Posted by Dr John Jewell
Last night, Parliament rejected the government’s proposals for possible UK military action against Syria to deter the use of chemical weapons. The defeat of the motion by 285-272 rules out the UK joining US-led strikes for the time being. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told BBC’s Newsnight programme: ‘The Assad regime is going to be a little bit less uncomfortable tonight as a result of this vote in parliament.’
Given that the governments of the US and UK believe that force is absolutely necessary in order to prevent Assad from resorting to chemical weapons once more, it is highly likely that in the next few days, despite this vote, we will see an increase in rhetoric from Western governments eager to provide a credible rationale for military strikes. As Stefan Wolff points out, ‘The rhetoric of punishment and deterrence that has become the main rationale for many who support limited military action against the Syrian government is unlikely to go away, especially not in the United States, and may even intensify in the light of yesterday’s defeat of the government motion meant to pave the way towards intervention.’
It is already clear that the same techniques and devices of propaganda and persuasion used in the run up to the removal of Gaddafi have been used in the case of Syria. Below is a five point illustration of how intervention in foreign countries is justified and how the language used in 2011 is being eerily replicated in 2013.
1. Highlight the atrocities committed by the regime
If you are to claim the moral high ground and establish the foreign leader as despotic and deranged, you firstly have to show why this is the case. It has long been the practice of British governments and the media to utilize atrocity propaganda in order to mobilise public support for military action. At the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991, we were told that Iraqi soldiers had emptied new born babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals and left them to die. More recently in Kosovo in 1999, Tony Blair spoke of hearing ‘first-hand of women raped, of children watching their fathers dragged away to be shot’. In 2003, Blair spoke of Saddam and ‘the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule……..the torture chambers which if he is left in power, will remain in being.’
These types of stories, collectively and individually, fit into a narrative pattern that we can easily understand. The moral authority of the West is reinforced and the righteousness of action against evil regimes becomes axiomatic.
In Libya in 2011, we were continually told that Gaddafi was an indiscriminate murderer and also that he had stockpiles of chemical weapons. On the eve of invasion, we were told that mustard gas was his most potent weapon and that he would use it on his ‘own people‘. The army who fought for Gaddafi were also capable of horrific acts. In March 2011 stories began to appear in the media which pointed to the fact that Gaddafi’s forces were using rape as a method of waging war. By early June, stories of mass rape were circulating with International Criminal Court investigators suggesting that Gaddafi’s soldiers were taking Viagra to ensure effectiveness.
The catalyst for the present crisis has of course been the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces, which according to reports led to the deaths of perhaps 1300 people. President Obama, who had previously indicated that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would ‘cross the red line’ said, ‘what we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly an event of grave concern. This is something that is going to require America’s attention.’ The Daily Mirror highlighted the barbarism of Assad and his army publishing pictures of dead children on its front page under the headline, ‘Now They’re Gassing Children’.
2. Communicate the moral obligation to act
Having established these terrible circumstances, it is necessary to demonstrate the moral certainty of the mission. In 2011 Gaddafi, like Saddam before him, was murdering ‘his own people’. The consistent line from the US, UK and France (the major actors in the force against Gaddafi) was humanitarian. On March 8th 2011, Cameron stated: ‘we might have to prepare for what we might do if he [Gaddafi] , ‘goes on brutalising his own people….in case he does terrible things to his own people……I don’t think we can stand aside and let that happen’. At a stroke we have the basic elements of war propaganda: that the enemy is evil and to do nothing in the face of such evil would amount to dereliction of moral duty. Cameron and Obama were predictably similar in how they saw the situation. In a nationally televised address from the National Defense University in Washington, Obama said, ‘to brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are……some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.’ Leaving aside the untruths of this statement, what we can see here is a repetition of themes and ideas which have been the feature of war propaganda for the last hundred years or so: this is the enemy, they do terrible things. We must stop them. If we do not, then we are no better and evil will prosper.
Fast forward to 2013 and we have Cameron after the meeting of the National Security Council on 28th August announcing that the world ‘should not stand by’ while Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, saying it was ‘unacceptable’. Speaking on US television on the same day Obama stated, ‘we want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people, against women, against children that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, you are also creating a situation where US national interests are affected’.
3. Demonise the enemy
This sits very neatly with moral obligation to act. It is always necessary to communicate the moral vacuity of the leader and the fact that his actions are barbarous, evil and inhuman. Aldous Huxley wrote that, ‘the propagandists purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human’. In the media’s portrayal of Gaddafi in 2011 not only was he dehumanised, he was animalised. Routinely referred to as ‘Mad Dog’, The Sun reported that he was ‘cowardly’ and a ‘monster’.
In 2013, Assad has been presented as a ‘butcher’ by the Daily Mirror, evil by the Sun, and on the 29th August the Daily Mail asked if he was using NAPALM on his ‘own people’ and if his troops were prepared to act as kamikaze pilots to repel western attack. Mary Riddell, writing in the Daily Telegraph, argued that Syria’s children had a dream worth fighting for
Here we get the implicit sense of civilization versus the savagery of animal versus human. Good against evil. Simple binary oppositions, again narrative patterns we can all understand. How can we do nothing in the face of such inhumanity?
4. Emphasise that intervention is for the good of the people.
When bombing began in Libya, it was the liberating nature of the onslaught that was championed. NATO stated that the purpose of Operation Unified Protector was to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from Gaddafi, and the British media predominantly accepted this. The Sun reported on the 26th March that Gaddafi’s forces had been hit in the city desert of Ajdabiya. One resident is quoted, ‘Thank you Britain for your bombs, thank you Tornados. You have saved us.’ For John Simpson of the BBC, there was no evidence, in the early stages of the NATO campaign, of civilian casualties, ‘Tripoli is hit by coalition bombs and missiles every night, yet there is little reliable evidence of any casualties. The coalition countries know that killing civilians would be disastrous in this war, and they are plainly making big efforts to avoid it.’ How Simpson could say this with any degree of certainty is unclear, as bombs are notoriously indiscriminate in choosing their victims. Later we heard from Mohammed ben Ayad, head of the Libyan telecommunications authority, that NATO has destroyed large parts of the country’s telecommunications network and damaged hospitals, schools and other civilian enterprises causing $1 billion worth of damage.
There is no military activity in Syria yet but the language is familiar. On the 27th August, the UK government sought backing from the UN Security Council ‘for all necessary measures to protect civilians’. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, stated that the images of human suffering could not be ignored. He said, ‘all peoples, in all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to ensure there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons.’
For Toby Young in the Daily Telegraph, intervention would not only be for the good of the people of Syria, but for the good of the citizens of the world – ‘if Assad experiences no adverse consequences for his use of chemical weapons, which is a clear breach of international law, not only is he likely to use them again, but other rogue heads of state will be more inclined to use them, too.’
But all of the available evidence seems to suggest that recent military intervention only ever leads to further discord. John Holmes, chair of the International Rescue Committee, wrote: ‘The unintended consequences tend to be severe, including further civilian casualties, as we saw all too clearly in Iraq. The impact on humanitarian operations themselves can be very damaging: those attacked all too readily lash out at aid organisations, particularly NGOs seen as western-based. In my time at the UN, relief efforts in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur and Somalia were constantly at severe risk from this kind of backlash from perceptions of direct or indirect western intervention, with poorer outcomes and many deaths of aid workers as a result.’
5. Emphasise the threat to national security
If a government can also illustrate that this far-away, evil regime constitutes a threat to national security, the danger becomes localised. This tactic was utilised with various degrees of success in the run up to the Iraq War in 2003. In January of that year, for example, the press carried reports that the police had foiled a terrorist ring’s attempt to launch a chemical attack in Britain using the deadly poison Ricin. Blair stated that the find showed that ‘this danger is present and real and with us now – and its potential is huge’.
In March 2011, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke spoke of the possibility of another Lockerbie with Gaddafi looking for revenge on UK territory: ‘British people have reason to remember the curse of Gaddafi – Gaddafi back in power, the old Gaddafi looking for revenge, we have a real interest in preventing that.’
The danger now is from rogue states, as Young intimated. William Hague said on the 28th August, ‘we cannot permit our own security to be undermined by the creeping normalisation of the use of weapons that the world has spent decades trying to control and eradicate.’’ In a similar mode, White House press secretary Jay Carney said on the 27th August that ‘I believe that absolutely allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present significant challenge to, threat to, the United States’ national security.’
What we have then is evidence of history repeating itself and clear evidence of the fact that however much technology and times may change, the techniques of propaganda and persuasion remain largely the same. We must glorify ourselves and denigrate the enemy. We must reference our compassion and highlight their barbarity. We must demonstrate the absolute necessity of intervention and the terrible consequences of inactivity. In the next few days, despite the defeat of the government motion calling for intervention, we can expect these themes to dominate the discourse around possible military intervention in Syria.