The Onion Goes to War

May 1, 2013 Topic: MediaSociety Region: Syria Blog Brand: The Buzz

The Onion Goes to War

The satire paper mocks U.S. nonintervention in Syria.

Does the Onion want the United States to fight another war in Syria? The satirical newspaper’s coverage of the two-year-old civil war in that country has taken a dramatic turn. While the publication made semi-regular references to Syria throughout the war’s earlier stages, its barbs have gotten more common and very pointed lately. Its recent posts have been deeply and darkly critical of current U.S. policy in Syria, and sometimes appear to border on outright calls for American intervention.

Consider three examples from the past six weeks. First, there is this mock op-ed on March 25, written from the perspective of the Syrian leader:

Hello. My name is Bashar al-Assad. I am the president of Syria, and in the last two years, you—the citizens of the world and their governments—have allowed me to kill 70,000 people. You read that correctly: I am an individual who has murdered 70,000 human beings since March 2011, and you have watched it happen and done nothing.

Then there is this news brief from April 4:

WASHINGTON—While tucking in his daughters as they settled into bed Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama reportedly kissed the two children gently on the forehead and reminded them that the lives of Syrian people are “worthless” and “completely insignificant.” “I love you two so much and Syrians are subhuman and don’t matter at all,” said the president.

And finally, there is this piece published yesterday, titled “‘Help Has To Be On The Way Now,’ Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed”:

HOMS, SYRIA—As Syrian military aircraft rained chlorine gas on his community Tuesday, local man Amir Najjar, 36, reportedly assured himself that military and humanitarian aid from foreign governments must certainly be racing toward the country at this very moment to protect him and other helpless civilians.

It’s telling to look at the assumptions that support this line of humor. Namely, these pieces all work from the premise that the world—and the United States in particular—bears the moral responsibility for what happens in Syria. As a result, the practical considerations about how an intervention to stop the killing might work are necessarily washed away. Reluctance to act on the part of President Obama implicitly means that he doesn’t care about the Syrian people, as the second item stresses. It’s the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in comedic form.

Part of the reason that the paper’s Syria coverage has been so striking to read is that in the past, it has often been a voice against what it sees as excessive or ill-advised American military action, particularly in Iraq. One example is this classic 2003 point-counterpoint published as the Iraq War began, which both anticipated many of the disasters that would happen as the war unfolded and perfectly captured the hubris of many of the war’s supporters. More recently, it has gone after President Obama’s regular use of drones to conduct targeted killings overseas. As one of its television “hosts” asked in a video last year, with the Onion’s trademark deadpan mock-seriousness, “After ten years of combat in Afghanistan, is it time to take a second look at our policy of killing Afghan children with missiles shot from terrifying, remote-controlled flying robots?”

Of course, Syria, Iraq and the drone war are all separate issues, and there are valid policy reasons to support one intervention but not the others. But it’s probably wrong to see the Onion’s “positions” (to the extent that one can call them that) as evidence of a consistent house agenda. The more likely explanation is that humorists are naturally going to respond to real or perceived mistakes, especially those made by the U.S. government. Thus far, Obama has chosen to err on the side of caution in Syria. As the body count has risen, this choice makes a fat target for the kind of biting satire cited above. Yet one can easily imagine an alternative scenario in which, if Obama had decided to intervene last year and things had gone badly, the Onion would now be skewering him from the opposite perspective, mocking his and America’s tendency to intervene frequently in other countries.

So, in short, the Onion is not exactly becoming a comedic arm of Bill Kristol–style neoconservatism or the liberal interventionism of Anne-Marie Slaughter. Nevertheless, its shift on Syria is notable, if only because the publication often serves as a bellwether of elite attitudes. Its Syria pieces have been very funny and well executed, but the reason they pack an emotional punch is because they rely on the presumption of a shared belief—on the part of both the audience and the authors—that of course the United States should be doing more in Syria. As the administration reportedly weighs new steps aimed at ousting Bashar al-Assad, the question of how this decision is portrayed in mass-media outlets—even satirical ones—is very much worth watching.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone. CC BY-SA 3.0.