When Western governments, led by the Biden administration, switched focus from the staling Ukraine-Russia conflict to a reinvigorated Israel-Palestine one, they exposed one of the most repeatedly deployed tools for manufacturing consent for interventionist foreign policy. But the rapidity of the switch may have finally rendered the tool obsolete.
Manufacturing consent entails the use of propaganda to manipulate public opinion in ways that benefit the establishment without the need for overt force. As the most elite-driven and least democratic field of government action, foreign policy requires more manufacturing of consent than any other policy realm, particularly in relation to interventionism. Those controlling foreign policy must lay a moral narrative atop what the targets of the narrative—ordinary citizens in the West and, to some extent, in the Global South—would otherwise regard as pointless, expensive overseas interventions.
In America, this means suppressing the first instinct of ordinary people, an anti-interventionist instinct evident from as far back as George Washington himself. Washington’s farewell address warned the United States to avoid “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others.” He continued: “The nation which indulges toward another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.” His advice was largely heeded for around 150 years.
Since then, to gain traction for interventions not in the people’s interests, a tale must be told. To succeed, this tale must fit with pre-existing and common tropes that elicit fear, anger, or compassion, the predominant two being: 1) the infectious subversive trying to change the holy status quo and 2) the righteous David fighting a repressive Goliath.
However, despite U.S. foreign policy now having a permanent overarching goal of serving the interests of the Washington foreign policy establishment, how these interests are served often changes. And thus, the tale must itself mutate accordingly. Hence, we see an oscillation between heroizing and demonizing the underdog.
In the early days of the Cold War, the narrative propagated by the Western media was that of protecting the status quo against insidious communism. Insurgents, rebels, and revolutionaries were the foreign enemies seeking to undermine stability, order, Christian values, and prosperity—“our way of life.”
Decades in, the middle-class revolt against America’s war in Vietnam saw the rise of an anti-war movement that needed to be reckoned with. Fear alone was now insufficient. Anger and compassion had to be evoked. Partly in response, the mainstream press, which by the 1970s had seen massive concentration of ownership, again followed the lead of Western governments and the weapons corporations it had conglomerated with, mutating its message to one of heroizing the underdog. The plucky rebels standing up to authoritarian regimes were to be admired—from the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua.
Rambo fought alongside Afghan peasants. Star Wars’ rebels, though modeled by George Lucas after the Viet Cong with the Empire representing the United States, were recast, and it was the USSR that was portrayed as the evil empire. This continued into the backing of reform movements in the Eastern Bloc countries alongside the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Then came 9/11, carried out by one of the anti-Soviet “freedom fighters.” And NATO had to make war on the Taliban who harbored him, themselves the ideological offspring of the 1980s Mujahideen whom Reagan had hosted in the White House. The underdog Islamists, the noble mountain warriors to whom Margaret Thatcher had declared the “hearts of the free world are with you,” were now fundamentalist, anti-Christian, our-way-of-life-hating savages, not human enough even to deserve the most basic protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions. Fear alone was again enough.
Fast forward a decade, and after a liberal backlash against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the War on Terror, and the rise of the human-rights-touting Barack Obama, the justification for foreign intervention had to change. Islamist militants being backed to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria had to be portrayed as freedom fighters once more. “He’s killing his own people” became a liberal catchcry.
More importantly, the looming multipolar world order and rise of non-Western great powers—manifested in Russia’s support for Syria and the impending clash over Taiwan with China—saw official U.S. statements that declared peer competitors now posed the greatest threat. Once more, plucky underdogs like Ukraine and Taiwan had to be backed against evil empires. Democracy depended on it. Attacks against Russian civilians received little condemnation from Western media.
On each of these occasions, the alleged fact that the underdog was a freedom fighter or, alternatively, a terrorist went unquestioned. When those like presidential hopeful, former Boeing board member, and present weapons industry stock owner Nikki Haley, say we must back “our friends,” which foreign actors should be our friends and who decided upon this never enters the discussion.
The Mujahideen were inherently good, its successors, the Taliban, inherently evil; Ukrainian soldiers are cast as the last hope of humanity.
In October 2023, however, before a decade or even a year could pass, Hamas—seeing the rapid ascension of alternative great powers and the implications for the Middle East and watching NATO lose in Ukraine—and Benjamin Netanyahu, fearing his potential ouster and jail time, both decided upon a new war. And now again, the underdog has to be portrayed as a terroristic “human animals,” to quote Israel’s defense minister. Twitter bots who spent two years screeching morality about the battle between plucky little Ukraine, the brave little underdog, and an evil looming empire breaching international law now gleefully welcome the most powerful military the world has ever known coming down on a rag-tag brigade of rebels—the Houthis—for threatening international shipping.
But this time, the switch is too quick. It’s happening in real time. The main target of the narrative management—ordinary people in the West—can still remember when media commentators and politicians cheered on Ukrainian civilians throwing Molotov cocktails at their occupiers. They see statistics on social media that Israel had killed more Palestinians in one month than Russia had killed Ukrainians in 592 days of war. They haven’t forgotten that it was the very same establishment figures like Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) who claimed Russia bombs hospitals “daily,” now crying “I stand with Israel” every five minutes despite four times more civilians having been killed in Gaza’s hospitals in two months than in Ukraine’s hospitals in two years.
Outside of the West, the narrative, which always struggled to gain traction, has become unviable. Terms like “genocide,” used so confidently and loosely in relation to Russia in Ukraine or Assad in Syria, are now mysteriously absent from the lips of those erstwhile champions of human rights in the establishment. The same establishment that daily gives Israel not only diplomatic but military cover despite it being accused in the world’s highest court of that very act.
It is little wonder why a senior G7 diplomat recently made news when stating, in the context of Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine, “We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South.”
And perhaps more significantly—with the growing awareness among people that the regurgitated talking points by interventionists like Haley and Kinzinger are in literal opposition to the warnings of George Washington—they may have lost the battle for the ordinary Western citizen, too.
Kadira Pethiyagoda is a foreign policy expert, a former political advisor, and a former fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Indian Foreign Policy and Cultural Values (Palgrave 2020). Find him on X at @KPethiyagoda.