In his speech before the meeting of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, U.S. President Barack Obama resurrected yet another turn of phrase used most often by those wishing to make the case for dropping bombs on people and things.
In an effort to justify U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria, Obama declared that the militant organization known as ISIS (or ISIL or IS, the ‘Islamic State’) not only commits the “most horrific crimes imaginable,” but is so vicious, violent, and uniquely brutal that it “forces [the international community] to look into the heart of darkness,” adding later:
No god condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning, no negotiation, with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.
The rhetoric used by Obama to defend yet another illegal and ill-conceived American air campaign in the Middle East – an undefined, unconstitutional operation designed to inevitably expand and escalate – is well-worn. The very same word salad, notably the “language of force” line, has been routinely served up to justify lethal action against a seemingly intractable foe and it puts the onus on the target of that aggression for bringing such violence upon itself: if they weren’t such barbarians, we too wouldn’t have to resort to barbarism.
So, bombs away. After all, military action was our only choice, we are told, despite the fact that the declared targets of our artillery pose no direct or imminent threat to the United States. The irrational and bloodthirsty comprehend only the heat-seeking and bunker-busting. Diplomacy is impossible, thus destruction is imperative.
In his 2005 book, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-terrorism, Richard Jackson, deputy director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand, explored this very kind of political messaging:
One of the most noticeable and ubiquitous features of the language of counter-terrorism is its invariable appeal to identity: terrorists are endlessly demonised and vilified as being evil, barbaric and inhuman, while America and its coalition partners are described as heroic, decent and peaceful – the defenders of freedom.
“At its most basic level, the language used by officials is attempt to convince the public that a ‘war’ against all forms of terrorism is necessary, reasonable, inherently good and winnable,” he added.
Over the past few decades, whenever bombing Iraq is on the horizon, we’ve heard much of the same from government officials and their pro-war mouthpieces in the media and think tank establishment.
In late 1990, Martin Indyk, founder and executive director of the AIPAC-launched Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and later senior advisor to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, wrote, “Saddam Hussein has demonstrated that he only speaks and understands the language of force.”
In 1991, Maine Representative Olympia Snowe supported the authorization of Operation Desert Storm due to her determination that successfully confronting Saddam Hussein required “a credible military threat be maintained against a brutal aggressor who only understands the language of force.”
Just days before Bill Clinton’s first inauguration as president in January 1993, the George H.W. Bush administration was again bombing Iraq. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch insisted, “Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein knows only the language of force. President Bush has delivered a message that Saddam is certain to understand,” adding, “The air strikes are not enough.”
In September 1996, when the Clinton administration itself was routinely bombing Iraq, Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed his frustration with Russian condemnation of such attacks. He told the press he was “disappointed” the Russians “don’t understand as we do that the only language that Saddam understands is the language of force.” This became a go-to phrase in the administration’s talking points.
The record is, unfortunately, all too clear. Saddam has threatened and invaded his neighbors, developed and used weapons of mass destruction, sponsored countless acts of terrorism, and for the last two decades he has relentlessly persecuted the Kurds and the Shiites. When Saddam tests the will and resolve of the international community, our response must be and will be forceful and immediate.
Time and again we’ve seen that the United States leadership is essential to provide that response. Military action that the United States launched today has made it clear that Saddam will pay a price whenever he engages in aggression.We are answering in the only language he understands, the language of force.
Later that month, on September 12, 1996, former Secretary of State James Baker testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and encouraged more military attacks, saying, “Iraq under Saddam Hussein only understands force. And more to the point, it seems only to understand overwhelming force. When we respond in a situation like this, I do not believe that it needs to be limited so as to be proportionate to the provocation.”
In their book about the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation, New York Times correspondent Michael R. Gordon and former Marine lieutenant general Bernard Trainor recount the words of a high-ranking officer of the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division sent to attack the city of Tikrit. “The only thing these sand niggers understand is force,” the officer remarked, “and I’m about to introduce them to it.” General Ray Odierno, who led the 4th ID’s attack, is currently the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff.
The messaging is clear. As Richard Jackson notes, “In this most rudimentary sense, the language accompanying the ‘war on terrorism’ is a public relations or propaganda exercise; it is designed to ‘sell’ the policies of counter-terrorism.” In order to build support for military action, the public is repeatedly told that “the terrorists are inhuman barbarians who deserve to be eradicated from civilised society; the threat posed by terrorism is catastrophic and it is only rational to respond with all due force; and the American-led war against terrorism is by definition a good and just war.”
Historically, however, this rhetoric has not been reserved solely for justifying American military action against predominately Muslim countries in the Middle East. Nor has this phrase been used only by one side of the conflict.
In a video message allegedly made and distributed on October 20, 2001, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden declared, “Bush and Blair… don’t understand any language but the language of force. Every time they kill us, we kill them, so the balance of terror is achieved,” according to a declassified report released by the British government in November 2001.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, in a 2003 sermon, reportedly announced, “The Crusaders [Americans] and the Jews only understand the language of force, and they only understand the return of coffins and destroyed interests and burned towers and destroyed economy.”
In a statement claiming responsibility for simultaneous suicide bombings that killed 155 people in Baghdad on October 25, 2009, an anti-occupation, al-Qaeda linked group known then as the Islamic State in Iraq explained, “Among the chosen targets were the ministry of oppression known as the Ministry of Justice and the Baghdad provincial assembly… The enemies only understand the language of force.”
Prior to the beheading of American journalist James Foley, on August 12, 2014, ISIS reportedly sent an email to Foley’s family announcing their intention to murder him in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes and delivering a wider message to the American government and people. Claiming to have provided “many chances to negotiate the release of your people via cash transactions” and “prisoner exchanges,” ISIS wrote that it was clear “this is NOT what you are interested in.” (emphasis in original)
The email went on: “You have no motivation to deal with the Muslims except with the language of force, a language you were given in ‘Arabic translation’ when you attempted to occupy the land of Iraq! Now you return to bomb the Muslims of Iraq once again, this time resorting to Arial [sic] attacks and ‘proxy armies’, all the while cowardly shying away from a face-to-face confrontation!”
“You do not spare our weak, elderly, women or children so we will NOT spare yours!” the email warned. “You and your citizens will pay the price of your bombings!”
In his speech before the United Nations last week justifying expanded airstrikes against ISIS, Obama thus recycled the very phrase used by ISIS to justify its own violence.
Still, the phrase has even older roots.
Zionism and Its Malcontents
In 1891, after one of his frequent travels through Palestine, Ahad Ha’am, the Ukrainian-born Jewish essayist known widely as the founder of cultural Zionism, lamented that Zionist settlers acted like “the only language the Arabs understand is that of force” and “behave towards the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their boundaries, beat them shamefully without reason and even brag about it, and nobody stands to check this contemptible and dangerous tendency.”
This same, possibly apocryphal, formulation has been credited over the years to Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, second prime minister Moshe Sharett, and IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan, and is widely considered the immutable underlying assumption guiding racist, hawkish Israeli attitudes towards Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.
This linguistic articulation of Zionist sentiment was already so prevalent prior to the establishment of the State of Israel that renowned political theorist Hannah Arendt turned the phrase on its head in her 1948 essay, “Peace or Armistice in the Near East?,” published two years later in the Review of Politics. “All hopes to the contrary notwithstanding,” she wrote, as the Nakba raged on, “it seems as though the oneargument the Arabs are incapable of understanding is force.”
In February 1992, following the assassination of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Abbas Moussawi, killed in southern Lebanon in an Israeli airstrike along with his wife and five-year-old son, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens boasted, “We’ve learned that terror organizations like Hezbollah only understand one language – the language of force.”
Two weeks after the start of the Second Intifada, when Israel had already fired 1.3 million bullets at Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza, a military spokesman justified Israel actions, saying that force “will be the only language they understand.”
Prior to Israeli parliamentary elections in 2009, supporters of the fascistic Avigdor Lieberman enthusiastically endorsed this narrative. “He’s the kind of leader we’ve been waiting for, he knows how to talk to Arabs in their own language, the language of force,” an Israeli woman who resides in a town close to the border with Gaza toldthe press.
Predictably, those opposed to Israel policies of colonialism, annexation, occupation, and military aggression have also resorted to such rhetoric. “Our enemy knows only the language of force and negotiations are useless,” Palestinian officials have longed declared. In 1998, a resident of the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza said this of Israeli leadership: “They only understand the language of force, not of peace.” A decade later, a Palestinian professor in Gaza said that same of Hamas.
“The enemy knows nothing but the language of force,” Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie said of Israel in November 2012, following Israel’s eight-day bombardment of Gaza. “Be aware of the game of grand deception with which they depict peace accords,”
From Stalin to Putin
While the “language of force” has long been used in the West to describe the supposed base nature and unsophisticated lack of humanity of the savage “Oriental” – a colonial, supremacist discourse popularized all the more after the attacks of September 11, 2001 – this discursive process has not been reserved for Arab or Muslim targets alone.
In his famous March 1946 “Iron Curtain Speech,” Winston Churchill expressed his conviction that, for Soviet Russia and its Communist satellites, “there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” Thus, he reason, “Western Democracies” must “stand together” lest “they become divided or falter in their duty and if these all-important years are allowed to slip away then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”
68 years later, speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum in March 2014, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen paraphrased Churchill’s admonition, saying of Russian president Vladimir Putin that “the language he understands is force” and warning that, “unless there is a strong response, and a united response above all,” to Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, “from the United States and Europe together to this, and a reassertion of the transatlantic alliance and NATO, then we could be heading in a very worrying direction.”
In May 2014, prior to his election as new Ukrainian president, billionaire confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko stated that, in order to deal with pro-Russian separatists — whom he called “terrorists” — “we should find out the right language they understand, and that would be the language of force.”
On April 19, 1965, as American bombs fell in Vietnam, conservative columnist Russell Kirk wrote, “Like the Nazis, the Asiatic Communists prefer guns to butter,” and accused North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh of aggressive “conquest”:
At this stage of affairs, only effective military resistance and retaliation can dissuade Ho Chi Minh from pursuing the war with increased vigor. The language of force, indeed, Communists understand.
General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam at the time of the My Lai Massacre, and soon-to-be Army Chief of Staff, often and openly maintained that “meaningful force” was “the only language they [the North Vietnamese] understood.”
As late as March 1975, after nearly all American troops had been withdrawn from the conflict, and following a meeting with President Gerald Ford, the then-retired Westmoreland told journalists that “the culprit in this whole thing is Hanoi,” adding, “The only language Hanoi understands is the language of force and I think it’s too bad that we couldn’t again mine Haiphong harbor and that the President doesn’t have authority to use tactical air and B52 strikes to hit the Communist supply lines.”
Six weeks later, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army.
On the floor of the United States Congress on February 4, 1988, long-serving South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings advocated for increased military aid sent to the Contras in Nicaragua. Denouncing Congressional Democrats as “not committed to fight for anything” and “only willing to posture and talk,” Hollings declared that “there is no hope in Nicaragua without aid to the Contras.” Dismissing diplomacy, he bellowed, “Peace plans? The Marxists only understand the language of force.”
Later that year, in August 1988, Nicaraguan Contra founder and commander Enrique Bermúdez also made the case for continued military support from the U.S. government. “The only language the Sandinistas understand or respect is the language of force,” he insisted. “If the Sandinistas weren’t receiving massive assistance from the Soviet Union, Cuba and other communist countries, the Nicaraguan people wouldn’t have any need of foreign sources of support.”
The ubiquity of the “language of force” line has rendered the phrase effectively meaningless, levied at one’s enemies in order to silence debate and promote military action.
The same was said of South Africa’s Apartheid regime in the 1980s. Croatian officials, Kosovar separatists, and New York Times columnists said the same of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s. It’s been said about the “leaders of the Axis of Evil,” it was said about Gaddafi and Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and it is often said about Assad. It has been said about the Pakistani Taliban, the Somali militant group al-Shabab and the Nigerian Boko Haram.
The same rhetoric is used by tyrants as well to describe dissident, resistance, and revolutionary movements. For instance, in early February 2011, as Cairo’s Tahrir Square swelled with increasing demands for Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, a CNN report noted that the U.S.-backed leader had long “argued that Egypt had to adopt a tight security policy to combat terrorism; that the forces of political Islam do not understand anything but the language of force and a strong government grip.”
A year ago, in a September 20, 2013 article, David Sanger of the New York Times credited Obama’s economic warfare on Iran and threats of military action in Syria with restarting nuclear negotiations and, with the help of Russia, dismantling Assad’s chemical weapons. With regard to “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Iran’s erratic mullahs,” Sanger wrote, Obama was experiencing “the long-delayed fruits of the administration’s selective use of coercion in a part of the world where that is understood.”
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly two weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that, “when it comes to Iran, the greater the pressure, the greater the chance” of successfully denying the nation their inalienable right to a domestic nuclear energy program.
For years, however, Iranian officials from three successive presidential administrations have consistently pushed back against this offensive presumption.
Back in June 2003, as U.S.-led pressure over Iran’s nuclear program increased, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi warned that unjust accusations and illegal threats would strengthen the resolve of conservative elements in the government opposed to diplomacy with the West. “Excessive pressure on Iran would untie the hands of those who do not believe in dialogue,” he said, “Even those who favour constructive talks would not accept the language of force and threat.”
Two years later, as dubious allegations, wild predictions, and threats of unprovoked attack mounted, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the nuclear issue in his first speech before the UN General Assembly on September 17, 2005. Western powers and Israel, he said,
have misrepresented Iran’s healthy and fully safeguarded technological endeavors in the nuclear field as pursuit of nuclear weapons. This is nothing but a propaganda ploy. The Islamic Republic of Iran is presenting in good faith its proposal for constructive interaction and a just dialogue. However, if some try to impose their will on the Iranian people through resort to a language of force and threat with Iran, we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue.
The next year, leading Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami, a senior member of the Assembly of Experts, noted in a nationally broadcast weekly sermon, “Iran is favourable toward negotiations that are just, logical and without preconditions, but refuses the language of force,” adding, “Using the language of force with Iran is a foolish and clumsy attitude.”
“Resolutions, sanctions and threats have always made the issue more complicated,” Iran’s IAEA envoy Ali-Asghar Soltanieh said in late 2009 before a Board of Governor’s vote on a resolution focusing on the recently-announced uranium enrichment facility at Fordow. “We recommend the IAEA not to refer to such methods and use the language of logic rather than force.”
Earlier this year, following a round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif remarked that “the language of force has no place in foreign policy agendas” and that “any state using the ‘all-options-on-the-table’ rhetoric is actually taking outdated measures.”
In late 2009, then IAEA chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei concurred with this message. “[U]sing the language of force is not helpful. It leads to confrontation, to the other country taking counteraction,” he said in an interview withThe Hindu. “It is better to forget the language of coercion and focus on trying to engage in dialogue.”
The Force of Language
Barack Obama, the drone president who defended perpetual war while receiving his own Nobel prize, disagrees. In his UN speech, Obama has again joined the ranks of those who justify the use of force through the abuse of weaponized language. The appeal to an adversary’s unprecedented “brand of evil” serves not to illuminate the challenges faced, but rather to obfuscate an informed comprehension of current affairs. It is, by design, the ultimate conversation-stopper.
As terrorism expert Richard Jackson explains:
…the language of good and evil suppresses questions: we don’t need to ask what the motivations or aims of the terrorists were if they are ‘evil,’ as ‘evil’ is its own motivation and its own self-contained explanation. Evil people do not have any politics and there is no need to examine their causes or grievances. Evil people do what they do simply because they are evil. Clearly, the use of this language is a way of encouraging quiescence and displacing more complex understandings of political and social events. As such, it qualifies as demagoguery by appealing to ignorance and arrogance through a distorted representation of the nature of evil.
As the United States and its coalition partners embark once again on an ill-fated, military misadventure in the Middle East, the recycled language used to promote such policies is predictable. And this time around, as in the past, it’s effectiveness is proven.
A FoxNews poll released this week shows that upwards of 78% of Americans approve of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while 55% believe such action is “not aggressive enough.” Additionally, 57% of respondents are supportive of a ground operation if the bombing campaign proves ineffective or indecisive. A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week produced similar results.
Yet, beyond all the political rhetoric and domestic jingoism, for those on the ground in Iraq and Syria, including the dozens of civilians already killed in U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, bombs drop louder than words.
This post originally appeared at Muftah.