By Melissa Labonte, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Melissa Labonte is associate professor of Political Science at Fordham University in New York and author of Human Rights and Humanitarian Norms, Strategic Framing, and Intervention: Lessons for the Responsibility to Protect. The views expressed are her own.
Although the Russian proposal on Syria’s chemical weapons gives Congress breathing room, lawmakers are still on the hook for making a decision in this case. After all, there's still the matter of holding the al-Assad regime to account for its alleged indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against civilians.
But on what basis will the deciders decide? Will domestic interests trump foreign policy interests? The facts of the Syrian crisis notwithstanding, can the method of presenting an argument about intervention actually affect the outcome?
The policymaking process is deeply complex even to those who study it up close. Take, for example, congressional debate over the U.S. response to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia in 1992. What had been a fairly consistent policy within the George H.W. Bush administration premised on diplomacy and humanitarian relief rapidly gave way to overwhelming support in favor of robust military intervention. Why and how did this dramatic shift occur? Conversely, when the U.S. Congress debated how to respond to the unfolding genocide in Rwanda in 1994, its members overwhelming opposed intervention of any kind, despite clear evidence that hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were being slaughtered mercilessly by their own government.
One way to clear some of the political decision-making fog has been for scholars who study the process to focus on decision-making logics. There are different types of logics that come to the fore in any policy debate. Arguments over military intervention, for example, can be based on consequences: Are the costs and risks of a particular policy action greater or lesser than the benefits to be gained by maintaining the status quo? They can also be premised on appropriateness, which focuses on the moral or normative justness of a particular policy decision. And they must always be accompanied by meaningful dialogue and exchange.
Two other important factors help us understand policy decision-making on intervention. First, decision-makers are rarely persuaded by arguments based on consequences or appropriateness alone. Argumentation must integrate both in order to raise levels of resonance. Second, decision-making is linked closely to the way in which an issue is framed cognitively to policymakers through the debate process. Framing helps organize individual perceptions. For example, we perceive civil wars differently than we perceive genocide.
So what about Syria? The case has been framed in three ways: First, it was characterized as a civil war being fought between the government and insurgent groups. Second, it was framed as a humanitarian disaster resulting from the perpetration of mass atrocities against civilians. Third and most recently, it has been described as a security emergency with humanitarian consequences, owing to the possibility that rogue actors could obtain weapons of mass destruction such as chemical weapons.
Framing Syria as a security emergency with humanitarian consequences, however, best taps into arguments based on both consequences and appropriateness, and raises its potential to galvanize political will to support the president’s decision.
Al-Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction violates internationally agreed upon, traditional security norms. Maintaining the status quo position of non-intervention suddenly becomes more costly and risky than other policy options – including intervention. Moreover, propping up the status quo may become increasingly untenable as it looks more and more to policymakers like a failing policy. The fact that chemical weapons have been used systematically and indiscriminately against innocent civilians also facilitates arguments based on appropriateness – it is unjust and abhorrent, and renders intervention morally legitimate as a possible policy response.
And what does this say about how President Obama should frame the argument moving forward, should the current negotiations with Russia ultimately fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion?
No one doubts that the president faces an uphill struggle on this issue. However, a dual framing – built on emphasizing both consequences and appropriateness – surely has the greatest chance of persuading and influencing policymakers to support the proposed course of action in Syria. Whatever that ultimately proves to be.