the head of the Free Syrian Army saying there is a “very good chance of the Assad regime falling” as a result of any missile strikes.

Mid-morning, over fruit and yogurt at my desk, a press conference with John Kerry popped up. His speechwriter gets bonus points for Secretary Kerry decrying a “moral obscenity,” an effective combination of something an audience would easily identify with (morality) and also find distasteful (obscenity). The military calls this ‘shaping the environment,’ which Secretary Kerry was certainly doing, at least for the American audience.

A third volley came over lunch. Fox Business hosted Anthony Shaffer, a retired Army officer, who referred to Syria’s chemical agents as “weapons of mass destruction.” I hadn’t heard that term in a while, but we all remember it. I (and most of the viewing public) also know a country next door to Syria that was invaded due to its (supposed) possession of said generally named material. The effect? Demonization by association and pushing buttons with a dramatic label.

The growing swell of refugees on Syria’s borders does need to be addressed. Chemical agents employed for military advantage and to cause large death tolls are immoral. And any intent to proliferate use of weapons known to cause mass casualty needs to be stemmed.

Yet the language used (at least in the US press) concentrates on the easily understood images of destitute refugees in crowded camps and chemical victims spread out on gurneys, and phrases intentionally used to provoke a response. These form a narrative designed to convince viewers of the necessity for Western intervention.



Language and sentiment are powerful allies. Ask any salesperson, advertising executive, or theater director. Ask any of the members of the US Congress that voted on the Iraq war resolution in 2002, when fears coursed through Washington DC that one might be un-American if he or she voted against a supposed moral imperative. If you believe the pitch, you buy the product.

These rhetorical operations are for the consumption of Americans and any other would-be allies in the run-up to decisive military action. They do NOT cover what may become assistance operations inside the Syrian borders when or if government forces severely falter, or inter-factional fighting among the half-dozen rebel groups, or eventual mass killings of Assad loyalists. They do not cover escalation of a Sunni/Shi’a conflict that might spread from Iraq into Syria and plunge Lebanon once again into war.

Regardless a series of strikes seems imminent. More heads of state appear to welcome intervention than those opposed. Neutralizing Assad’s forces is generally supported, the question is how and what would be most effective. International powers should not listen to the sales pitch, but rather carefully consider the consequences of intervention, and develop relevant contingencies.



Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.

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