‘Humanitarian Intervention’ is a Claim, Not a Fact
I was watching MSNBC earlier this evening, where Ari Melber, sitting in for Chris Hayes, was covering the beginnings of what is being called a “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq in response to ISIS which allegedly* is at this point only about delivering food and water. I’ve argued before that the word ‘intervention’ ought to be avoided, for two reasons. First, it implies that one is getting involved in an area of the world, when typically, the actor doing the ‘intervening’ has long been heavily involved. Second, it covers both war making and non-war making activities, and that means obscuring a very important difference. The legal, moral and political questions between say, offering asylum or providing medicine are not at all connected to those related to mass aerial bombing or a ground invasion. But helping people tends to more popular than war, despite what people claim about the public, so elites that prefer more war tend to avoid talking about it explicitly.
But I also wanted to talk a bit about the first half of this claim: ‘humanitarian.’ Melber, following current standard journalistic conventions, treats the claim that this is a ‘humanitarian intervention’ as a fact. He is passing along claims by US government officials about what they are thinking, about their own motives, and what limits they might impose on their actions (not to mention what the facts on the ground are) as facts.
Now this problem is not unique to talk about war. It’s not unique to talk about foreign policy. Indeed, it is standard. The media follows a similar path when it comes to criminal justice questions, there relying on the statement of police officials as true (under normal conditions). And more generally journalists treat things which elites in both parties agree on as true, and things they they disagree on as up for legitimate disagreement, while things which are not supported by elites in either party are treated as ‘off the wall.’ (Read Jay Rosen‘s definitive explanation of this, drawing from Daniel Hallin’s great book on media coverage of the Vietnam War. For more, see When the Press Fails, by Bennett, Lawrence and Livingston.)
This is pretty troubling under normal circumstances. But it’s especially troubling when it comes to war. If nothing else, it would be nice if the rest of us, who are not bound by these conventions, could stop talking about politicians’ beliefs and motives — which we do not have access to, and which in any case aren’t relevant — and focus instead on their claims, and the claims of others who aren’t necessarily treated as legitimate by the media. It would be a small step toward having actual democratic accountability.
* I say allegedly because 1) I don’t trust these officials to tell the truth and 2) it appears that someone did bomb ISIS, and 3) the US government has in the past gotten it’s clients to pretend they have initiated an attack that the US had actually done.