When President Barack Obama delivered his September 10, 2013 speech on Syria, his policy aim was articulated clearly:
after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.
This speech had a more immediate target however: the American public’s reluctance to support a limited and narrow strike on Syria. Polls showed substantial public opposition despite the horrific images of chemical weapon attack victims in Ghouta just weeks before. Support for a Syria attack was lower than it was with previous, similarly “limited” actions in Grenada (1983), Kosovo (1999), Haiti (1994) and Libya (2011).
Facing the apparent unpopularity of the proposed military action, the President decided to seek Congressional authorization rather than taking unilateral moves against Syrian military capacity.
His speech was meant to turn the tide in support of Congress’s approval. While there is survey evidence that the speech persuaded some of those who watched it, it still only led to an aggregate split in public opinion. Striking Syria simply did not resonate with a majority of Americans even though an estimated 32 million viewers tuned in and many more read and heard his arguments.
We know that the President’s power to persuade the public on foreign affairs is strongest when there is an elite consensus back his policies. While there were voices of dissent in the House, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ultimately endorsed what the President sought: a resolution authorizing military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. This signified a growing elite consensus.
TV news media were largely supportive of the President. As Robert Entman has proposed in the “cascading activation” model, lower-tier elites, and news media, echo the policy frames of the upper echelons in the executive branch. After Obama first proposed a strike was necessary in late August, cable news channels were far more likely to feature pro-intervention messages than views opposed, according to a content analysis conducted by Pew Research. This is evidence of news media echoing officialdom.
Yet, House opposition to the President’s proposed course of action was considerable. Factions in both parties, both liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, voiced objections to the attack. It was not certain that the resolution would have passed through the House. At the time of the speech, CNN estimated 179 “no” votes to 25 “yes” votes. 223 were yet undecided. This can’t be chalked up to deeper partisan polarization. Members of Congress reported hearing universal opposition from their constituents. The public’s complaints overwhelmed the President’s position and undermined the dominant theme of news media coverage.
A Russia-proposed chemical weapons deal ultimately postponed consideration of a Congressional resolution, thereby preventing a test of whether the President was going to win on this. Still, we witnessed a unique case of public opinion opposition to, and mobilization against, a President’s proposed foreign military action.
Perhaps it can be attributed to something deeper in American political culture. As Charles M. Blow suggested in The New York Times, “America may have lost its stomach for military intervention.” After war of more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans may just be tired of getting into new skirmishes that could easily lead to deeper commitments. Just five years into the Iraq war, US news media were barely covering it and Americans tired of hearing about it. There is scant mention and public discussion of the war in Afghanistan today.
The idea of “war fatigue” is not a novel one. It was widely believed that after the Vietnam War a syndrome set in: Americans were thought to be more likely to oppose to new wars out of a risk aversion resulting from the costly, bloody and protracted conflict in Vietnam. Marvin Kalb argued the current form of this syndrome was apparent just from President Obama’s nominations of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as secretaries of state and defense, respectively.
Curious about whether American views on the previous wars impacted their positions on the proposed Syria strike, I ran a study to measure what impacted American opinion. I tried to figure out how important various factors were: demographics, support for the president, prior positions on the Iraq war and how attentive they were to the President’s September 10th speech — to see how the President’s persuasive powers stacked up against war fatigue.
I asked 265 respondents on two separate days, September 9 and September 13, 2013, whether or not they support a US military intervention in Syria. I asked different samples, one before the speech and one a few days after. I found the following (shown in an OLS regression model).
|Sharing President Barack Obama’s views in general||
|Became more or less supportive of the US IRAQ war?||
|Watched or saw reports of President Obama’s speech on Syria?||
(Adjusted R2 = .213)
Of traditional demographics, age and gender were significant predictors. Older individuals and males were more likely to back a strike. It is worth noting that party identification was not an important factor — when controlling for these other factors — despite being a usual factor in evaluating presidential policy proposals. While it could be due to the break down in partisan lines on this issue, at least until the Russia deal, it’s likely not a factor because the most powerful variable — generally agreement with Obama on other issues — captures partisan differences. [Without partisan ID, the findings and model fit don't change much].
Despite being an “anti-war” candidate when he was first elected, Obama enjoys the unwavering backing of loyal supporters. Being inclined to generally agree with him on issues was an expected, powerful predictor of being with him on Syria. It was the strongest factor in the model.
As for non-Obamaniac tendencies, war weariness seems to matter. Becoming less supportive of the war on Iraq over time (my gauge of war fatigue) correlates with being less likely to back the strike. The result is the same, though a bit weaker, if I replace Iraq with Afghanistan, also. Rather than seeing Syria as a new and distinct issue, this finding suggests people interpret it within the context of prolonged and increasingly unpopular military commitments in the region.
Prior views on Iraq also matter more than does partisanship. I ran the model with partisan ID, but dropped the tendency to agree with Obama. Declining support for the Iraq war over time was twice as powerful a predictor than was partisanship.
Back to the model above, we can see that changing support for or against the war on Iraq over time was a more powerful predictor than being attentive to the President’s speech. His ability to persuade the public through strategic political communication was a less potent a force than the unpopularity of the wars of the past decade. Even if the proposed strike was being sold as limited and narrow, it did little to relieve the public’s fear of deja vu.
The already fascinating thrust and parry between the United States and Russia over Syria just got even more interesting with the latest Russian proposal calling on Damascus to give up its chemical weapons. This high stakes debate about war and peace unfolding in Washington, Moscow and other capitals around the world has important public diplomacy implications.
President Obama’s decision on August 31 to hit the pause button rather than launch button on military action against Syria reflected American concerns that there was insufficient political legitimacy to offset the lack of a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. There was a UN resolution two years ago when NATO intervened in Libya.
The pursuit of congressional and parliamentary backing was considered partial compensation, but there was an unexpected setback when the British House of Commons defeated a resolution to authorize force in Syria. The Obama administration continues to make its case for action, but getting a resolution authorizing the use of force through a deeply divided Congress is an uphill struggle, particularly in the House of Representatives.
The choice to seek popular and representative approval for military action is a political roll of the dice, but also an interesting civics lesson. The leaders of the world’s most enduring democracies are governing according to the wishes of their people, and subject to meaningful checks and balances by co-equal legislative branches. This assumes that President Obama would follow the lead of Prime Minister David Cameron and abide by the result of the congressional vote (assuming one takes place) that he said he didn’t need, but sought anyway. Meanwhile, a dictator uses all the weapons at his disposal, including chemical weapons, to hold on to power, backed by those who cynically use international law to undermine international norms. The process, slow and messy as it is, puts in sharp relief what is at stake in Syria.
The United States, Britain and France have presented compelling accounts that chemical weapons have been used in the increasingly brutal Syrian civil war. But there is not yet a “smoking gun” that definitively ties the latest chemical attacks that killed more than 1,400 people to the Syrian military or Assad himself. The results of a UN inspection to confirm the crossing of the red line regarding the use of chemical weapons are still pending, although its mandate does not include a judgment regarding who did it.
To many, this smacks of the Iraq debate ten years ago, a public diplomacy nightmare for the United States that will continue to handicap perceptions of American power and influence for years to come.
Mr. Obama has insisted that the unfolding tragedy in Syria represents a challenge for the international community, not just the United States. “I didn’t set a red line,” President Obama said about chemical weapons during remarks in Sweden recently. “The world set a red line.”
But while many countries are critical of the Assad regime, a lot less have openly called for a military strike. And fewer still seem prepared to directly participate. Many Americans are asking themselves, if the United States is considering defending widely accepted norms under the Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria is not a signatory), where is the rest of the world? Russia and China have effectively sidelined the United Nations. Many within the Arab League are hedging their bets.
But on the heels of a G-20 summit that featured open competition between Putin and Obama over international expressions of support for their colliding strategies on Syria, Putin has played a hole card that potentially takes the initiative away from Obama and shifts the debate from military back to political action.
While on the surface it appears to wrong-foot the president, it puts the onus on Putin to actually deliver. If Syria balks, it actually strengthens Obama’s argument for military action.
Obama should hit the pause button again, request that Congress suspend its consideration of a war resolution, move the debate back to the UN and see if Russia and China are prepared to give the international community a more meaningful role in the Syrian conflict. A UN resolution should authorize an intrusive international inspection regime to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons, since destroying its existing stockpile will take many years.
War-weary publics have expressed their fears that Syria would become another Iraq, circa 2003. Accepting the Russian offer, and then codifying and verifying it, would place UN inspectors on the ground who would work to at least take chemical weapons out of the deadly equation of the Syrian civil war. This would turn Syria into another Iraq, but circa 1991.
There are public diplomacy risks and costs to this course as well, but far fewer than starting another perceived American war in the Middle East.
In Vietnam, the United States fought a counterinsurgent war on behalf of a government lacking popular legitimacy using primarily conventional tactics in support of a flawed strategic objective that turned out to be inconsequential to the broader Cold War struggle against Communism. The primary lesson learned, particularly within the Army, was “never again.”
However, a decade ago, a cadre of officers well schooled in irregular warfare and intrastate conflicts, eventually marshaled by General David Petraeus, scrambled to rearticulate the lost principles of counterinsurgency deliberately buried after Vietnam, incorporate them into a new Army doctrine and apply them (appropriately) in Iraq and (less so) in Afghanistan.
This experience is compellingly detailed in Fred Kaplan’s book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.
Kaplan cautions whether the military is capturing the right lessons or adequately incorporating them into future planning. Coupled with the Obama administration’s understandable reluctance after unwinding two wars to engage in large-scale interventions any time soon, the risk is that the military will walk away from counterinsurgency doctrine when the war in Afghanistan ends next year, just as it did after Vietnam.
The first is the preeminence of political rather than military outcomes. As Kaplan relates, Petraeus adopted the dictum that counterinsurgency is 80 percent political and 20 percent military. That is likely to be true with any future intervention.
The United States entered Afghanistan and Iraq knowing what it wanted to eliminate – Osama bin Laden’s sanctuary and Saddam Hussein’s regime – but with only a vague conception of a desired strategic end state. In Iraq, the lack of a post-conflict strategy was not an oversight, but deliberate. In neither case was there a grasp of the political, social and cultural forces in those countries that would shape the eventual outcomes.
Regime change is not the end of the war, only the end of the first phase. The desired end state, a government with perceived legitimacy that earns the support of a large cross-section of the local population, is very difficult. This is not only clear from the mixed results achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Libya as well.
An effective plan for the conflict and what happens afterwards requires integrated civilian and military action, a second lesson. This rarely happened over the past 12 years. While there was an effective partnership in Iraq between Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the norm involved civilians and the military pulling in different directions. The worst case involved Paul Bremer’s ill-advised orders regarding the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and de-Ba’athification of the government, uncoordinated steps that fueled if not generated the insurgency.
Future interventions will involve a “whole of government” effort, involving not just soldiers and diplomats, but development experts in wide-ranging fields from agriculture, policing and justice to energy, commerce and communication. Unfortunately, the United States government is not structured to plan or naturally operate that way. As it is, Congress fully funds only one element of national power, the military. Given the military cuts associated with sequestration, Congress over time may be tempted to restore some of them with offsets from non-defense discretionary accounts. If so, this will only widen the gap between military and civilian capabilities.
The third lesson regards time. Wars of insurgency are by nature “slow and messy.” Kaplan questions whether the American people are unwilling to support such long, complicated and costly endeavors.
While this remains a richly debated field of study, the American people gave its leaders 12 years to succeed in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq. While some have already argued the military has been withdrawn too quickly, the fact is the United States squandered too much time developing workable strategies and putting appropriate levels of resource in place.
Going forward, any intervention will be a race against time. Better strategic planning is an imperative. Given the emerging global media environment, the perceived legitimacy of any action is on the clock with no time to waste.
Given how lethal force can be delivered through more technology and fewer troops, future Presidents will be tempted to solve the time problem by engaging in high-tech wars without mobilizing the American people or the government. But given the proliferation of smartphones with cameras linked to the Internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter, future warfare will still be influenced by public opinion. Governments may choose to ignore the impact, as is happening now in Pakistan, but public pressure can be expected to increase, overseas if not at home.
The final lesson is simple, yet compelling. If we are not confident that military action can be decisive, the most prudent decision may be not to intervene militarily in the first place. This is certainly not easy with various constituencies calling on the United States to “do something.” But the reality is that, if future conflict is mostly political, military action may incur profound costs without actually solving the problem.
This appears to be the one lesson that has been put into practice. The result, right or wrong, is evident in Syria.
President Barack Obama, in his first inaugural address in 2009, said “the world has changed, and we must change with it.” The extent of a transformed domestic and international landscape was clear in his second inaugural address this week. Inaugurals are important opportunities for public diplomacy and his message will appeal to international audiences, but it was clearly tempered by four years of real-world experience. Obama talked at length about ongoing need to achieve equality and opportunity here at home, but gone was much of the soaring rhetoric targeted abroad that captivated international audiences four years ago.
Unlike previous second-terms where Presidents have been challenged politically at home and tried to pad their legacies abroad, Obama’s domestic is clearly going to animate his final four years in office. He outlined an ambitious agenda – a grand bargain on the budget that preserves social equality and promotes economic opportunity, enhanced gun regulation and immigration reform. These issues, along with energy and the environment, have important international dimensions as well.
If engagement was the international watchword four years ago, this time it was collaboration and the need to continue to strengthen the capacity of the international community to tackle major global challenges. He reemphasized a commitment to end a decade of war, rejecting the notion that U.S. security requires “perpetual war.” He renewed America’s support for democracy in a dramatically transformed international landscape.
Those pledges will be tested over the next four years in places like Syria, Mali, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt.
Saying “no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” President Obama committed to continued emphasis on collective action through formal alliances, major international organizations, regional structures and informal groups of like-minded nations. The past four years revealed the strengths and limitations of such an approach, with decisive international action in Libya but severe constraints in Syria. Patient and determined action with regional partners appears to be paying off in Somalia. That is a potential model for action in and around Mali, but more resources will need to be committed, and quickly.
Obama said four years ago that his national security strategy involved the “prudent use” of American power. The weight of effort against extremist groups shifted from large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces to the aggressive use of technology, from unmanned drones to a computer worm. This strategy netted important accomplishments, such as the elimination of Osama bin Laden, but has generated international concerns regarding overly secretive actions that may be rewriting the laws of war and setting potentially far-reaching precedents. The administration is said to be codifying its approach within an American “playbook,” but it remains unclear to what degree this involves genuine partnerships with admittedly weak allies like Pakistan or Yemen.
Obama in his inaugural address encouraged resolving “differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” This approach will surely be tested in the coming months regarding the U.S. approach to Iran and whether sufficient time will be devoted to what will undoubtedly be a lengthy and difficult negotiation.
The United States will continue to support democracy “because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” But emerging democracies like Egypt will have a much different look and feel. The United States should help guide Egypt regarding vital elements of an enduring democracy – building effective institutions, protecting minorities, including all segments of society including women, tolerating and encouraging political dissent and peacefully transferring power following free and fair elections. But the United States will have to be patient, recognizing that the path forward will not be a straight line. The final construction should be consistent with long-term U.S. objectives, but will not have a stamp that says “made in America.”
In the last few days much talk on has centered around Apple’s recent rejection of of an app called Endgame: Syria. The event has many lamenting Apple’s policies regarding violence in games, which insists that enemies in in software “cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity.” But the game itself deserves some attention for how it uses mechanics to inform the user about a complicated issue: the real-world Syrian civil war.
Endgame: Syria rests somewhat uncomfortably in the mainstream conception of a “game”. The app places the player in the midst of the modern Syrian conflict, asking him or her make decisions for the rebels and guide them in their struggle to gain public support and inflict military damage upon the regime. Though it presents a complicated issue with a somewhat simple perspective, Endgame ia an interesting case study on how games address serious issues.
Endgame doesn’t seek to be a simulator – to accurately reflect the complex interplay between politics, society, and war in Syria – but it does impart a basic understanding of the sort of challenges faced by the Syrian opposition. The player makes decisions during two “phases” of interaction: the Political stage, where the player strives to earn support from world leaders and enact various sanctions against the regime, and the Military stage, where rebels face off against powerful government forces.
Through gameplay, Endgame emphasizes the relationship between the military and political achievements of the Syrian rebels. Support from Qatar, or Saudi Arabia, or France in one phase directly translate into support during another, supplying the rebels with resources necessary to employ fighters. By placing the user in the position of making these important decisions, the game instructs the player on how vital these international supply lines are. Quite apart from being told that politics are important to the rebel cause, the player experiences the reality of resource scarcity firsthand.
As the game progresses, the regime steadily brings greater and more powerful forces to bear, including tanks, helicopters, and jets. The opposition must work with smaller forces, typically infantry. The player is presented with an attack from the regime and must choose which among his or her (mostly inadequate) forces will be selected to repel the opposing fighters. Using more powerful engines of destruction – captured tanks, often – results in a greater fighting chance but endangers the lives of civilians, which directly translates to a loss of foreign and domestic support. Placing the player in the shoes of an opposition leader making these decisions makes the combat realities of the Syrian rebels a little more understandable.
Endgame falls into a series of games which force the player to make difficult decisions and come to understand the perspective of real-life decision makers. Like Impact Game’s Peacemaker, which places the player in the role of either an Israeli or Palestinian leader in the peace process, Endgame revolves around making difficult choices where short-term decisions have long-term consequences regarding public approval and support. Sitting down in front of either of these games, the player can experience the challenges faced by a Syrian opposition commander, who has to balance waging a war with protecting civilians, or an Israeli politician, for whom ordering the evacuation of a settlement may amount to political suicide.
The experience is certainly an interesting way to encourage the average consumer, playing the game on an Android device or in a browser, to engage with the Syrian conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives to date.
Not everything about the game is perfect. Issue might be taken with Endgame: Syria’s somewhat simplified and smoothed take on a very messy war. The conflict is distilled down to monolithic representations of the regime and the rebels, leaving aside, for the most part, a wealth of sectarian and political subdivisions that exist on both sides. In having the player always responding to regime attacks, the rebels are presented as generally on the defensive, while real-life opposition forces have been on the offensive seizing land and making strategic gains across the country. Nowhere in the game is the player presented with the option of brutally executing captured regime soldiers, an act which has occurred after opposition victories and makes at least some of the rebels liable to be indicted for war crimes. For all its ambition to convey some of the challenges of a rebellion with legitimate grievances, the game runs into the classic problem of media surrounding conflict: how to tell a compelling story without wandering into the realm of propaganda?
Yet while the game may provide a simplified version of the regime and the rebels, it might be forgiven. Endgame: Syria provides a more serious take on war than most games on the market. Each of the player’s choices are connected with the inevitable death of civilians, driving home the reality that the war he or she is waging has real-world consequences for innocents. The game has multiple end states, including a peace deal that fully satisfies none of the parties, and a violent breakup of the nation into chaos. Most often, the player will simply lose, succumbing to Assad forces and leaving the dictator to rule over a broken country. Far from being a power fantasy in the vein of the world’s Call of Duty franchise, Endgame: Syria conveys an ambiguous, inglorious image of war… uncommon enough, in the games market today.
The game’s designer, Tomas Rawlings, is well aware of the challenges associated with engaging with a serious topic through a medium most often associated with frivolous entertainment. The trailer above was released alongside Endgame, as a sort of introductory primer for audiences unfamiliar with viewing games in a serious style. In the video, Rawlings pays homage to the work of Joe Sacco, whose exploration of the Palestinian conflict through a comic is an example of what Rawlings considers to be a “pioneer” of a addressing serious topics in non-traditional mediums. Sacco’s work addresses the themes of death, loss, and suffering in a medium that until recently was considered only appropriate for less serious fare. Rawlings, the creators a game focusing on rebellion and warfare, seeks to have Endgame exist within a similar space.
Today, comics appear to have made the leap into cultural acceptance in a way that games have yet to accomplish. Yet one can see that the two mediums have undergone similar journeys. One of the most famous serious comic series, Maus by Art Spiegelman, tells the story of the author’s father’s experience of the Halocaust. Although he eventually received the Pulitzer prize for his work, Spiegelman often worried that the story might be too complicated for comics to convey. Games, it seems, are beginning to experience a similar trial. “It is not the medium that is the issue,” says Rawlings, “but what you do with it.” Endgame: Syria is an honest look at a complicated issue, and is what we should hope to see in the medium of games.
This post also appears on OpenCanada.org as a part of CIC’s ongoing series on Twitter and Diplomacy.
Earlier this week, Jackson Diehl’s column in the Washington Post argued that the Obama Administration’s early diplomatic approach to Syria, coupled with its failure to intervene militarily during the ongoing civil war, represented a “catastrophic mishandling” of the crisis. Diehl, like others who have blamed the Administration for not intervening, lay the blood of the more than 30,000 civilians killed in the conflict on the hands of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Leaving aside the merits of the arguments for intervention (which, like Diehl’s, seem to take the ahistorical view that the U.S. can simply break up fights like Mike Tyson at a kindergarten recess), they point to the complexities of understanding the intersection of social media, diplomacy, and militarism in an era of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
Ever since social media became a major part of the story of the Green Movement protests in Iran in 2009, many have argued that new media technologies not only have the power to help bring down dictators, as in Egypt last year, but also to pressure the international community to intervene and stop a regime’s violent oppression of its people. The dissemination of online videos depicting these abuses, spread via Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms, are supposed to not only rally citizens in those countries, but make it impossible for major powers in the West, especially, to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians.
As former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said during those 2009 Iranian protests, “You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.”
Brown was widely ridiculed for his hyperbole. The Register’s Chris Williams wrote, “We’d like to see him try Twittering that to people in Sudan, or Northern Sri Lanka, or Somalia.” Today, one could add Bahrain and Syria to the list.
Yet Brown’s Rwanda allusion raises the issue of R2P and its relationship to social media-driven protests. At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, world leaders agreed in principle that the international community needs to be prepared to take military action to prevent a State from committing genocide or other crimes against humanity perpetrated against its people.
The Rwandan genocide weighed heavily on the Summit’s adoption of R2P as a guiding principle of international statecraft. The 1994 bloodletting, as well as the similar dawdling during the Balkan wars of the same decade, were seen as examples of diplomatic and military failures that led to the deaths of more than a million innocent people.
One of the reasons those genocides were allowed to happen, some felt, was because of the difficulty of documenting the atrocities in real time. There were, for example, very few journalists in Rwanda during the massacres, and according to former reporter and current scholar Allan Thompson, only one clandestine video of anyone actually being hacked to death was ever recorded. This is why Rwanda has been called a “Genocide without witnesses.” The assumption since then has been that had people seen the brutality in real time, world leaders in Paris, Washington, and elsewhere would have been pressured to intervene. As PM Brown’s comments 15 years later indicated, social media would provide those witnesses.
If this were true, it would dramatically reshape diplomacy. Some saw evidence of this in Egypt last year, when the Obama Administration initially responded to the protests in Tahrir Square tepidly – some said, too diplomatically – because Mubarak had been such a strong ally of the U.S. over the years. But those diplomatic ties snapped under pressure from Twitter and Facebook, according to this telling of events.
Shortly thereafter, the Administration invoked the spirit of R2P to join an international coalition to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from carrying through with his promise to massacre the residents of Benghazi through the implementation of a no-fly zone and other military actions.
In an era of social media, the story went, we would never again have a genocide without witnesses. Foreign governments in the West and elsewhere would not be able to withstand the public outcry that would come from seeing and reading first hand accounts of regime brutality. Diplomacy would be forever altered.
And yet… not so much.
Just taking the United States as an example (though we could easily choose others), well-documented and horrific regime violence has not prompted the Obama Administration to intervene in Bahrain or Syria, to name two examples.
Diehl and others see this as a “catastrophic” failure. Yet the reality is far more complicated, on many levels
Start with the fact that social media’s role in shaping international policy responses to Egypt and Libya are still poorly understood. My colleagues Henry Farrell, Deen Freelon, Marc Lynch and I recently released a report funded by the U.S. Institute of Peace that found social media’s role in the Arab Spring protests of 2011 were probably greatly exaggerated. At least when it came to Twitter and other mechanisms for sharing links to reports of violence and protests, social media didn’t appear to have as much of an impact within those countries or in the region as some expected. They did, however, generate a lot of discussion around the world. Hence, we argued, these social media appeared to behave as less of a rallying cry than a megaphone.
This raises the possibility, however, that all of that retweeting of horrific videos of regime violence could lead to pressure on governments to intervene. Deen, Marc, and I are currently investigating whether that has been the case in Syria. Our interviews with policymakers and others will hopefully shed light on how much impact new media played in shaping diplomatic and military responses to those earlier Arab Spring crises, as well.
But there are reasons to be skeptical that social media can lead governments to intervene when they wouldn’t have in the absence of these technologies. To begin with, there is the simple fact that the U.S. hasn’t intervened in Syria militarily, much to the dismay of Diehl and others. Coupled with its relative silence during the Bahrain protests, this suggests an explanation familiar to international relations scholars and observers: States make foreign policy decisions based on their perceived interests, and these are much less susceptible to public pressure than domestic policy decisions. In the U.S. this is especially the case, in part because Americans don’t know (or care) much about foreign affairs, and press coverage of the topic is correspondingly, and vanishingly, scant, superficial, and episodic. (In general; clearly there are great foreign correspondents doing work that deserves greater exposure than their parent organizations will provide them.)
Ideally, States also make decisions based not on mismatched historical analogies (“Look! Hitler!” or “It’s just like Libya! Intervene!” or “No, wait, it’s just like Iraq! Run for your life!”), but rather based on the specifics of the case at hand. (In fact, however, research shows that policymakers frequently employ convenient historical examples to justify policy decisions they’ve already come to.) One question to ask would be, will intervention actually accomplish the goal at hand? Another might be, at what cost? And a third would be, how do we do know?
So where does that leave us in terms of understanding the intersection of social media, diplomacy, and intervention?
First, social media can create global witnesses to regime violence and genocide. If world leaders are going to take R2P seriously, then this could be an important tool in making that doctrine more than empty words. If nothing else, this witnessing can be crucial to accountability and justice in, say, war crimes trials, but also in not letting leaders off the hook for craven failures to act.
Second, diplomacy and policymaking can be greatly enhanced by social media. For instance, the growing sophistication of crowdsourcing verification of online videos and other means of what Patrick Meier calls “information forensics” can help separate truth from propaganda. It can also be used as a tool for diplomats to pressure regimes, by brandishing documentary evidence of their abuses, or to pressure others in the international community to join coalitions to stop those abuses.
Third, social media can aid diplomats in their effort to connect with citizens in other countries. We saw this in the creative and aggressive way that Amb. Robert Ford and the U.S. Embassy staff in Syria used social media to document abuses by the Assad regime before Ford was forced to leave the country. We also saw it in the way that the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain used their Facebook wall to host and engage in spirited conversations with people from different sides of that conflict. This is an important way in which social media are helping to more fully integrate public diplomacy into traditional diplomacy.
Finally, however, we are left with the limits of social media’s impact on diplomacy and policymaking. In the Syrian crisis, for instance, we still have problems with verification and propaganda in the online public sphere. And traditional questions about national interests and, especially, feasibility undercut interventionist sloganeering.
What that means is that social media have probably not fundamentally altered the foreign policy decision making process of world leaders to force intervention, but rather merely contributed to the range of data diplomats have at their disposal. This, however, is not always a bad thing, since intervention is one of those things that’s easier said than done. In fact, it could simply mean that effective diplomacy is all the more important.
Last week IPDGC and the U.S. Institute of Peace co-hosted a great conference, “Groundtruth: New Media, Technology, and the Syria Crisis,” that focused on the use of online videos by activists, new and traditional media, and policymakers. The event was the latest in the “Blogs and Bullets” series of research papers and conferences that have produced two major reports, and kicked off a new research project conducted by my GW colleague Marc Lynch, American University’s Deen Freelon, and myself.
There was much to chew on in the comments and observations of the various panelists, but I want to flag a few interesting nuggets concerning the role of social media in Syria – which Marc referred to as perhaps “the most social mediated protest in history” – and the complex intersection between new and old media.
First, a recurring theme from both activists and journalists involved the evolution of both social media and the public sphere in Syria as the regime’s hegemony wanes in the face of an ongoing civil war. NPR’s Deb Amos, who has been reporting on the Middle East for decades and the current Syrian crisis since it’s beginning, talked about how she has seen social media develop rapidly over the last year from something a few activists used to meet and share information, to something that is a more sophisticated tool for organizing, waging an information war with the regime, fundraising, and engaging with regional and world media.
Sometimes the online discussions via Facebook or YouTube comment threads and the like can turn viciously sectarian. After all, the pubic sphere, especially online, is not always known for its decorum. But even this can be seen as part of the maturation process as Syria moves from dictatorship to, perhaps, a more open society. For example, Rafif Jouejati of the Free Syria Foundation, pointed out that her organization has decided against censoring sectarian comments in favor of responding to them and thus creating a dialogue “so we educate against hate speech.”
Social media may be creating or strengthening the public sphere on multiple levels: within Syria and across the region. ABC’s Lara Setrakian called the “Arab digital vanguard” the “connective tissue throughout Arab Society.”
“Pan Arabism died a long time ago,” she said, “but it’s been resurrected online.”
There is, of course, a vast literature on the representative public sphere across several scholarly domains, highlighted by the work of Jurgen Habermas. Many have pointed out the complex role media play in fostering a functional and empowering socio-political conversation among the various layers in a society. On the one hand, media can create information baselines and be a conduit between elected officials and the public, among other functions. On the other, they can also misinform and misrepresent, be it because of their own latent biases (structural and ideological) and/or manipulation from sources, especially elites.
New media present these same challenges, as well as others. Fadl al Tarzi, from the Dubai News Group, whose organization has been monitoring social media across the Arab world, pointed out something that others have found in studying new media and politics in the U.S. and elsewhere: social media, more than traditional media, tends to include like-minded users. This is not often conducive to the (somewhat mythical) Enlightenment notion of an 18th Century Café/Salon style public sphere where ideas are contested on an equal plane with the best rising to prominence.
In Syria, one of the more interesting ways that new media are playing a role in shaping the information environment is in their use by traditional media, both within the region and across the globe. Several of the panelists, from activists to journalists, talked about how this has created an incentive for activists to create more credible media, rather than overt propaganda.
Rami Nakhla, of The Day After Project, discussed the way his organization has had to learn to adopt traditional Western news norms like balance to be taken seriously by mainstream media outlets interested in using their videos of regime violence, protests, etc.
The relationship between activists and traditional media can be a tricky one, though. The fact remains that it is still difficult to assess the credibility of many videos, many of which are of sketchy provenance and may not be depicting what they claim. Marc Lynch talked about the importance of being skeptical when a video claims thousands were at a protest, when in fact the tight focus of the camera may be obscuring that in fact only dozens were there. This is a phenomenon familiar to those who recall the exaggerated claims of thousands filling Baghdad’s Firdos Square when the Saddam statue fell on April 9, 2003, when in fact a couple of hundred were there.
Deb Amos raised another interesting challenge with traditional media coverage as the civil war continues and various rebel factions gain control of a growing segment of the country. In the early days of the conflict, outside media didn’t have much if any access to the fighting on the ground, making them more dependent on videos and other third-party sources of information. This is obviously not optimal for reporting and verification.
Now, however, as reporters are able to access places like Aleppo, a new challenge has emerged: Journalists may be over-reporting what they can see with their own eyes at the expense of important developments in less accessible parts of the country. “We have the same level of violence in Homs, but no coverage anymore because now journalists are able to get into Aleppo for a day” before going back across the border to safety.
This is a story familiar to any media scholar. Contrary to the claims of most prominent press critics (especially in U.S. politics), most press biases are not partisan but structural, the result of the routines of reporting and patterned and often latent norms that lead to certain stories, sources, and even places being covered at the exclusion of others.
What we’re seeing in Syria, according to Amos and others, is perhaps more credible, in the sense that it’s verifiable by journalist eye-witness accounts, yet at the same time less comprehensive, because it’s increasingly governed by a myopia of access. Journalists always have to contend with these problems, and Syria is no exception. This makes it increasingly important for audiences to critically assess a variety of news and information sources.
Finally, there is another type of structural bias we might be seeing in Syria coverage due to the prevalence of online videos in the news. Many panelists echoed the observations of others over the months in pointing out that the videos we see from Syria (and, before that, from other hot spots during the Arab Spring) often substitute for other types of reporting as stories within themselves. Schadi Semnani, of the Syria Conflict Monitor, for instance, commented that “lots of mainstream media use videos as their primary source rather than interviews with people behind them.”
There are many challenges associated with this, some of which I’ve discussed already. But another is this: videos tell one type of narrative, one that is highly episodic and typically vivid, rather than thematic or complex. They aren’t necessarily less informative, but they contain a different type of information, and therefore might be expected to influence audiences differently than, say, print reporting (online or off).
Research shows, for instance, that episodic narratives can have the effect of leading audiences to assume problems are caused by individuals rather than to look for more societal or structural causes, and, similarly, to look for solutions that are more punitive and focus on individuals. Put another way, an implication of this research is that episodic stories discourage support for diplomacy in favor of more bellicose responses.
There is also the question of what we learn from the videos and whether that helps us better understand the crisis they are depicting. Journalism’s principal job is, after all, to inform us in a way that helps us comprehend the world around us so that we can make sound judgments and assess our leaders’ policies. Videos tell us one kind of story. How journalists contextualize those videos will be a key variable in how people understand it.
If journalists rely overly on the videos to tell the story, one implication is that people might be more likely to simply understand the Syrian crisis through the prism of their own biases and predispositions. Research consistently shows that this is how most people process news they don’t know much about, and foreign affairs certainly fits that description for the vast majority of audiences around the world. But it also means that, within the region, sectarian predispositions might be a greater influence than the events and messages implicit and explicit in the videos and other social media coming out of Syria. This leads back to Fadl’s point about a collection of like-minded communities in the virtual public sphere self-selecting the media, and the messages, with which they already agree.
But it also places a greater value on traditional journalism, and the role of intrepid journalists to sift through an even greater array of information in making sense of complex crises like the one currently so tragically dividing Syria.
Al Jazeera English has produced a remarkable interactive network map that identifies much of the Syrian regime and its network of supporters — from senior military officials (generals and colonels) and members of parliament to diplomatic officials and ruling family members. It tracks those who defect or die, marked by various node colors, but also keeps a running tally in chart form below this tool.
Clicking on the individual nodes, which can be zoomed to, provides information about the person it signifies. The profiles of the defectors and the recently departed include details and sometimes embedded news clips about their highlighted fate.
Unlike a network analysis map, however, the relations between the individuals themselves are not depicted and distance within the clusters are not informative. Rather they are clustered into identifiable groups, such as Cabinet, Parliament, Security and Senior Military, Diplomats and Family, with Bashar al-Assad at the center.
Not all key pillars of the regime are accounted for in this tool. Bassam Haddad has also pointed to a co-opted business elite that bolsters the regime. Their defections, sometimes as entire families or splintered ones, can prove just as damaging as those within the internal clusters choose exit over complicity. Perhaps the business elite overlap with Parliament, anyways.
I have to say that despite this regime’s excessive cruelty, watching the color coding of deaths makes it feel like a spectator sport. And if this was used as some sort of tool for the planning of attacks, it would raise journalistic ethical questions. In the midst of an internal bloody war, though, I count on the rebels having their own network maps with more precision and actionable details. And I am sure plenty of the interested and meddling foreign powers are providing much more intelligence than we see on this page.
Nevertheless, this is a useful tool for Syria observers as a graphic representation of a corrupt and decrepit political infrastructure struggling to live to see another oppressive day. As the webpage cautions users, verifying defections and even deaths can prove difficult. The regime boots out critical journalists and keeps a tight lid on information contrary to its interests. This service gives us non-partisans a barometer of a conflict that has already gone on for too long and with too much human cost. The regime’s stubborn insistence to go on with business as usual has been a decision made with the willingness to sacrifice their country.
The information in the map may not change things on the ground much, but any application that sheds more light on what’s happening there is welcome.
Finally, it should be noted that AJE has the assistance of an organization Movements.org founded by Jared Cohen, the former State Department official and Director of Google Ideas, Jason Liebman, CEO and co-founder of Howcast, and Roman Tsunder, co-founder of Access 360 Media. It’s About webpage describes itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying, connecting, and supporting grassroots digital activists from around the world.”
While many of the uprisings of the Arab Spring appear to be have transitioned from bloodshed in the streets to struggles within a political structure, the conflict in Syria endures. Neither President Bashar al Assad or the opposition appear to have charted a clear path to victory, and with the death toll climbing (according to activists) to more than 20,000, no clear path to the end is in sight. What a transition it has been from the early days of the uprising, when Syrian protestors gathered in largely peaceful protests in Damascus. Syria has seen a lot since those days – a violent crackdown, a gathering rebellion, a failed UN Peacekeeping mission, and multiple attempts from the outside world to intervene and stop the bloodshed.
But the fighting in Syria is not simply on the battlefield and in the streets: an equally important struggle is being waged in the realm of public perception.
Back in June of 2012, NPR’s On The Media interviewed the BBC’s Paul Danahar on the evolving propaganda war within Syria. In the early days of the conflict, the regime was loath to allow reporters to catalogue the brutal crackdown that was taking place. Al Assad claimed that the opposition to his country was a mixture of Al Qaeda elements and foreign powers, and that his regime was all that stood between Syria and an extremist Islamist state. Few people took these claims seriously at the time, but over time, says Danahar, that narrative has become somewhat true.
“I think it’s become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy. He talked about there being Al Qaeda elements in Syria last year, and I think now there are Al Qaeda elements. So they’ve managed to worm their way into the structure of society because the society has become completely chaotic. His claim that the other governments are fiddling around in his back yard, they’re also true. He’s created the environment for the kinds of things he warned about happening to actually happen.”
It is correct that Al Qaeda and foreign fighters are taking part in the fighting. In many ways, Syria has now spiraled into the protracted civil war that everyone feared it would be. The rebellion – a fractured, disorganized collective of armed groups – has yet to provide the same sort of unified opposition that their counterparts achieved in Libya, and as a result, the deeds of individual factions are able to shift the narrative of the whole opposition. Images and videos of alleged mass executions of regime soldiers by the FSA have prompted a warning from the U.N. that the rebels are not immune from prosecution for atrocities.
President Al Assad’s goal in light of this is two-fold: to project his regime to both internal and external audiences as the inevitable, stable ruler of Syria, and to cast the opposition as a radical, unacceptable alternative. In some ways this objective is a continuation of the regime’s PR campaign before the uprising, in which Asma Al Assad, the president’s wife, received a glowing spread in Vogue magazine (recently dropped from the publication’s website).
Hassan Hassan of Foreign Policy documents his recent more recent PR offensive to carry the narrative – embedding journalists with Syrian forces fighting in Aleppo, highlighting captured foreign fighters and jihadists, and arranging television interviews to project confidence about the outcome of the conflict. The regime has met and given “positive commitments” to the Red Cross officials’ requests to address the humanitarian crisis, even as Syrian forces continue to shell civilian populations in Damascus and Aleppo.
By contrast, the opposition has failed to mount a similar imaging campaign, or anything close to it. Infighting and a lack of leadership in the Syrian National Council has made it very challenging for the organization direct the rebellion, much less combat the regime’s narrative with an effective counter campaign. As a result, says Michael Hughes of the Examiner, “the SNC’s poor media strategy and inconsistent messaging have allowed the Assad regime to frame the narrative.” Bassad Haddad laments the dysfunction of the opposition on display for all to see:
“We are no longer witnessing a clear-cut event where an independent pro-democracy movement is facing a dictatorship. Though the latter part holds, the former does not. The dependence, weakness, fragmentation, and divisiveness of the especially external opposition and its internal correlates are now evident to all.”
Skill with public relations doesn’t shift facts on the ground. No number of television interviews can banish the reality for Syrians of shelling and summary executions. But framing can shape the behavior of actors going forward. Perceptions of the regime’s inevitability and the opposition’s unacceptability may shift the behavior of ordinary Syrians as the battle for the country continues to play out. The belief by foreigners that the opposition is made up of radicals like Al Qaeda could stay the hand of powers with the ability to truly shift the winds in the opposition’s favor. Ultimately, If the opposition is to defeat the regime, they will need to do more than simply coordinate within the organization; they must also convince outsiders of their legitimacy and their ability to responsibly piece the country together.
In March of last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (my former boss), in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, feared we were “losing an information war” to the Chinese, Russians and al Jazeera. She was certainly right that the United States faces greater competition from other nations, non-governmental entities and social actors who were aggressively challenging the U.S. narrative of global events and advancing alternative frames. Despite being the world’s only superpower – which means the United States has an interest in every corner of the world but also that every global citizen has an opinion on U.S. policy – our relative advantage had certainly diminished since the end of the Cold War. On balance, the rise of emerging powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran and South Africa is positive, offering opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. But these countries will challenge U.S. leadership as well.
However, we are not losing this information war. Events of the past week reinforce why, as the United States clearly and compellingly defended universal standards of human rights in the case of Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who had escaped house arrest and found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. China, an emerging power and strategic competitor, suffered a serious loss in global perception.
People have come to admire China as they see its extraordinary economic performance and learn more about China through its Confucius Centers and media like Xinhua. They marveled at the Beijing Olympics. But they have also been exposed to the other side of China, a rising but insecure power that is afraid of its own people and routinely and too often ruthlessly violates universal rights including freedom of expression, assembly and the press.
Chen Guangcheng wanted to do something revolutionary. As an activist, he wanted to remain in China, to be free of government intimidation; study what and where he wanted; and continue to challenge government policies in an open and civil society. The United States advocated on his behalf, not just through our diplomats in Beijing but also thanks to technology with his dramatic participation in a (staged and shrill but nonetheless effective) Congressional hearing. When that negotiated arrangement with the Chinese government collapsed, the United States rapidly opened the door for Chen to travel and study in the United States. The Chinese government reluctantly agreed if only to move the issue off the global stage.
In the Middle East, while surviving autocrats take comfort in the transactional “ask no questions” nature of Chinese foreign policy, as Professor Marc Lynch at GW’s Elliott School describes in his new book Arab Uprising, an increasingly expanded and empowered public sphere is acutely aware of regional developments and what major players are or are not doing. The United States will be challenged even as it has thrown its rhetoric and actions (Bahrain and Palestine notable exceptions) behind change, most recently regarding Syria. Going forward, U.S. policies will face increasingly strong head winds. It will be challenged to back its rhetoric with appropriate actions that reflect values, not just interests. Not everyone will be happy with the U.S. posture on a particular issue of importance, but it is now China and Russia (which has its own problems with protests) that are the status quo powers, providing political cover for the Assad regime.
There is more than one side of history. In world events, it sometimes takes time to determine which is side is “right.” The United States does not have the influence in the world it once did – that world no longer exists – but it is better positioned and competing more effectively than may be realized. Actions ultimately do speak louder than words. What the United States did last week in defending the universal rights of Chen Guangcheng spoke volumes.