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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Trump's war of words highlights how the West uses words of war

Politicians in western nations rarely resort to threatening language – chiefly because that threat is regularly demonstrated in real wars, writes Faisal Al Yafai

The US dropped 24,000 bombs on Iraq and Syria last year alone. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
The US dropped 24,000 bombs on Iraq and Syria last year alone. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP

After Donald Trump's unexpectedly bellicose language against North Korea, threatening Pyongyang with “fire and fury”, journalists went scrambling through the history books to find similarly fiery language from previous American presidents.

The best they came up with was Harry S Truman's threat to unleash “a rain of ruin from the air” against Japan if they did not surrender during the Second World War. But Truman was speaking in August 1945, mere hours after the United States had indeed unleashed exactly that, dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Two days later, Truman followed up with a second rain of ruin against Nagasaki.

Beyond that extraordinary moment, in the modern era, threats from western politicians rarely utilise fiery language. Most often, they are couched in careful warnings and vague threats – even during the march to war.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, the worst threat against Saddam Hussein that George W Bush issued was to say that the US would not allow “the world's worst weapons to remain in the hands of the world's worst leaders”. If that wasn't clear, Mr Bush followed it up with: “The dictator of Iraq will fully disarm or the US...will disarm him.” Threats of fire and brimstone were curiously absent.

But why? With so much of politics about coercion and force, and with many politicians across the world regularly using bloodcurdling language, why is it that those who control some of the world's best-armed militaries are reluctant to engage in bellicose verbal jousting?

The reason is surprisingly straightforward. Western countries have no need to use fiery language – because the results of their actual fire is clear for all to see. The west has regularly engaged in real military combat, meaning that their threats are regularly demonstrated. The words are redundant.

The US dropped more than 24,000 bombs on Iraq and Syria just last year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. That is to say nothing of the drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. British politicians used diplomatic language, but dropped actual “Brimstone” missiles – large air-to-surface missiles that cost more than US$200,000 (Dh750,000) each – on both Syria and Iraq. France and Canada dropped thousands more.

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The results of all this weaponry are clear to see. Destroyed buildings, broken bodies, wrecked communities. There is no need for threats; opponents need only switch on the television screens to the see what western weapons will do to their children and cities. In 2003, Saddam Hussein needed no fearsome threats to know what the US intended to unleash against Iraq: the country's cities had already been set ablaze a decade earlier, and depleted uranium in weapons had already resulted in babies born without eyes or limbs.

This is deliberate, of course. Diplomatic language covers the reality of war for western citizens who fund those weapons. By couching wars in the language of law, or rights, or morality, western politicians can obscure for their citizens what war actually means – while at the same time being sure that even without threatening language, the missiles will sufficiently demonstrate the threat.

Politicians themselves are acutely aware of this demonstration effect. Just last week, declassified secret documents from the UK government showed a British defence minister during the build-up to the first Gulf War pointing out that attacking Iraq would represent an “unparalleled opportunity” to show off Britain's weapons to those who may wish to purchase them. Iraq, wrote Alan Clark, then defence procurement minister, could be “a vast demonstration range with live ammunition and 'real' trials.” That those “demonstrations” would mean shattering Iraqi cities and shedding Iraqi blood went without comment.

Bellicose language is more common from regimes like North Korea or Iran, countries that claim that their military build-up is primarily defensive. Repeated fiery language, therefore, and frequent public displays of military hardware, are necessary, they would say, to stave off threats from more powerful opponents.

The same is true even for non-state groups. Hizbollah's fiery language against Israel toned down after the 2006 war, when the Lebanese group fought Israel's military to a standstill. Hizbollah had no need for flowery boasts because of what had happened on the battlefield. The same is still true today: since Hizbollah went to war for the Assad regime, the group has become far more confident of its fighting ability. The demonstration effect means fierce words are not needed.

Such a display of military plumage is not limited to the non-western world. This summer, for the first time, Nato troops performed a significant military drill on the Lithuanian border, a warning to Russia that the Baltic countries can count on the military alliance to defend them from any aggression. After Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 – and indeed its successful involvement in the Syrian civil war – it is Russia, not the west, that enjoys the demonstration effect. Nato is scrambling to demonstrate its will to use military power.

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Where then does that leave Mr Trump's fighting talk? Diplomatic language from a position of strength has the significant advantage of giving politicians room to manoeuvre. If the threat of military force is credible, then keeping that threat vague by not specifying which dire consequences will follow means that politicians can respond in a range of ways without looking weak.

Using a threat like “fire and fury” – when it is clear that the US has the capacity to unleash precisely that – paints the US into a corner: if Pyongyang does issue another threat, America can either do nothing and look weak, or respond in the way it has threatened, instantly escalating the situation. The vast range of military, diplomatic and economic options in between that the US can use have, in three words, been sidelined by the commander-in-chief. Far from giving the United States more options, fiery and furious language actually reduces the ability of the US to use most of the weapons in its vast arsenal.