The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Do words matter?

August 20, 2011

The Obama administration’s rhetorical escalation on Syria this week seems to have generated quite a bit of skepticism that it will have any effect. Drezner sees it as mostly harmless and won’t really do any good. Daniel Serwer thinks for it to be effective, others are going to have to push harder. Andrew Sullivan finds Assad unfazed. True to form, the Neocons see it as too little.

On one level these are fair points — if the sole measure of this rhetorical shift is whether or not it will compel Assad to leave office then obviously this will be a failure. But, no one in the administration believes that simply calling for Assad to leave coupled with a new set of limited sanctions will compel him to magically pack up and exit. That’s not what this is about. It’s about finding ways to keep the pressure on Assad by using a U.S. presidential statement to reinforce the legitimacy of the protest movement and conveying to the protesters (and the rest of the world) that they are on the right side of history.

This may seem little more than diplomatic fluff, and perhaps history will show that it had little or no effect. But, occasionally words do matter and remarkably sometimes they even inspire — in ways that many of us may not fully appreciate and that social scientists often find difficult to measure. For example, while many Americans (myself included) were critical of President Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric during his first term, especially his infamous “evil empire” speech, most of the East European and Soviet dissidents — Havel, Michnik, Geremek, Sharansky, among others — have long noted that those words from a U.S. President helped them get through some of the most difficult moments of communist crackdowns and Poland’s Martial Law. If we measure Reagan’s evil empire speech by Moscow’s response, it didn’t seem to have any discernible effect. However, if we ask the dissidents in the trenches, they tell us a very different story.

My sense from the early reporting out of Syria over the past day or two is that at least some of the activists have been boosted by the new American position and that this may help sustain their efforts. We’ll see….

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.