Manufacturing Consent in an Age of Austerity: Bashar al-Assad the “naughty child”

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will probably have noticed, in the last week I’ve been gripped by the march to war in Syria and what has seemed to be the new playbook, tentatively trialled with Libya, which the US and UK now draw upon in manufacturing consent for ‘military intervention’. For anyone with even the most minimal disposition towards critical reasoning, the ‘official’ case for action is weak: two years into a civil war which has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands amidst a whole sequence of atrocities, we’re told that the use of chemical weapons represents a ‘red line’ which has been crossed and this qualitatively distinct act of cruelty ‘must be avenged’.

Any geopolitical considerations entering into the sanitised public discourse amount to little more than platitudes about inaction leading to the perception of weakness. In essence the official justification has vacillated between shrilly demanding to know “how would you feel if this was your children!?” and an oddly managerial line about reputation management. One case is invoked when the manifold weakness in the other risks becoming transparent. There’s something interestingly (and worryingly) new about the action that is being proposed here:

We’re nearing the end of the run-up: American officials are now telling the press that Syria strikes are inevitable “within days.” What’s confusing most people about the decision is why: what’s the point of strikes that US officials are describing as “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not significant enough to actually change the balance of power between the Assad regime and the rebels?

The common answer to this conundrum is that the strikes are “symbolic,” punishment for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. That’s true, but in a key sense misleading. The truth is that strikes are a kind of humanitarian intervention, albeit one with such a specific and narrow aim as to be essentially unprecedented in the history of humanitarian war.

Administration officials, as The Washington Post’s Max Fisher suggests, have left zero room for doubt that this intervention is about chemical weapons. Fisher argues that, instead of thinking of the strikes as an attempt to restore American “credibility” after Assad crossed the chemical weapons red line, the point of the strikes is to defend the international norm against chemical weapons use. We’re attacking Syria to make sure that chemical weapons are never used, particularly against civilians, again.

There’s two intended audiences for this message: other states with chemical weapons stockpiles, like North Korea, and the Assad dictatorship itself. The message being sent to the latter is much more interesting because the United States has explicitly ruled out regime change. We’re telling the Syrians that we’re staying out unless you return to en-masse gassing, in which case we’ll get involved with (by implication) escalating levels of force.

This is a form of humanitarian intervention, albeit a very specific one. The idea behind a humanitarian intervention is to end ongoing violence or prevent it from escalating; the idea behind the norm against chemical weapons is that chemical weapons are uniquely hideous and well-suited for the mass murder of civilians. Intervening in Syria to deter Assad from using chemical weapons is intervening to prevent a very particular subset of the horrible violence going on in Syria from getting worse.

Intervening against a particular tactic that could be used to kill civilians, rather than the campaign of murdering civilians in general, is unprecedented. It would be as if the United States had intervened in Rwanda to stop Hutus from killing Tutsis with machetes, but not the systematic extermination of Tutsis writ large.

But is there also something new about how it’s being sold? There are many broader questions here which I hope to read more about in the next week or two – most pressingly the implications for the balance of power in the region and the significance of this renewed imperial shrillness (some of the invocations of ‘being disgusted’ at inaction seem genuine) in the context of long-term austerity and ever increasing signs of the ill-health of British democracy. Even more so than Iraq this seems to have been a post-democratic strategy for military invention in Colin Crouch’s sense of the term. It has been stage managed and structured around appealing simple tropes which reduce its geopolitical complexity to moral intuition: how would you feel if it was your children being gassed?

The other aspect to this only occurred when listening to Radio 4′s Any Questions (a usually atrocious phone in show which I can’t help but listen to despite it constantly winding me up) was the figurative presentation of Assad as a naughty child. One caller actually invoked this explicitly: talking about the need to give him a ‘short, sharp spank’ (!!!!) or words to that effect immediately after the chemical attack. He’s a naughty child who needs to be taught how to ‘play nice’. I thought this trope was apt and actually prefigured by the official rhetoric justifying military action – in fact I’m sure you could probably find it being invoked explicitly if you look hard enough. It reduces a complex issue to personal experience and complements the invocation of ‘your children’ effectively – the ‘case for action’ is an assemblage, a set of interconnected ideational components, intended to frame what is proposed cognitively and canalise affect in terms which render sustained discussion difficult.

In essence all I’m saying is that there seems to be a sophistication to the marketing here which intrigues me. What’s also interesting is the social media component to this – I’m not suggesting the US military will have been the only, or even a major, agency at work here (I’m thinking particularly of youtube) but it would be naive to assume that the well documented psychological operations capacity of the US military wouldn’t be deployed in this case and/or that it wouldn’t be deployed on social media.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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