Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Political Violence and Words

As events that look like a coup in Egypt unfold, we immediately get insistence that it be called as such. So we hear "full military coup," for example. I've become jaded about the importance of such terms, which in part relates to my teaching.

In 2005, I was teaching Comparative Politics and during the section on political violence I talked about how it was important whether the Bush administration used the word "genocide" with regard to Darfur. After Rwanda in particular, saying the "g word" was a major step. Once that happened, I confidently opined, there would be intense pressure to intervene. Then George W. Bush did so. And not much happened.

In 2009 I followed the Honduran crisis. Would the Obama administration call it a coup and thereby spark a number of sanctions? Well, they did call it a coup, and it didn't matter. There was even some pathetically funny wordsmithing about the word "coup." That tap dancing at least suggested that the word might be important, but ultimately the administration did what it wanted, which was nothing.

It is better to call a coup a coup, just to be descriptively accurate. But for the purposes of policy, I am much more skeptical than in the past about how much it matters.


Justin Delacour 10:38 PM  

So, just out of curiosity, do you think that forcing down the Bolivian president's plane in the search for Edward Snowden is good for U.S.-Latin American relations?

Greg Weeks 8:29 AM  

it can never be good for relations, though for now the ire seems aimed primarily at Europe.

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