The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Words, Words, Words

Observers of the bloodbath unfolding in Syria may be tempted to criticize the administration’s equivocation and inaction. But Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg begs to differ:

The Obama administration hasn’t helped to arm the rebels, nor has it created safe havens for persecuted dissidents. But it has done something far more important: It has provided the Syrian opposition with very strong language to describe Assad’s various atrocities.

The administration’s unprecedented verbal and written sorties against the Assad regime have included some of the most powerful adjectives, adjectival intensifiers and adverbs ever aimed at an American foe. This campaign has helped Syrians understand, among other things, that the English language contains many synonyms for “repulsive.”

But alas, this strategy is quickly exhausting itself:

[A] crisis is fast approaching: America’s stockpile of vivid adjectives is being depleted rapidly. Some linguists of the realist camp are now arguing for restraint in the use of condemnatory word combinations. They note that the administration, in its effort to shock and awe the Assad regime with the power of its official statements and the stridency of its State Department briefings, has prematurely stripped bare its thesaurus, leaving the U.S. powerless to come to the symbolic aid of the Syrian people.

In the remainder of his piece, Goldberg chronicles the escalation of America’s verbal assaults on the Assad regime, exposing the sheer bluster of the administration’s rhetoric throughout the current crisis. It’s probably the wittiest and most informative way to bring yourself up to speed on U.S. policy in Syria so far—or lack thereof.

Of course, it’s easy to sneer. The tragedy unfolding in Syria is genuinely horrific, but it is not as if there were some simple and easy way to make the killing stop. It is not at all clear that what follows Assad will be a lot better than what we see now; Lebanon on one side and Iraq on the other both offer examples of how badly things can fall apart in this part of the world — and how little foreign intervention can sometimes accomplish.

The policy issues the administration faces in Syria are serious and grave, but the rhetoric has gotten out of hand.  Words are not as cheap as they sometimes appear; after a while you begin to look as foolish and empty as your threats.

Published on May 8, 2012 5:18 pm
  • Corlyss

    “It has provided the Syrian opposition with very strong language to describe Assad’s various atrocities.”

    Right. Strong memo to follow. I don’t fault the US for not getting involved. Someone could get hurt. Meanwhile, the UN has behaved true to type.

  • Kris

    Given that the US fought in Libya but not in Syria, I can only conclude that the new Democratic policy is: “War only for Oil”.

  • Kris

    Unfortunately, I cannot edit my previous comment and change its slogan to: “No blood for no oil!”

  • Corlyss

    @Kris

    Well, really, in Libya it was “Overheated rhetoric is us; others to fight.” It’s the Dems ideal: the appearance of armed defense of standards while actually doing nothing but making pretty speeches.

  • Cunctator

    Things can fall apart easily just about anywhere given the right concoction of pressures and personalities.

    But, as Syria has been a difficult problem to solve since the unrest erupted a year ago, the best thing for the US and its Western Partners to have done was to be quiet. If we were never likely to intervene, then we should not have used rhetoric that sounded like we might. We should instead have explained why we could not, and not allowed ourselves to have been diverted from the main issue, namely Iran.

    And, by the way, doing “nothing” does not preclude the deployment of special forces to take out targets when we think it necessary to do so.

  • Kris

    Corlyss@4: Fair enough. There were not many American boots on the ground in Libya, though the US did play an important role through the air campaign.

    Cunctator@5: For some reason, I am reminded of the criticism of Bush Senior over the 1991 Iraqi uprising. (According to many commenters at the Goldberg piece, such a comment is an indication that I’m a warmonger.)