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Obama Reframes Syria: Metaphor and War Revisited

By       Message George Lakoff     Permalink
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There are two scenarios for this. Obama is taking the broad systemic causation route pointing to the maintenance of treaties and the deterrence of other bad actors. But liberals like the NY TimesNick Kristof take the direct, not systemic, route: How can we save lives in Syria now? His argument: Degrading his ordinary weaponry will make it harder for Assad to kill at the rate of 5,000 people a month, and thus can save immediate lives. "...It's plausible that we can deter Syria's generals from deploying [sarin] again if the price is high." This is a version of the rational actor model, with Syria's generals as the rational actors seeking to maximize utility.

But there is no reason to think that Assad and his generals are rational actors. Saddam Hussein was not a rational actor either. He fought to the end. Will Assad? Is he trying to show that he is more masculine than Obama, or is he standing up for the superiority of the Alawite/Shiite version of Islam, of for his family's dominance? Will a limited form of punishment and rational actor considerations bring him to the bargaining table? If the answer is no, then the Obama initiative is likely to fail.

In the Nurturant family, Dad and Mom are equals, diplomatic discussion is the norm, and painful physical punishment is not. Map that onto the Syria situation and you can see why Obama is at odds with traditional liberals, whose Nurturant metaphor for politics tells them to avoid the use of force. With Congress, he is trying diplomacy -- the Nurturant means to achieve Punishment, the Strict goal. The result is confusions and strange bedfellows. Conservatives would naturally tend toward punishment. But in a Strict Father family, the father's authority over everyone else must be maintained. Conservative morality, following this principle, leads conservatives to value the authority of conservatism over liberalism, which tends to make them vote against Obama, even when they agree with the content of what he is proposing.

In a true strict father family, the father is the ultimate authority, over not just the kids but also the mother. Dad doesn't have to ask Mom for support when he punishes Junior for disobedience. To those with strict values Obama looks weak both when he tries diplomacy and when he turns to Congress as a statement of democracy. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense who helped take the nation into the Iraq War, stated the position as follows: "...leadership requires that you stand up, take a position, provide clarity and take responsibility..."

In the strict father model, you fight to win, not to help your side gain a limited advantage and then back off. That is the John McCain model. It is not an argument over the details of a limited strike. It is an argument over the goals, but put forth as an argument over details.

The president says the "military action" is "limited." Secretary Kerry says that we don't want war, and he frames the "military action" as "not war"-- No boots on the ground. No attempt to take over the country ourselves. But the president can direct further action to prevent poison gas from falling into the wrong hands. The generals respond -- call it what you want, it's war. If you're a sailor on a boat shooting missiles at Syria with 13 Russian boats nearby monitoring the missiles you shoot, you will experience it as war.

Korean War vet Rep. Charlie Rangel says, "There is no such thing as a limited war." Those of us with memories that long remember when Vietnam was seen as a limited war, as was Iraq. The metaphor of concern is the Mission Creep metaphor: as the ultimate goal is seen to be harder and harder to achieve, the scope of the war slowly expands, and the Mission creeps bit by bit past its limits. The Mission Creep and Limited War metaphors contradict each other.

The Limited War metaphor depends on another metaphor, the Surgical Strike metaphor: the missiles are so carefully calibrated that they can strike only the projected military targets and no innocent civilians. We were told this in Iraq. It wasn't true. The use of the Surgical Strike metaphor raises hackles among Democrats who remember its use in Iraq.

Part of the Limited War scenario is the Degrading metaphor: our current goal in bombing is to "degrade" Assad's military capacity. It is hard to that to be false, since any lessening of the military capacity, no matter how small, would degrade the military capacity, at least somewhat. Since it is not said how much "degrading" is to count, that means that "success" is assured, at least in the short run.

But what about the long run? What about systemic causation?

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.

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George Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972. He previously taught at Harvard (1965-69) and the (more...)

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