Iraq War Framing for Dummies
March 12, 2013 – The war on Iraq was planned and sold with metaphorical framing. The bombs and deaths weren’t metaphors, but the discourse was – and still is – largely metaphorical.
“Liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk”
– Kenneth Adelman (Defense Policy Board, 13/02/02)
In an essay published in 1991, George Lakoff listed the following as among the main metaphors in the cognitive framing of war:
• War as business
• State as person (“National interest”)
• “Rational Actor” model & Faux Darwinism
• Fairy Tale of the Just War (“Rescue” or “self-defense”)
The first three listed occur repeatedly in the thinking of strategists, foreign policy advisers, international relations experts, etc – who almost certainly regard this thinking as natural and literal (rather than metaphorical).
The fourth listed (“Fairy Tale of the Just War”) is the metaphorical frame used to justify the war to the public. A different frame is used when a war is initiated by an official enemy: War as Crime (murder, assault, rape, theft, etc). Finally, the military has its own additional framing, which occasionally appears in media discourse, eg: War as Medicine (“surgical strikes”), War as Competitive Game, etc.
War as Business
The idea that war serves state/corporate interests seems commonplace, but killing for power & profit appears – to virtually everyone – as such an abhorrently immoral notion, that it must be denied (eg by politicians and other “respectable” people of influence). Thus, the connection between, say, OIL and the invasion of Iraq, whether dismissed or acknowledged, isn’t couched in such terms.
“The action has nothing to do with oil or any of the other conspiracy theories put forward”
(Tony Blair, speaking to parliament on Iraq)
The War as Business frame allows strategists, politicians, etc, to think/talk about war (mostly away from the public gaze) in terms of “rational” “costs” and “gains”. It’s a way of thinking that probably seems “natural” to the participants, as it relies on metaphorical conceptions they’re familiar with – from “conventional” politics, business and economics. Here’s a brief description of how it fits together…
1. In market economics, it’s “natural” to think of individuals pursuing their own “self-interest” according to the “rational actor” model – eg weighing up “losses” against “gains”, deciding whether a given action is “worth it” in quantifiable terms of accounting. Pursuing one’s self-interest in a competitive world is regarded as a good thing – a rational thing – in this economic worldview.
2. A nation has no literal “self” or “self-interest” – it’s an abstraction (defined in various terms). However, we routinely use a Nation as Person (or State as Person) metaphor to think about these “national” abstractions. One example is thinking about “national interest”. Inferences from market economics are mapped onto “national interest” as if it’s isomorphic to the economic “self-interest” of a person.
3. An important feature of this metaphorical framing is what it hides – what it excludes from attention – when the metaphors are routine and unconscious. To give an extreme example, the business section of the New York Times referred to the first Gulf War as having been a “bargain” (since the “costs” of the war were regarded as low – these “costs” were “US assets” and didn’t include the lives of Iraqis or the damage to Iraq).
Could paying for the Persian Gulf war prove as easy a ride for Americans as fighting it?
(‘The Big Spoils From a Bargain War’ – New York Times, 3/3/91)
There’s a lot of money to pay for this… oil revenues of Iraq could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years… We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction. (Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, 27/3/03)
State as person
The self-interest of a person is to be healthy, strong, etc. In the State as Person metaphor, the “national interest” is to be economically healthy and militarily strong. Relentlessly pursuing one’s self-interest is seen as “rational” in market economics, and it’s regarded as rational for a state to always maximise its wealth and military power. Not only is it “rational” in this metaphorical system – it’s also regarded as a moral good. The nation-person standing on its own feet, fending for itself – unlike the “weak”, “undeveloped” nations which haven’t successfully pursued their national interest, and which are thus reliant on handouts (“aid“, etc).
“They [US forces] are there as an expression of the American national interest to prevent the Iranian combination of imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend.” (Henry Kissinger, 18/01/07)
What is hidden by the State as Person metaphor? Divisions of religion, ethnicity or economic class within a nation, plus ecology, human suffering, etc. A stark example is the effects of sanctions imposed on Iraq – sanctions which require the State as Person metaphor to make sense of them as “moral discipline” or “punishment”. This metaphorical frame hid the reality of the catastrophic effects of sanctions on countless human beings.
The State as Person metaphor is also used to justify war in terms of a hero battling a villain for a good cause. Here, the metaphorical narrative takes the form of “self-defense” or “rescue” in what Lakoff calls the “Fairy tale of the Just War” (more on this below). The absurdity of applying a predicate such as “villainous” or “threatening” to the Iraqi people doesn’t register in a debate premised on the Saddam-nation metaphor.
Textual analysis of media coverage of the Iraq war showed the terms “Saddam” and “Saddam Hussein” occurring more frequently than “Iraq”, “Iraqi people”, etc. See, for example, Semantic framing in the build-up to the Iraq War, Harmon & Muenchen, 2009).
“Rational Actor” model
Colin Powell (then Joint Chiefs head) started the hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (on the first Gulf War) by giving congress-members a tutorial on the Rational Actor model and the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz. This provided the framework in which most of the discussion took place.
In the hearings, the Rational Actor model, with its cost benefit analysis, took center stage. The possible ”losses” could only be American ”assets”: money, American casualties, equipment. Iraqi civilian lives came into the discussion only because there might be a publicity loss.
(Metaphorical Thought in Foreign Policy, George Lakoff, 1999)
The “Rational Actor” model, in economics, holds that it’s irrational to act against your self-interest. In the State as Person metaphor, the nation-self pursues its “self”-interest (ie “national interest”), maximising its assets/gains and minimising costs/losses. When this frame is applied to war, vital moral and social issues, impacting millions of people, may get excluded or reduced to cost-benefit calculations and game theory (eg as taught in courses on International Relations).
Since Iraqi civilians were not “our” assets, they couldn’t be counted as “losses”. The only way for the slaughter of Iraqi people to be regarded as a “cost” in this frame would be as bad PR, since public relations is regarded as a political and military asset. The tendency to think in this way (ie this metaphorical system dominant) would result from – among other things – being taught/trained about international politics in terms of Clausewitz’s ideas:
Clausewitz was a Prussian general whose views on war became dominant in American foreign policy circles during the Vietnam War […] Clausewitz is most commonly presented as seeing war in terms of political cost-benefit analysis: Each nation-state has political objectives, and war may best serve those objectives. The political “gains” are to be weighed against acceptable “costs.”
(Metaphor and War, George Lakoff, 1991)
Incidentally, Colin Powell was against the first Gulf War, evaluating the gains as not worth the costs – ie not profitable in quantifiable terms of “national interest”. Rationality is profit maximization in this metaphorical system.
In Metaphorical Thought in Foreign Policy, Lakoff points out that so-called “realism” in international politics is saturated with faux-Darwinist metaphors – evolution seen as the survival of the strongest, rather than as, say, a broad matter of adaptation to ecological niches (which is not necessarily about “strength” or killing).
This frame of the competition of strength in a dangerous world combines with the above “Rational Actor” metaphor. So, not only is it “rational” to compete ruthlessly in one’s national-self-interest, it’s also natural survival instinct. An entailment of both metaphors is that “might is right” – strength (including military strength) is seen as a primary moral good. (See my article, Essentials of Framing, on how this fits into the conservative “Strict Father” perspective on morality).
Rational Actor and faux-Darwinism combine in the metaphor of Competition as Predation, which takes the form of commonplace expressions such as “it’s a dog-eat-dog world”, “it’s a jungle out there”, “you’ll be eaten alive”, etc. Thus, Kenneth Waltz, one of the most influential scholars in the field of international relations, writes (with apparently little awareness of the metaphorical nature of the claim) that:
“[States] are unitary actors who, at a minimum, seek their own preservation and, at maximum, drive for universal domination.” (Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 1979)
The Fairy Tale of the Just War
As mentioned above, the “Fairy Tale” is used to justify war to the public. In this frame, there’s a villain and a hero – the villain is evil, and the hero is “left with no choice” but to engage the villain in battle, and thus restore the “moral balance”. The “moral balance” in this scenario is that the heroic, rational “democratic” nations remain militarily powerful, etc, while the villains are “disarmed”. Order and harmony are thereby restored.
The villains must be disarmed, as otherwise they could victimise the hero (self-defense scenario) or the people the hero is defending (rescue scenario). The hero makes sacrifices, undergoes difficulties, has “tough decisions”, etc. And, of course, the hero acts honourably by going out of his way to avoid harming innocent bystanders, whereas the treacherous, immoral villain doesn’t care who gets hurt. (It’s not difficult to figure out what bloody realities this framing excludes).
A study by Luther and Miller, Framing of the 2003 U.S.-Iraq War Demonstrations, found that the frames used by pro-war groups were: “Threat from WMD” and “Fighting for Freedom and Democracy”. These correspond, respectively, to the “self-defense” and “rescue” versions of the Fairy Tale frame. A similar mixture of self-defense and rescue frames were used to justify the first Gulf War. President Bush (senior) first used the self-defense narrative (Saddam had “a stranglehold on our oil pipeline”), but a national poll, in October 1990, indicated that Americans would support a war framed as a “rescue”. The next day, the Bush administration dropped the “self-defense” PR, and adopted the “Rape of Kuwait” metaphor – the US, as hero, would rescue the innocent victim, Kuwait.
As these examples show, the Fairy Tale of the Just War (especially self-defense) doesn’t necessarily conflict with the War as Business frame. Both use the State as Person metaphor. The “logical” implications of the two frames are different, however. For example, the Fairy Tale has the following metaphorical entailments: 1) heroes don’t negotiate with evil villains – they defeat them; 2) The real victims are those victimised by the villain, not by the hero; 3) There’s a clearly defined “ending” when the villain has been defeated (eg symbolised by the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue). And so on.
Strategic goals / “Humanitarian mission” / “War on Terror”
A war on Iraq was advocated as early as 1997 by members of the Project for the New American Century (including Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz), who later shaped the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. The neoconservative plan was to make economic and strategic gains in the Middle East, including control of oil reserves, establishing military bases and “opening up” markets for US corporations. War was the means. Justification for war, following 9/11, was provided by the metaphorical “war on terror”.
“You can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam.”
– George W. Bush, 26/9/02
“The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror.” – George W. Bush, 1/5/03
The “war on terror” narrative included both versions of the Fairy Tale of the Just War. America and its allies were supposedly “threatened” by WMD and “terror” (self-defense) – and a “humanitarian intervention” was needed to “spread democracy” and “liberate” Iraq from evil tyranny (rescue). Frank Luntz, the rightwing language guru, had recommended that the Iraq War be referred to as the main front in the “war on terror”, and Fox News repeatedly used “war on terror” as a headline when showing scenes from Iraq.
A position against war may be based on the likely “costs” exceeding the “gains”, as in the Rational Actor model (and this may include “costs” not usually considered under “national interest”, eg wider ecological costs, social and psychological costs, etc). As Lakoff points out, the cost-benefit calculation of “national interest” is a zero-sum system: “costs” to “them” count as “gains” for “us”: “Dead human beings went on the profit side of our ledger”. But outside of the national-interest frame, a calculation of “costs” can work differently.
More often, opposition to war is based on a moral position which excludes political and economic dimensions (particularly cost-benefit metaphors). War as Crime is a moral metaphor that is often used when a war is started by an official enemy (as in the above example, “Rape of Kuwait”). In the case of Iraq in 2003, opponents of the invasion pointed out that it was illegal under international law (hardcore advocates of the war argued otherwise). Human Rights is another approach, with its own complex metaphorical framing.
Although we can’t help using metaphors and frames to think about issues as complex as “international relations”, we can distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Death, dismemberment, pain and starvation are not metaphorical. In war, those who suffer these realities usually have no say in the cost-benefit calculations which decide their fate.