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A Core National Security Interest: Framing Atrocities Prevention

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Abstract:  This essay analyzes President Barack Obama’s communication strategies in his speeches and presidential statements concerning threats of mass atrocities in Libya, Syria, and Iraq from 2011 through 2015. It examines how he has used three rhetorical “frames” to explain events in these countries and to advocate specific U.S. policy responses: the “legalistic” (or “liberal internationalist”), the “moralistic,” and the “security” frame. Obama utilized primarily the legalistic frame to justify U.S. military intervention in Libya in 2011, and he relied mainly on the security frame (focusing on terrorist threats against U.S. nationals) to justify the deployment of U.S. military forces against ISIL in Iraq and Syria in 2014−2015. Obama’s rhetorical framing of the violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad since 2011 has been less consistent. Hardly ever in these speeches did Obama suggest that mass atrocities per se constituted a threat to U.S. national security—despite the declaration in Obama’s 2011 Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest” of the United States. Utilizing an approach to linguistic analysis developed by Roman Jakobson, the paper shows how Obama has employed rhetorical devices that emphasize the boundaries between the “in-group” of the American national community and the “out-groups” in other countries who are threatened by mass atrocities. Because members of an in-group are typically depicted as warranting greater concern than members of out-groups, Obama’s assignment of victimized communities to out-group status has effectively justified inaction by the U.S. government in the face of genocidal violence.

Keywords:  Barack Obama; communication; genocide prevention; mass atrocities; Libya; Syria; Islamic State; speech; US President



© Matthew Levinger. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.