Laughing ’til it Hurts: Political Satirists on Syria

by Marsha B. Cohen

One of the more disconcerting developments in foreign policy discussions in the 21st century  is that political satirists seem to be offering keener and more prescient assessments of the dilemmas involved than pundits and policy makers. Put somewhat less charitably, the cliches and conventions of foreign policy have become such a topic of mockery that it takes a comedy writer to get them right.

One classic case in point is from The Onion, published on Jan. 17, 2001, just before the first inauguration of  George W. Bush as president. In the faux transcript of the soon-to-be-delivered speech, the incoming president assured the American people that “our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.”

During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years.

“You better believe we’re going to mix it up with somebody at some point during my administration,” said Bush, who plans a 250 percent boost in military spending. “Unlike my predecessor, I am fully committed to putting soldiers in battle situations. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a military?”

Oatmeal-ComicWritten nine months before the events of 9/11/2001 and a year before Bush’s (in)famous “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address, it’s difficult to see where The Onion missed any of the real events that would transpire during Bush’s two terms in its hyperbolic prognostications, days before he took office.

“We as a people must stand united, banding together to tear this nation in two,” Bush said. “Much work lies ahead of us: The gap between the rich and the poor may be wide, but there’s much more widening left to do. We must squander our nation’s hard-won budget surplus on tax breaks for the wealthiest 15 percent. And, on the foreign front, we must find an enemy and defeat it.”

About six weeks ago The Onion ran a piece on Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to bring Israeli and Palestinians together, headlined “Man Who Couldn’t Defeat George W. Bush Attempting to Resolve Israel Palestine Conflict”:

Arriving in the Middle East today for top-level negotiations with Palestinian and Israeli officials, a man who could not even devise a way to beat George W. Bush in a head-to-head vote will spend the next several days attempting to bring a peaceful resolution to the most intractable global conflict of the modern era, State Department sources confirmed. “We are confident that [this person who managed to win just 19 states against George W. Bush, even in the midst of two highly unpopular and costly foreign wars] will be able to establish a framework to bring about lasting peace in the Middle East…”

The Onion just posted a “commentary” in the form of an op-ed, purportedly by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, titled So, What’s it Going to Be?

Well, here we are. It’s been two years of fighting, over 100,000 people are dead, there are no signs of this war ending, and a week ago I used chemical weapons on my own people. If you don’t do anything about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. If you do something about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. Morally speaking, you’re on the hook for those deaths no matter how you look at it.

So, it’s your move, America. What’s it going to be?

The amazingly astute commentaries on the paradoxes and perils of intervening in Syria presented on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart at the end of April were so far ahead of the mainstream media, that watching them now as military intervention is being debated by the punditocracy is both timely and terrifying. Segments such as Whose Line is It Anyway:  Boots on the Ground? or “Assad but True” have retained their insight as well as their wit far better than the cliches and talking points on the nightly news. John McCain’s Syrian Photo Op, first broadcast on June 3, highlights the difficulties of figuring out and finding the Syrian rebels that the US ought to be arming in opposition to the Assad regime, a dilemma that still hasn’t been satisfactorily resolved.

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau, whose first Doonesbury comic strip was published in 1970, mocked the Orwellian doublespeak that accompanies the initiation and escalation of all wars since. One of my personal favorites was a comic strip just before or after the US invasion of Iraq (I’m not sure whether it was the first or second) that showed a spokesman at a news conference being asked how the US could be so certain Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The speaker held up a piece of paper: “We’ve got receipts!” In recent days, news headlines are finally revealing that the US not only knew that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons and nerve gas against Iran in the 1980s, but actively assisted Iraq by providing detailed intelligence on Iranian troop movements.

“The Borowitz Report” in The New Yorker has just weighed in on Syria, with Andy Borowitz’s sardonic but all too convincing headline Obama Promises Syria Strike Will Have No Objective:

Attempting to quell criticism of his proposal for a limited military mission in Syria, President Obama floated a more modest strategy today, saying that any U.S. action in Syria would have “no objective whatsoever.”

“Let me be clear,” he said in an interview on CNN. “Our goal will not be to effect régime change, or alter the balance of power in Syria, or bring the civil war there to an end. We will simply do something random there for one or two days and then leave.”

“I want to reassure our allies and the people of Syria that what we are about to undertake, if we undertake it at all, will have no purpose or goal,” he said. “This is consistent with U.S. foreign policy of the past.”

The movement toward an attack on Syria –a precursor to, or stand-in for, a war with Iran — seems to be increasingly regarded as inevitable. “Not whether, but when” gives a new and poignant meaning to “laughing ’til it hurts.”

– Comic Credit: The Oatmeal

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


One Comment

  1. Shouldn’t the “O” administration be seen in this light? After all, it seems that everything it does, turns to – – – – , oh, I can’t say that here. So, how about the “keystone Cops”, would that do. Yes, that’s exactly what best describes the “O” administration. Too bad that people are dying from the decisions being made, even here at home.

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