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The Grand Narrative for War

Manufacturing Consent on Syria

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky gained much notoriety from their seminal book, Manufacturing Consent, more than two decades ago.  The central thesis of that book – that political and media elites construct propaganda narratives in order to build support for U.S. foreign policy – remains as relevant today as ever.  Obama’s proposed intervention in Syria is a case in point.  Public support for military action remains quite low – ranging from between one-quarter to one-third of Americans according to recent polls.  That’s likely to change in coming weeks to months as the administration ramps up its pro-intervention rhetoric, and as political elites, reporters, and media pundits uncritically repeat and embrace his messages.

The 2011 intervention in Libya provides a template for the administration’s plan: defend an intervention via humanitarian rhetoric that lambastes a dictator for serious human rights abuses; deliver a number of public speeches in an effort to build support for war; and once troops begin to enter harm’s way, sit back and enjoy increased support as Americans “rally around the flag” in support of the conflict.  This formula was enough to gain support for intervention from between 50 to 60 percent of Americans in the case of Libya, and is likely to do the same in Syria once Congress goes along.

The process has already begun.  A senate committee already voted 10-7 to grant authorization for force, and a floor resolution is likely to follow in this Democratic controlled chamber.  The Obama administration has largely controlled the narrative on Syria over the last year and a half, stressing that the United States is seriously concerned with Assad’s abuses and use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.  A September survey from the Pew Research Center finds that by a factor of more than two-to-one, Americans conclude that, from what they have “read and heard,” that “there is clear evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians.”  The beleaguered peoples of Syria, Obama contends, need a helping hand from the United States, which is said to be unconditionally concerned with protecting the safety and security of those targeted by Weapons of Mass Destruction.  The claim that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people has been largely accepted in political and media discourse, despite the fact that the administration has yet to present any concrete evidence.  The failure to present evidence presents a particular problem considering claims appearing in news reports that rebel groups may be guilty of using chemical weapons.  The Syrian government may very well have used these weapons, and this would probably surprise few people, but the key point here is that the administration has done nothing to present that case before announcing its campaign for war.

In analyzing major news stories via the Lexis Nexis academic database, my findings suggests that during early 2012 and in the first half of 2013 (both periods when reporting of the Syrian civil war was growing), the percent of stories referencing the Obama administration significantly outnumbered references to Congressional Republican opponents in the news by between ten to twenty percentage points.   In other words, the administration had a clear advantage in controlling the narrative on Syria – as presidents typically do when it comes to foreign policy.  Reports claiming that both the Syrian government and rebel groups have engaged in human rights abuses and used chemical weapons represent a challenge to Obama’s Syria narrative.

According to Lexis Nexis, reports referencing these two points barely appeared in U.S. news stories from 2012 to 2013.  Instead, the grand narrative on Syria emphasized Obama’s rhetoric on the need to confront Assad, while also stressing the efforts of rebels to take down the government.  Predictably, those paying close attention to news on Syria have fallen in line behind the president.  My analysis of Pew Research Center polling data from 2012 finds that those paying “a lot” or “some attention” to Syria in the news were significantly more likely to support U.S. military intervention and more likely to embrace supplying weapons to rebels than those paying attention to Syria news “not at all.”  The effects of pro-administration media content, however, were blunted by the fact that relatively few Americans were paying attention to Syria from 2012 through early 2013 (typically less than 50 percent in polls when this question was surveyed).  Pro-administration coverage is likely to produce growing support for intervention by late 2013 however, considering that a strong majority of Americans (over 60 percent from recent survey findings) are now paying attention as the U.S. prepares for war.  Mass support will be necessary to tip the scales in favor of intervention.

Clearly, Obama read the writing on the wall and saw from the latest polling figures that opposition to war has persisted by a factor of two-to-one; hence his effort to achieve support from Congress.  This president would like to spread responsibility for the intervention between himself and the legislature, in an obvious effort to prevent a public mutiny focused on executive and to avoid the tarnishing of his presidential “legacy.”  This effort has little to do with a commitment to the rule of law, as Obama argues (Congress according to the Constitution has the power to declare war, not the president).  Obama showed contempt for Congress and little interest in securing a congressional resolution in the 2011 Libya intervention.  Receiving support from Republican hawks and Democratic allies on Syria, however, will add an element of perceived “legitimacy” to the war effort, likely bumping up public support.   This much seems clear from late August NBC polling demonstrating that 79 percent of Americans feel that “Obama should be required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria.”

Obama’s delivery of a number of speeches shortly before the conflict begins (as happened in Libya), will likely be accompanied by growing support among those paying attention to presidential rhetoric and reporting on Syria.  Pundits in the media will fawn over the president for his efforts to promote “transparency” in the intervention by presenting “clear cut” and “definitive” evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons – of course, without bothering to pressure for a return of inspectors to verify these claims.  Finally, as the U.S. military enters into the hostilities, many will grant short-term support to the president, seeking to demonstrate their “support for the troops” during a difficult time.   This “rally effect” has accompanied every war in recent history, and it will be no different in Syria.  The combination of these three developments will likely result in at least a bare majority of Americans (perhaps more) supporting limited intervention, so long as ground troops are not introduced.

The notion of “manufacturing consent” seems appropriate here, considering that challenges to war are being marginalized in political discourse.   Some of those points are worth reflecting on:

* Why should Americans accept Obama’s artificial “red line” in the sand that dictates intervention based upon evidence of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons?  Estimates suggest that approximately 100,000 Syrians have already been killed in the civil war.  Do we even know how many have died as a result of chemical weapons use as compared to conventional weapons?  What makes a death via chemical weapons more morally outrageous than a death via conventional weapons?  Do the families of the dead care about this distinction?  A murder is a murder regardless of the type of bomb used.  The “red line” narrative appears to be little more than a propaganda line used to drum up public support for war at the expense of critical thought.

* Should we really believe that air strikes are going to disarm the Syrian regime, or at least render its alleged chemical stockpile harmless?  This seems fanciful, despite the fact that so many pundits are accepting this position.  Those familiar with the disarmament process know that it requires the introduction of international inspectors, which first need to identify facilities where chemical weapons reside, in order to disarm them.  Without such efforts, there is reason to question the assumption that a bombing campaign will prevent future use of chemical weapons.  The bombing campaign seems intended to degrade Assad’s military capabilities – rather than his chemical weapons stockpiles – so as to provide the Syrian rebels with an opportunity to take the offensive against the government.  Obama hasn’t been honest with the public about this motive for action.

* Why is military intervention superior to intensifying sanctions?  Increased sanctions send the message that repression is unacceptable, as the guilty country becomes even further isolated from the rest of the world.  This solution has the added advantage of removing U.S. responsibility for the bombing of civilians in large numbers.  Furthermore, the sanctions alternative will at least ensure that the U.S. does not further exacerbate instability in Syria, considering the concern that violence could spill into neighboring countries.  Hezbollah has announced that it will launch attacks against Israel following a U.S. intervention in Syria.  Hezbollah’s attacks would most certainly be accompanied by Israeli incursion into Lebanon, contributing to further regional instability, death, and destruction.

* Why Syria, and why now?  There are so many examples of repressive allied regimes that receive a free pass on human rights abuses.  Reports suggest that more than 600 civilians were killed in the recent military crackdown by the U.S.-allied Egyptian dictatorship, with scarcely a word from the president, compared to the 1,500 hundred who died in the Syrian government’s alleged chemical weapons attack last month.  Plenty of examples of human rights abuses by U.S. favored dictators (or by countries with little strategic value) have produced little to no response from U.S. presidents.  To name a few: the Saudi and Bahraini government crackdown on protesters in Bahrain during the Arab Spring; government genocide against civilians in Darfur during the 2000s; the Turkish government’s suppression of tens of thousands of Kurds from the 1990s onward; the murder of hundreds of thousands via genocide in Rwanda during the 1990s; the Indonesian government’s occupation and genocide in East Timor from the 1970s through 1990s; Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds during the mid to late 1980s, when he remained a valued U.S. ally.  We could add more countries to the list, but the main point is that allied human rights abusers (or those responsible for abuses in countries with little strategic value) receive a pass, while designated enemies of state (Libya and Syria being the most recent examples) are targeted due to geopolitical U.S. interests – the most salient being Middle Eastern oil.

*   What about those chemical weapons?  Why should the Obama administration expect the public to accept that Assad used chemical weapons when literally no evidence has been presented?  To simply accept presidential rhetoric without evidence would be a serious mistake in light of the way that intelligence was knowingly and criminally manipulated by Bush in selling the war with Iraq.  If it turns out that both sides are guilty of using chemical weapons, what is the humanitarian or moral basis for intervening in favor of rebels – who themselves have amassed quite a horrendous human rights record – against the government?

* What of humanitarian concerns?  Do we really think that bombing military emplacements located in civilian areas can be defended as humanitarian?  Such attacks are likely to escalate the human rights abuses in Syria, rather than curtail them.  It is a historical fact that the vast majority of deaths during war are civilians.  Perhaps we should stop defending wars by using mythical humanitarian rhetoric when we know that they produce destruction and death, instead of humanitarian relief.

To date, I have seen little effort to address these criticisms.  Such concerns have been brought up from time to time in the news, but if past trends continue, media coverage will privilege presidential narratives over anti-war views.  At day’s end, Syria appears to have all the makings of a classic effort to “manufacture consent” in favor of war.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He has taught American Government and Global Politics at a number of colleges and universities, and is the author of numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008); When Media Goes to War (2010); Crashing the Tea Party (2011); and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011).  He is currently completing a book on presidential rhetoric: From Fear to Democracy: Presidential Rhetoric from the War on Terror to the Arab Spring, and can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com