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Did pictures in the news media just change U.S. policy in Syria?

- April 10, 2017
Residents of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, hold placards and pictures April 7 while protesting a suspected chemical weapons attack on their town that killed at least 86 people, among them 30 children. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 4, horrific images of dead and dying children from a chemical gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province apparently moved the visually oriented Donald Trump to empathize with the “beautiful babies” and seek retaliation. According to Trump himself, the pictures “had a big impact on me, big impact” and the attack “crossed many, many lines, beyond a red line.” This impact appeared to rapidly shift Trump’s Syria policy from going “after ISIS big league” and letting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power, to retaliatory missile strikes against Assad just 54 hours after Trump saw the pictures and, more significantly, calls for regime change.

Trump, of course, is not the first U.S. president to have allegedly been affected by media images in making foreign policy decisions. After the 1991 Gulf War, images of Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam’s helicopter gunships were said to influence George H.W. Bush to set up havens and a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds. Likewise, images of starving Somalis purportedly led Bush to send troops to Somalia in 1992, while pictures of ethnic cleansing persuaded Bill Clinton to support military intervention in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999.

This type of media-induced policy shift — once called the CNN effect — is not new, and past experiences may illuminate potential outcomes and dangers for today. I studied the impact of media coverage on U.S. policy in Kosovo, which moved from relative neutrality in early 1998 to support for a NATO military intervention against Serbia a year later. After three media-sensationalized massacres in Precaz, Gornje Obrinje and Racak, I recorded notable policy shifts on the road to war. While these three incidents were horrific, they represented few deaths relative to the larger war, just like the Syrian incident, which accounted for approximately one hundred out of nearly 500,000 deaths. What made these cases unique was their ability to shock, dominate the media — including social media feeds, in the Syrian case — for a day or two and create political pressure for a response.

From my assessment of Kosovo, three important lessons on the relationship of media images and foreign policy stand out:

1. Unexpected and emotive images can rapidly open policy windows of opportunity

While foreign policy decision-making may appear to be a rational process of pursuing the national interest, research shows that it is often more like a competition among foreign policy elites, each pushing their own narrative and policy preference. This was certainly the case for Kosovo; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright focused on the humanitarian crisis and pushed for decisive military action, while other National Security Council (NSC) members highlighted the potential risks and advocated a more cautious path.

Once emotive images entered the fray, the dynamics of the debate changed rapidly, with those seeking military action gaining new leverage against critics. In the case of Trump and Syria, policy shifted rapidly with a largely deferential NSC supporting Trump’s decision that “something should happen.” But a backlash began almost immediately among core Trump supporters, which may now act as a counternarrative and close the window opened by the images, especially as time passes and the initial emotive outburst subsides.

2. Short-term reactions become longer-term commitments

In Kosovo, each massacre led to denunciations, calls for actions and a policy shift, much like the events over April 4-6 in Syria. While the policy changes in Kosovo seemed appropriate within the emotive environment of despair for victims and anger against perpetrators, they nonetheless became new landmarks maintained for the sake of commitment and credibility, even though their relevance to the national interest dwindled over time. For this reason, diplomats and policymakers are often critical of the media for its potential agenda-setting, -accelerating and -impeding role in foreign policy decision-making.

Trump’s decision to react to the images, while creating a sense of immediate justice for victims, has clearly expanded the U.S. involvement in Syria from a much narrower mission. The call for Assad’s removal will also likely complicate and prolong the war’s end. It may also force the United States into the nation-building Trump condemned on the campaign trail and promised to avoid, as certain responsibilities are unavoidable once a nation’s leadership is removed.

3. Massacres and moral hazards

While the massacres in Kosovo were carried out by forces associated with the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the main political beneficiary was the Kosovo independence cause. Some evidence suggests that Kosovo leaders recognized this political boon. According to a key Kosovo Albanian negotiator: “The more civilians were killed, the chances of international intervention became bigger, and the KLA of course realized that.” This reality, unfortunately, can create the wrong incentives for parties on the ground seeking Western support and incentivize provoking more atrocities. According to KLA leader Hashim Thaci, “Any armed action we undertook would bring retaliation against civilians. We knew we were endangering a great number of civilian lives.” The U.S. intervention against the Assad regime may embolden adversaries to seek more sensational civilian traumas, especially as their odds of military victory diminish.

Of course, any allegation of media impact on foreign policy must be treated with caution, as much of the literature on the CNN effect found such claims to be either myths or very limited in scope. There are often valid political reasons for intervention beyond just the media images. It could well prove, for example, that the images from Khan Sheikhoun were seen as a useful media spectacle for justifying the controversial policy of setting up safe zones for refugee repatriation. This would be more similar to the images from the gassing of Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988, which years later were effectively used to demonize Saddam Hussein and build public support for the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq War.

Since at least the Vietnam War, scholars have debated whether the media can independently influence foreign policy or only serves and reflects the interests of those in power. But as a force of change, the battle over images and their framing will undoubtedly be as important as those on the battlefield in Syria and beyond.

Babak Bahador is an associate research professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He is the author of “The CNN Effect in Action” (Palgrave, 2007).