US President Barack Obama is getting crushed in what has become a very public debate over Syrian intervention between himself on one side, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the other. Scholarship on winning such debates illustrates that it is important to ‘frame’ issues in a light beneficial to one’s agenda. It is a manoeuvre that Ronal Krebs and Patrick Jackson call “rhetorical coercion” – by successfully framing a debate in a certain light, one’s opponent is effectively coerced into accepting that frame and fighting out the rhetorical battle within the confines of that frame.
On the topic of intervention in Syria, Obama was unsuccessful in framing a military response to the chemical weapons attack as a moral obligation instead of a question of practical consideration requiring a legal justification, popular support, and a game plan for the potential fallout. Instead, Putin and Assad have successfully convinced the American public that their primary consideration is the potential outcome of such an intervention, not the morality of it, and as such Obama is forced to address this most difficult of questions.
We are witnessing one of the most skilled rhetorical debates of the 21st century, in which all parties to the debate are clouding real intentions with rhetoric meant to sway popular support behind their respective sides. In this vein, both sides have realized that to be successful, the framing battle must first be won. On the pro-intervention side, the argument is best fought in a moral light – it is much easier to convince people that a humanitarian transgression as egregious as a chemical weapons attack must be responded to on moral rather than practical grounds. On the anti-intervention side, it is much easier to convince people that intervention must be based on practical considerations, i.e., consequences and outcomes.
Assad and Putin claim (correctly) that such an attack would indirectly aid terrorists (the al Nusra front, the most powerful rebel group fighting in Syria, is an off-shoot of al Qaeda and a US-recognized terrorist organization), and would pave the way for terrorists to seize power in Syria. Until now, Obama has lacked a response to this argument, and instead has repeatedly tried to reframe the question as a moral one. As Krebs and Jackson explain, Obama’s problem is that once a public accepts a frame it is virtually impossible to change that frame. In this case, the American public has taken two ideas to heart: (1) intervention supports terrorists (al Nusra would benefit from a weakened Assad and has the most potential to fill any power voids); and (2) the US would be required to help a new government consolidate power à la Iraq and Afghanistan. It is these two points that have been the basis of Assad’s successful public relations campaign in America. In his appearances in various US media outlets, including a recent interview with CBS’s Charlie Rose, Assad continually underscores these two points to a receptive American public. Putin’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times underscores similar points, including a plea to “return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”
Regardless of these three leaders’ true intentions and reasons behind their media campaigns (clearly Assad and Putin’s number one concern is not the hardship the American public would endure by starting another financially burdensome intervention in another country in the Middle East), what is clear is that Obama is being rhetorically out-jousted. If Obama is to get what he wants, he is going to have to hire some new PR coaches to figure out how to out-coerce Putin and Assad – rhetorically, that is – something that should be straightforward given both these leaders’ histories of atrocious human rights transgressions. It is truly amazing how Putin and Assad have managed to argue a moral argument against intervention with any modicum of legitimacy and forced Obama into this corner of practicalities. Unfortunately for Obama, a renewed attempt at reframing the debate will likely have to wait until after the next round of negotiations in Geneva to settle this conflict politically. One can only hope that Syria does not experience another massacre before such a time.