Barack Obama’s phantasmagoric world, where the choice of words defines reality

phantasmagoria /ˌfæntæzməˈɡɔːrɪə/, phantasmagory /fænˈtæzməɡərɪ/
n
1. a shifting medley of real or imagined figures, as in a dream
2. a sequence of pictures made to vary in size rapidly while remaining in focus
3. RARE a shifting scene composed of different elements

Etymology: 19th Century: probably from French fantasmagorie production of phantasms, from phantasm + -agorie, perhaps from Greek ageirein to gather together

phantasmagoric /ˌfæntæzməˈɡɒrɪk/, ˌphantasmaˈgorical
adj

–Collins Concise English Dictionary © HarperCollins Publishers

U.S. President Barack Obama was quite successful as a candidadate in 2008 and 2012 through the modern political technique of managing the narrative.

Unfortunately, he has for five and half years applied the same tecnique to the management of his foreign policy narrative.

Tragically, he has paid much more attention to the narrative of his foreign policies and the fine intellectual distinctions he makes in his head than he has to the changing realities on the ground in a number of crises, the relationships between them, and the need for the adoption of an effective strategy and implementing actions which can simultaneously deal with all of them.

These crises include Russia and its invasions of the Ukraine, Syria, ISIS, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia, the expansion of islamic militant groups across the northern half of Africa (Boko Haram in Nigeria is but one example), and China’s territorial claims and militant actions in the South China and East China Seas.

The evidence that Obama gives priority to the choice of words and managing his foreign policy narrative instead of developing strategy and implementing it through decisive actions is very strong.

In Afganistan, the 2009 policy review spent an enormous amount of time debating whether the goal there should be to “degrade” or to “defeat” the Taliban.

With ISIS, which did not come upon the scene overnight, there is evidence that a similar debate has been taking place, with the president only at the NATO Summit on September 4-5 declaring that the goal should be both to “degrade” and to “destroy” ISIS.

Aside from revealing the divisions within his foreign policy team, this unhappy formulation also reveals–paradoxically–that the president does not always think through the implications of the words he speaks.

From a foreign policy narrative perspective, the formulation makes perfect sense, since it can be portrayed as not reflecting a change in policy. From a strategic and action perspective, the words are pure nonsense.

Further evidence of the priority given by the President to words instead of actions is provided by the emphasis he has placed on calling ISIS by his preferred name, ISIL (“the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”), instead of ISIS (“the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham”).

Most recently, as the EU, NATO and the U.S. have faced the challenge of how to respond to the second Russian invasion of the Ukraine, this time in the Donbass, Obama has been very careful to characterize the movement of Russian tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and sophisticated air-defense systems into the Ukraine as an “incursion” and not an “invasion”. This played right into Vladimir Putin’s hands, as he sought to confuse the issue and hide the fact that an outright military invasion had occurred and was continuing.

The pacifists and appeasers in NATO and the EU have displayed a similar diffidence in avoiding the term “invasion”, whether due to Obama’s leadership on verbal formulations or not.

An “incursion” might be allowed to stand, as in Georgia. Still, it is hard to see how the seizure of the Crimea and its annexation could be considered a mere “incursion”. It may be that, for now, the pacifists and appeasers who lead the West are simply unable to think about the Crimea.

Finally, mention must be made of Obama’s careful phraseology in stating that if Putin continues on this or that course of action, he and Russia will pay additional “costs”.

This way of looking at the world can be found in Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance sppech where, while reserving to himself the right to use force whenever necessary to protect America, he stated that the rules of the road governing the use of force should be followed because it is in the interests of national leaders to do so.

There is no moral imperative contained in his formulations, then or now.

Obama’s leadership in verbal formulations is reflected in the adoption by other NATO and EU leaders of this terminology of “additional costs”.

At times it seems like Obama is stating–matter-of-factly–to an armed burglar in his house, who has already killed one of his children and threatens to rape his wife, that the intruder should desist or else he will have to pay “additional costs”. Lest this example sound too extreme, one should recall that some 3,000 people have been killed in the fighting in the eastern Ukraine.

The language of imposing “additional costs” on the aggressor Putin also has a more pervasive impact on how Obama and other decision makers think about what is going on in the Ukraine. It reveals that Obama, and others who adopt this terminology, have fallen victim to the “Rational Actor Fallacy”, which results from thinking within a “Rational Actor” or “Analytic” paradigm in which all government actions are viewed as the product of a rational calculus by a single, unitary rational mind or its equivalent. This paradigm is manifestly inadequate, and leads to making false assumptions about the causes and motivations of state behavior.

The significance of Obama’s focusing on the choice of words and managing the foreign policy narrative of his administration is that it leads to fuzzy and confused thinking, which can mask the presence of very grave threats to the national security of the United States, NATO members, and other states.

Russia has “invaded” the eastern Ukraine by military force in violation of the prohibition of the threat or use of force contained in Article 2 paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter.

It did so in the Crimea. It has done so now in the eastern Ukraine. Its forces remain in the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine in open and flagrant violation of this bedrock principle of the U.N. Charter and international law.

That is the reality we face, and the reality we must clearly understand, without obfuscations with words, if we are to muster the courage to take effective action to reverse the situation, and to reaffirm and reestablish observance of the most fundamental norm in the U.N. Charter and international law.

The words you choose affect the way you think, as George Orwell explained in 1946. Words which are not connected to actions, as Theodore Roosevelt explained in his 1907 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (delivered in 1912), are meaningingless, or worse.

To avoid floundering in a phantasmagoric world of visions that lead to lunging at shadows, or sitting immobile when a bear is coming at your throat, Obama and other leaders need to use real words to describe the realities which they see, and the actual and very real threats to which they must respond.

See

(1) Andrew Higgins, “On Ukraine, the West Sidesteps a Fraught Term,” September 4, 2014.

(2) “Russian “Invasion” or Incursion” in Ukraine? Obama and the primacy of words over actions,” The Trenchant Observer, August 28, 2014.

(3) “ISIS or ISIL? A telling tale of the primacy of words over actions in Obama’s foreign policy,” The Trenchant Observer, June 19, 2014.

(4) “The smartest person in the room, and the Afghanistan policy review,” The Trenchant Observer, October 24, 2010.

(5) The Daily Star: “The “Rational Actor” Fallacy and Stopping Syria’s Atrocities—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #8 (March 9) The Trenchant Observer, March 9, 2012.

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"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.