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Obama Reframes Syria: Metaphor and War Revisited

A look at the ever shifting reasons why we "must" go to war.

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It is interesting to hear members of the House and Senate providing most of the arguments against the bombing. Will it just not help? Will it spur a wider war? Will Israel be bombed and gassed? Will Russia enter? Will America be hated and targeted for revenge? Then there is the Slippery Slope metaphor: Once you start bombing, you slowly get pulled into a regional war one step after another.

Metaphor after metaphor. Scenario after scenario. On all sides. To have an opinion is have metaphors and a scenario, that is, a story. Why? Every policy that is proposed is seen by those who propose it as being right — not wrong or irrelevant. Different policies have different moral views about right and wrong. Since moral systems all make use of conceptual metaphor, there will be metaphors and accompanying scenarios.

One of the most interesting is the Force-of-Shame metaphor: Put the money we would otherwise use on bombing into serious and obvious humanitarian aid for the two million Syrian refugees. Instead of money going for bombs and missiles that may not help and even make matters worse, do some very obvious good. The sight of Americans just doing something unquestionably good for Arabs — mostly followers of Islam — would do unquestionable good, and make America look good in the Arab world. In the metaphorical scenario, this would shame Assad and bring most of the Arab world to the support of the rebels. That’s the scenario.

Would it work? From the wide-ranging interviews on al Jazeera America, most of the Arabs and followers of Islam interviewed seem to see the world in fairy-tale terms — with villains, victims and heroes. Many want America to be the hero, defeat the villain Assad, and save the Syrians. Others see America as a villain for wanting to bomb or for standing aside while 100,000 died. But, the refugees, being outside the hero-villain narrative, are outside the fairy tale. The hero defeats the villain and gets a reward. The hero doesn’t give humanitarian aid.

We cannot think about a situation as complicated as Syria without conceptual metaphors and scenarios driving policy proposals. In many cases, the conceptual metaphors are unconscious. But with Syria, the policy-defining metaphors are being put into language and are showing up front and center.

In summary, I can’t help but think of a great paper by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon called “Why Hawks Win” (2006) about those who planned and carried out the Iraq War. The authors listed examples of all the forms of what they call “System 1 thinking” — fast, unconscious, effortless, nonrational forms of thought and all too real.

Here is their list as it might apply to Syria:

·      Optimism bias: John Kerry speaks very optimistically about how a strike will necessarily deter Assad, send a message to would-be gassers, and maintain America’s standing in the world.

·      The fundamental attribution error (assigning actions to inherent essences, rather than external reasons): there are bad people out there who want to harm us — just because the want to.

·      The illusion of control: We can keep the military action limited. There will be no boots on the ground.

·      Reactive devaluation: Those against the military strike are unrealistic.

·      Risk aversion: We cannot risk not acting. We should just punish Assad and do no more. We don’t want to go to war.

·      The salient exemplar effect (with striking cases people tend to overestimate probability): Look at the dead gassed children and think of that happening to your children. We must stop this now.

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