Escalation Rhetoric, in Six Simple Steps

You can try this at home, or at least watch it on TV.

Thanks to a reader who pointed me a two-year-old article by Eric Martin that has surprising modern relevance. It's about the predictable stages of pro-intervention rhetoric.

This pattern of rhetorical escalation in response to the practical limitations of bringing about regime change from afar is a familiar dance, most deftly performed by those inclined to advocate for more and bigger US interventions abroad. It can be mastered in five easy steps:

Step 1: How can the President not at least condemn [Regime X] publicly for its abhorrent actions? A public condemnation is the very least the President can do. It wouldn't cost much, but it would be an important show of our resolve and support for freedom!

Step 2 (with Regime X still in place): So what, the President condemned the regime publicly with some harsh words and called it "illegitimate." Words are cheap and inconsequential. We need sanctions and coordinated efforts to isolate the regime. That will do the trick!

Step 3 (with Regime X still in place): Sanctions? Regime isolation? Is that all the President is going to do in the face of Regime X's perfidy? Those timid jabs will never work, and the President's dithering will make us look weak and lacking in resolve. Our enemies will be emboldened. The President must use our military to deal a swift blow. No one is advocating a prolonged occupation, just a decapitation maneuver, and then a rapid hand off to the indigenous forces for democratic change.

Step 4 (with Regime X toppled by our military): Now that we've committed our military, and brought about regime change, we have a moral obligation to see the mission through to the end. Besides, if we withdraw, chaos will erupt and our enemies will fill the vacuum. We owe it to the locals, we can't afford to lose face, we can't show weakness and our credibility depends on staying until a relatively stable, friendly nation emerges from the rubble.

Step 5 (repeat as needed): We've turned the corner, shifted the momentum and victory is within reach. The next six months should prove decisive...

UPDATE Step 6: I was critical of the handling of this military action from the beginning. I would have conducted the operation differently. Regardless, no one ever said it would be quick or easy. But the difficulties encountered don't discredit the policy! [This one thanks to Matt Duss and Micah Zenko.]

Keep this list in mind as you hear editorials and political speeches about Syria. A number of people have leapt ahead and are already preparing themselves for Step 6.  Main point: If you haven't yet done so, please find time to read William Polk's very long but extremely useful analysis of the background and prospects in Syria. 

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

From This Author

Just In