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Obama Reframes Syria: Metaphor and War Revisited

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

President Obama has reframed his position on Syria, adjusting the Red Line metaphor: It wasn’t hisRed Line, not hisresponsibility for drawing it. It was the Red Line drawn by the world, by the international community — both legally by international treaty, and morally by universal revulsion against the use of poison gas by Assad. It was also America’s Red Line, imposed by America’s commitment to live up to such treaties.

The reframing fit his previous rationale for the Red Line: to uphold international treaties on weapons of mass destruction, both gas and nuclear weapons. By this logic, the Red Line therefore applies not just to Assad’s use of sarin, but potentially to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

The new version of the metaphorical policy has broad consequences, what I have called systemic causation (that goes beyond the immediate local situation) as opposed to direct causation (in this case applying just to the immediate case of Assad’s use of sarin).

Some will call the reframing cynical, a way to avoid responsibility for his first use of the Red Line metaphor. But President Obama’s reframing makes excellent sense from the perspective of his consistent policy of treaties and international norms, which he has said was the basis for the Red Line metaphor in the first place.

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Metaphors can kill, as I wrote in my original Metaphor and War paper in 1991 on the eve of the Gulf War. Why can metaphors kill? Because metaphors in language are reflections of metaphorical thought that structures reasoning, and thus our actions, both in everyday life and in politics. In politics, they are rarely isolated. They usually come as part of a coherent system of concepts — usually a moral system.

The Red Line metaphor can stand a bit of linguistic analysis. The metaphor is based on a conceptual frame: “Drawing a line in the sand” means that the person who draws the line issues a threat to the person on the other side: you cross the line and I’ll hurt you. This frame presupposes another common conceptual metaphor: Performing A Kind of Action Is Being In A Bounded Location, and Changing a Kind of Action is Moving to a New Location.

Examples are “He pushed me into running for office” and “I stopped short of punching him in the nose.” The Red Line metaphor says that some actions are characterized as being located on one side of the line, and other actions are seen as being located on the other side. Switching from the first kind of action to the second is seen as crossing the line. The “red” in Red Line can stand either for danger: high alert, or for blood — the harm that will come from crossing the line will be bloody.

The Red Line metaphor is part of a system that includes the Punishment metaphor and the Send-A-Signal metaphor. The Punishment metaphor comes from the application of Strict Father morality to international politics. People commonly construe international politics in terms of family dynamics, based on a World Community as Family metaphor. Within this metaphor, some countries are seen as “heads of the family” while others are construed as children whose behavior must be regulated. One common version of this metaphor is based on the Strict Father family.  In a Strict Father family, the father is assumed to know right from wrong, to set rules that are right, and to teach his children to do what is right by punishing them painfully when they do wrong. The punishment must be painful enough so that the child will refrain from acting immorally. The father is morally required to punish. If he doesn’t, he shows weakness and the children will start doing what they are not supposed to do because they can get away with it.

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