Despite knowing better, people’s conception of a government or even an entire country often rests on the image of its leader. People thinking of the Canadian government, for example, now fixate on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Americans fixate on leaders as well, often using terms like “Trump’s America” to tie the climate of social relations to their president. The head of state becomes the state itself.
But it goes even further with countries that the governments of the United States and Canada are unfriendly with. In these cases, mainstream media, pop culture and politicians speak of their leaders not only like they are the country, but as though they’re cartoon villains.
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, famously called the “mad dog of the Middle East” by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, had a documentary released about him post-mortem by the same name. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a “butcher” gone wild who supposedly unleashed chemical weapons on an area his government had nearly retaken just because he’s full of bloodlust. Magazines are riddled with covers depicting leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, as people that simply want to watch the world burn.
As a result, those involved in political discourse lose sight of basic international relations analysis. These leaders aren’t treated as rational actors that, in turn with other members of their government, act based on strategy. They are portrayed as being motivated merely by destruction.
Part of the reason for this is that some think “rational” has a positive value judgment attached to it. That is, if we acknowledge behavior as motivated by a strategic rationale, we’re excusing it. But it also fits into a long line of colonial tropes, reminiscent of standards of civilization posited by European colonialists: the Global South is chaotic and uncivilized, giving Europeans entitlement to colonize these areas for their own good.
Today, the media portrays the good hegemons as democratic actors that solve their problems with level-headed strategy. Their enemies, meanwhile, are portrayed as erratic, hostile and rogue figures that will unexpectedly unleash violence simply because they can. As such, they can be portrayed as animals that need to be “tamed” or put down.
None of this is to say that these leaders are good. You’d be hard-pressed to find politicians that have not (albeit in varying degrees) done gravely immoral things. But we should care about our ability to point out that these leaders aren’t just acting to cause chaos, because politics and journalism should be concerned with the truth. We need to confront things as they really are.
Unfortunately, many conversations about foreign policy don’t discuss anything real at all, instead becoming theatrical gestures of moral grandstanding: There’s a villain that needs to be slain in order to fix a country’s problems, and that’s that. One of the reasons for this is to conceal who are really the victims of war and sanctions.
For a trip down memory lane...
So I see the liberal media is going crazy after @realDonaldTrump met with Kim Jung Un, in order to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Here’s John Kerry having a couples dinner with *Bashar Assad*! pic.twitter.com/uHpmD7sl0R— Yair Netanyahu (@YairNetanyahu) July 2, 2019
Few Canadians would enthusiastically support sanctions against Iran or Syria, for example, if they knew they’d deeply deprive ordinary citizens of basic needs. As a result, sanctions are portrayed as targeting someone cartoonishly evil enough that the visceral response is to want to put them down with whatever method the state department insists will work.
For example, a Gallant Foundation study, reported on by the Yale Review of International Studies (YRIS) in 2018, found that U.S. print media compared Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler at least 1,035 times between August 1990 and February 1991, the period leading up to the Gulf War and through to its end.
YRIS notes that the media narrative portrayed then-U.S. President George Bush as a brave hero confronting a “monster,” “beast” and “madman,” garnering American support for their government to attempt to remove Hussein from power.