The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Libya and ‘the shadow of Iraq’

March 22, 2011

At the beginning of every war, journalists must quickly find a frame that makes the new violence intelligible to their audiences. It is often convenient to compare new events to old events, to see what looks similar and what looks different (journalists routinely follow the principle of comparison earlier articulated by Sesame Street). In 2006, during the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman employed the Vietnam template in an op-ed: ‘in time we’ll come to see the events unfolding — or rather, unraveling — in Iraq today as the real October surprise, because what we’re seeing there seems like the jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive’ (here, subscription required). The White House rarely responds to op-ed columns. Perhaps alarmed by possible parallels – afraid of the “quagmire” analogy – it responded directly to Friedman’s claim (here).

Yesterday the BBC’s Andrew North wrote:

There was something familiar in the night-time television images of broken concrete and twisted metal from Col Muammar Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound – the shadow of Iraq.
The largest military intervention in the Middle East since the Iraq war is now well under way, and to many the goal looks the same – regime change.
North suggests two things can be seen, the television images and ‘the goals’. There is an implied relationship between how things look and the motives behind the actions that lead to the images. The television images look like television images we saw in Iraq, so what might be happening might be what happened in Iraq, for the reasons that motivated those intervening in Iraq. What happened in Iraq could be a convenient ‘template’ for future events, and North is trying to fit Libya into that template. North adds weight to his argument by claiming that the goals look the same ‘to many’. ‘Many’ is a nebulous collective, but the many are watching these images and perhaps the many are thinking what North is thinking. He tries to alert readers to ways in which history is repeating itself:
Twelve years of no-fly zones and sanctions could not dislodge Saddam Hussein – and in the meantime it was the Iraqi people who bore the cost.
The choice of templates is political, not just a matter of convenience. North is using the 2003 Iraq War template to make a point. He could have used other templates to make other points. The comparison may be valid, and such speculation may serve to provoke readers into more serious thought about what is happening in Libya. But clearly, at this moment, there is space for journalists to offer a range of frames and North has chosen to frame Libya as falling under ‘the shadow of Iraq’, a metaphor for the cost that fell on Iraqi people. North has used a journalistic technique to warn political leaders against a course of action. Let’s see whether this template gains traction, as Thomas Friedman’s did in 2006.
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Ben O'Loughlin is Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is Director of the New Political Communication Unit, which was launched in 2007. Before joining Royal Holloway in September 2006 he was a researcher on the ESRC New Security Challenges Programme.