Syria and the ‘Vacuum’ Metaphor

Official Washington’s new “group think” is that President Obama’s hesitancy to fully invade Syria has created a “vacuum” that Russia is now filling, but the use of such metaphors can cloud serious analytical thinking and lead to catastrophic misjudgments, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Physical, spatial imagery has long been applied to discourse about U.S. foreign policy. During the earlier portion of the Cold War, for example, the image of oozing red paint as representing the advance of communism, somewhat like the “cover the earth” logo of the Sherwin-Williams paint company, was often used.

An even more prevalent and influential physical metaphor during the Cold War was falling dominoes. The metaphor became treated as an analytic construct, the “domino theory”, and shaped the thinking of many people in the United States, including foreign policy elites across different administrations and different political parties.


The metaphors of oozing paint and falling dominoes inculcated a badly flawed perception of international communism and of local conflicts in which communists played a role. The image of dominoes was one of the most important influences on the thinking that led to the tragic U.S. intervention in Vietnam. It was an influence more powerful than analyses that correctly saw communism and conflicts in Asia as not really working like dominoes.

Such imagery is influential because it involves a comfortable and familiar way of thinking. The physical metaphors conform to the operation of human brains, most of the evolution of which occurred when humans, to survive, had to stay focused on immediate physical hazards and processes such as trees falling, storms moving in, or predators patrolling territory.

There is a direct correspondence between such prehistoric phenomena and physical mechanisms that involve modern props such as paint or dominoes. But the correspondence fades when applied to the more complicated interactions of modern civilization, including international relations. The habit of relying on the simplifying physical images is an example of how evolved human traits that worked well for cave men don’t work so well for civilized mankind.

The most recent popular physical metaphor applied to foreign relations, so popular that its usage has become almost a fad, concerns a “vacuum” in the Middle East. A search on Google News (which covers only articles that have been “crawled” in the last 30 days) for items with both vacuum and Middle East yields 68,900 hits.

The imagery has become a major part of criticism of President Obama from those who believe the United States ought to be intervening militarily in the Middle East more often and more deeply than it has been lately. The escalation of Russian military involvement in Syria has stimulated a chorus of commentary about how Russia is moving into a “vacuum” created by insufficient U.S. intervention in the region (and how this is bad).

The application of the “vacuum” imagery to Middle Eastern affairs is seriously misleading on several counts, beginning with the central fact that metaphor is not reality. Even the more physical aspects of foreign policy do not exhibit characteristics similar to true vacuums and how matter responds to them. Moreover, the Middle East is not a vacuum not only in the sense that it has an atmosphere with not much less than sea level pressure but also that it is filled with people, governments, armies, militias and much else that collectively make it what it is.

The vacuum imagery implicitly assumes that there are important attributes of the region that don’t really count unless they involve intervention by an external power, and especially by the United States. It is insufficient attention to the heat and pressure involving what already is in a particular country, and too much emphasis on what external intervention ought to be able to accomplish, that often has spelled trouble, for the external intervenor as well as for people inside the country.

The metaphor further assumes a sort of zero-sum quality to events in the region, comparable to how two bodies of gas cannot move into the same space without increasing heat and pressure, and to how if one body moves out that can create a vacuum that sucks the other body of gas in. International relations do not work that way.

U.S. and Russian international activity are not really like two blobs of gas. The imagery takes no account, for example, of how external forces can work together and not just work to push each other out of the same space, and in Syria, external forces working together offer the only hope for de-escalating the civil war there.

The imagery, because it is physical imagery, tends to equate foreign policy and the pursuit and protection of a nation’s interests with the most physically obvious manifestations of such pursuit, especially the application of military force. The metaphor suggests that the United States is not protecting its interests in a particular space if it is not injecting its military forces into that space.

But the military is only one of several instruments for implementing a foreign policy, and not necessarily the best one in any specific situation. Some instruments that have no physical analogue at all, such as behind-closed-doors diplomacy, may be more useful and effective.

Finally, the way the vacuum metaphor is being used carries the implication that filling a space, whether through military force or other means, is to be equated with advancing U.S. interests. But the U.S. interests at stake with regard to any particular space may not be advanced at all by filling it. Trying to fill a space may entail far more costs than benefits, which unfortunately has been true of some very costly space-filling efforts in recent U.S. history.

Spatial and physical metaphors can be useful presentational devices, as an abbreviated and stylistic way to refer to an analytical point, as long as real analysis is there as well. The problem with metaphors starts when they begin to be used not as shorthand references to analysis but instead as a substitute for analysis, and for the careful inventory of costs, risks, and benefits that good foreign policy analysis requires.

This problem has become increasingly apparent with much of the application of the vacuum metaphor to the Middle East, in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of how the domino metaphor was applied to Vietnam. The mode of thinking involved may be good for cave men, but not for us.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

27 comments for “Syria and the ‘Vacuum’ Metaphor

  1. Mortimer
    October 15, 2015 at 19:07

    Also known as The Shock Doctrine
    ( Naomi Klein )

  2. Mortimer
    October 15, 2015 at 18:48

    Here’s a “vacuum metaphor” for Debt Creation or that sucking sound of War Profiteering… .
    World Bank plans financial aid for Syria’s neighbours

    By Andrew Walker
    1 hour ago

    The World Bank is trying to put together a package of financial assistance for countries hosting refugees from Syria.

    Bank officials say there is a substantial financial burden being borne by Lebanon and Jordan.

    They are discussing help from rich countries and from Gulf nations.

    They say the idea has been well received by potential contributors and hope to have the first funds paid out in four to six months.

    The arrangement under discussion is one in which the Bank would make loans to Jordan and Lebanon, with aid donors covering at least some of the interest costs.

    Millions of refugees are now in countries bordering Syria. The largest number are in Turkey, but it is the much smaller economies of Lebanon and Jordan that face far greater financial strain.

    (“financial aid” ALWAYS EQUALS some form of Appropriation by European Bankers, i.e. interest payments, privatization of social properties or other methods of Wealth Extraction from debtor nations.)

  3. F. G. Sanford
    October 15, 2015 at 15:49

    “The map is not the territory”. “The word is not the thing”. They guy who pointed that out was roundly ignored during the same historical epoch in which Edward Bernays and Josef Goebbels flourished. As a consequence, “An iron curtain descended across Europe”, and “The lights went out on the continent, and we may not see them again in our lifetime”.

    Propaganda is the art of intentionally confusing the “word” with the “thing”. When humans do this in a manner inconsistent with cultural norms, it gets a clinical diagnosis – psychosis, schizophrenia, etc. But all human “cultures” are replete with these metaphors and mischaracterizations. I could take exception with Professor Pillar’s characterization of “cave men”, (“cave men” is a metaphor too) but it’s a moot point.

    Let’s take a look at the latest Octoberfest of linguistic beer metabolized to propagandistic urine. It’s called “isolation”. Here’s the quote, and it’s a doozy:

    “From Kanchatka peninsula through south Asia, into the Caucasus and around to the Baltic, Russia has continued to wrap itself in a shroud of isolation. And only the Kremlin can decide to change that.” (The Guardian, 14 OCT 15, Ackerman and Walker) Guess who made this brilliant observation?

    Reminds me of that speech Hitler gave to the Reichstag about Roosevelt’s admonitions, which, if it hadn’t been for the horrors of WWII, would actually have been pretty funny. So, here we are, the country that is not “isolated” admonishing the country we claim is “isolated”. We are busily deploying troops and resources to “reassure our allies” who are obviously mewling and puking in abject fear.

    But we are not “isolated”. Whenever our policies are put before the U.N. General Assembly, it’s a sure bet that Nauru, The Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea and Israel always side with us.

    • Joe Wallace
      October 15, 2015 at 18:03

      F.G. Sanford:

      “The map is not the territory”. “The word is not the thing”. — S. I. Hayakawa

      • F. G. Sanford
        October 15, 2015 at 22:56

        Alfred Korzybski. Hayakawa was an admirer.

      • Abe
        October 16, 2015 at 22:32

        Korzybski’s expression “the map is not the territory” first appeared in print in “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics”, a paper presented before the American Mathematical Society at the New Orleans, Louisiana, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 28, 1931. It was reprinted in Science and Sanity, 1933, p. 747–61.

        In Science and Sanity, Korzybski acknowledged his debt to mathematician Eric Temple Bell, whose epigram “the map is not the thing mapped” was published in Numerology: The Magic of Numbers, 1933.

    • Abe
      October 16, 2015 at 22:38

      Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: A hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory.

      – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981

  4. Bob Van Noy
    October 15, 2015 at 15:25

    “The metaphors of oozing paint and falling dominoes inculcated a badly flawed perception of international communism and of local conflicts in which communists played a role. “

    Thank you so very much Paul R. Pillar for pointing out the power of metaphor in our foreign policy. Surely it is the number one propaganda tool of our government and has been for years. I have especially been upset by the power of falling dominoes over time, it was a brilliant tool for rallying public opinion in the 1960s against a civil war that we had no business participating in.

    Our American society needs a thorough review of its practices of opinion making by our leadership and an airing-out of the wrongs that have been done in our name. It is more than humiliating what has and is being done by our government. See todays news about our drone assassination programs. War Crime, period …

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      October 16, 2015 at 16:50

      I do not believe that drone strikes are war crimes, since it is legal for governments to assassinate people – like how the Iranian scientists were assassinated in 2011 by the British – although hypocritically governments get angry when it is THEIR citizens being assassinated. This makes the assassination of Americans who joined al-Qaeda, like Anwar al-Awlaki, perfectly legal, although I do believe they deserved the right to a fair trial.

      Also, Obama increased the number of drone strikes to DECREASE the number of civilians that were killed in war by avoiding invasions – the civilians being killed in the drone strikes being far less then those that would be killed during an invasion. As well, these are not war crimes because civilians are being killed – the civilians are not being targeted, but they, sadly, just were where the terrorist was.

  5. Joe Tedesky
    October 15, 2015 at 12:16
    • Joe L.
      October 15, 2015 at 12:51

      Salon: “When the CIA infiltrated Hollywood” (February 28, 2013):

      • Joe Tedesky
        October 15, 2015 at 13:09

        It’s been awhile since I viewed it, but go on YouTube, type in, ‘Lone Gunmen pilot March 2001’. Vince Gilligan made this show, and it was taken off the air. Probably, taken off, due to poor ratings…I guess. If you watch this pilot episode, somewhere around two thirds of the way through, you will be amazed at what happens with it’s climax. When retired generals start suggesting we employ Al-Queda as ally’s, well this makes me wonder who exactly is writing the script. The creativity amongst this warring class has no bounds. Although, we all now need to show identification almost always, and almost everywhere….freedoms just another word, with nothing left to loose.

        I once heard a metaphor where it was said; ‘to drain the swamp in Syria/Iraq, tell the U.S. To leave’. Where’s Frank Capra when we need him?

        • Joe L.
          October 15, 2015 at 13:23

          Joe Tedesky… well to me the close relationship between the US Government, particularly the CIA and Pentagon, and Hollywood is very apparent and has been for some time. If I took Hollywoods version of history then the US almost single handedly won WW2 etc. I look at movies like “Argo” and then soon after all over the news they are talking about bombing Iran and Iran making WMD’s etc. Then I mean we start going toward a new Cold War with Russia and “The Americans” comes out or shows like “Homeland” which from what I read seem to remove all responsibility from the US and instead make it all Iran’s fault or some other parties fault. Then even look at the release of “American Sniper” which I think eluded to Iraq being responsible for 9/11 and made a sympathetic character out of the “invader” meanwhile not representing the actual Chris Kyle who claimed that he wanted to kill everyone with a Qu’ran and that killing the savages was “fun”. All that someone has to do is a search for “the CIA and Hollywood” and then there are multiple articles on this subject.

          The Guardian: “Body of Lies: The CIA’s involvement with US film-making” (November 14, 2008):

          • Joe Tedesky
            October 15, 2015 at 14:12

            John Wayne won WWII, now come on Joe L., everybody knows that. Doctor Stranglove, was probably more true to the point, yet this movie was released as a comedy. Go figure. When it came to American Sniper, my wife and I left the theater believing we had just viewed an anti-war film. Let me explain; the movie had scenes which went back and forth from the Kyle’s either inside their home, or in a bar. Then there were all those deployments, back and forth once again, but these scenes involved Kyle killing people. The climatic battle was hard to see. I’m not sure what that was all about, and my wife got totally frustrated with the visual Eastwood directed with that one. In the end we both felt bad for the Kyle’s, for believing they had to live such a life in order to protect our shores. All this, because of a lie. This is regretful to say the least, and why, because someone has to die in order for someone else to become that much richer.

          • Joe L.
            October 15, 2015 at 14:44

            Joe Tedesky… Yeah, Iraq is a tragedy all the way around but I mostly feel sorry for the people Iraq who had their country destroyed and it had nothing to do with protecting American shores. I never watched American Sniper but I watched a bunch of excerpts from the movie and then read a bunch of excerpts from the book. Just seems to me that Eastwood almost made the US into the victim as has been done in countless movies from Vietnam. There was a time where I actually enjoyed some war movies or cheered for their heroes such as Rambo, or even Eastwood’s movie “Heartbreak Ridge” but now I look at them through a more historic lens and I find that there is really nothing to cheer about. Sometimes it is almost a white-washing of history. To me, “American Sniper” has turned “Red Dawn” on its’ head. Red Dawn made sense to me in the fact that the invader was evil and the heroes were those fighting the invaders but somehow even when the US is the invader it still makes itself into the hero – that’s messed up in my mind.

            Another thing I find interesting are things like Netflix. I am Canadian and our Netflix is a little different then the US version with far less content but it seems like the war movies always seem to make the cut. Argo was fairly new and it jumped to Netflix along with Zero Dark Thirty, White House Down, Dying of the Light, Marine 4 – the Moving Target, PBS – Navy Seals, The Interview, Homeland, Black Hawk Down, Act of Valor, Special Forces, Seal Team 8, Rambo etc. I don’t know, maybe I read too much into it but definitely with Hollywood’s close relationship with the CIA and the Pentagon then we should be a little wary of what we watch and believe.

            I think that I am just at the point in my life where I refuse to be told who to hate anymore because it just seems so senseless to me and is a backward step of where the world needs to move in.

          • Joe Tedesky
            October 15, 2015 at 15:12

            Joe L. by your own words, I can tell you are a kind and caring person. The compassion you speak of regarding the real victims ‘the Iraqi people’, is compassion we should all have for those poor souls. At least Kyle chose his fate, but the Iraqi citizens didn’t have that option. With the lack of finding WMD’s, and a total lack of doing something about that terrible decision to invade, goes without saying of how bankrupt American leadership has become. Life must go on, and I hope that my children and grandchildren’s generation, may correct all this wrong. I have hope.

          • Joe L.
            October 15, 2015 at 15:43

            Joe Tedesky… Thank you for the kind words. One thing that I am happy to see, when I visit sites such as this, are Americans like yourself who truly seem to care about the world and what their government is doing (not that Canada is blameless, I condemn my government for breaking international law by bombing in Syria). Hate and ignorance are really our enemies, I guess. Overall I just want to live in a world where there is not dark agenda behind everything, where truth rules and all countries (and peoples) are treated equally.

          • Joe L.
            October 15, 2015 at 15:56

            Joe Tedesky… Did you ever read this? I read an article on the UNICEF website that claims that wars since the 1990’s kill 90% civilians where at the turn of the 20th century I think this number was at 5%. Maybe that is part of the reason why I am so opposed to war because it is really a war on civilians. So if this is true then with these wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia etc. it is women, children and just outright innocents that are being slaughtered which looks to be in the millions at this point – Iraq being a 1/2 Million to 1 Million people alone (not including those dying from exposure to depleted uranium). How could anyone ignore that or be proud of that? Anyway, here is the article:

            UNICEF: “Patterns in conflict: Civilians are now the target”:

            Civilian fatalities in wartime have climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century … to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.


          • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
            October 16, 2015 at 16:41

            Hollywood may be right-wing, but we can assume the fact those films came out were coincidences. I haven’t read the Wikipedia articles on those films or seasons, but surely they were in production for a few years before the cooling of relations with Iran or the rhetoric against Iran.

            Besides, while the U.S government blacklist ruined the lives of many people associated with Hollywood, the U.S government does not own Hollywood and I believe Hollywood makes films like that of its own accord, because I think it thinks it is doing its patriotic duty.

          • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
            October 16, 2015 at 16:57

            Technically, while I only took a “Canada and International Law” course in Grade 13, and I am not an expert on international law, I do not believe the bombing of Syria is a violation of international law. It would be an act of aggression if we attacked the legitimate government (Assad) but we are attacking the Islamic State, which is trying to overthrow Assad.

            So, while we didn’t have permission from Assad, the bombing of Syria does not violate international law.

          • Joe L.
            October 18, 2015 at 11:58

            Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen… Yes, we are breaking international law by bombing in Syria, absolutely. Here is Article 2(4) of the UN Charter:

            “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

            In other words we do not have permission from the government of Syria and are violating their territory without any permission by the UN or the UN Security Council.

            As for Hollywood’s close relationship with the CIA and Pentagon, basically the US Government. I would say to you that many think tanks in the US plan and influence foreign policy many years ahead of what happens in today’s world. Take the Middle East and you even have people like US 4-star General Wesley Clark exposing in 2007 the plan by the US Government going back before 9/11 for “regime change” in 7 countries throughout the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan & Iran. He also spoke briefly about the “Project for a New American Century” think tank which is tied to this plan. Ultimately, I think to sell future wars you need propaganda and I am sure that plays a hand in some of the TV Shows and Movies that get produced.

            WIRED: “CIA Pitches Scripts to Hollywood” (September 16, 2011):

            The Telegraph UK: “Matthew Rhys interview for The Americans: ‘Our scripts go to the CIA for approval’ (May 31, 2013):

        • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
          October 16, 2015 at 16:31

          The fact that you are a 9/11 conspiracy theorsist gives you no credibility. I believe I read on a website (perhaps Wikipedia or RationalWiki) that “The Lone Gunman” pilot actually led to 9/11 conspiracy theories. Also, I assumed when I read on the Internet that it was short-lived that it was because of ratings.

          • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
            October 16, 2015 at 16:33

            Oh, I spelt “theorist” wrong because of a, to use the slang term, “typo”. Sorry.

          • Joe L.
            October 19, 2015 at 10:15

            Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen… Who is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist? I believe that I wrote that the scene in “American Sniper” eluded to Iraq being responsible for 9/11 – which is completely false. That is not some conspiracy theory, that is fact. Maybe you should read what you are commenting to before making a comment.

          • Joe L.
            October 19, 2015 at 10:38

            Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen… it seems like this comment was aimed at Joe Tedesky but I think labelling someone a “conspiracy theorist” really befuddles intelligent debate. The fact is that under Kennedy, the Department of Defence and Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with a plan to assassinate American citizens in order to advocate an invasion of Cuba – Operation Northwoods. Luckily Kennedy did not go along with this plan but what was truly disturbing is that someone within the US Government establishment could actually even think up such a diabolical plan which has always made me wonder where the line of the US Government sits. There are definitely oddities about 9/11 but frankly I have not looked into it so much that I can really debate on it but what if 9/11 turned out to be Operation Northwoods realized? I don’t know but I look at what the US Government is doing in the rest of the world and I don’t see a lot of humanity or morality in what it is doing. So I think calling Joe Tedesky a “conspiracy theory” removes intelligent debate about a US Government which has proven its’ inhumanity and lack of morality time and time again.

  6. Joe L.
    October 15, 2015 at 11:00

    I think that people need to stop listening to “Official Washington” since it has been flip-flopping for 14 years and blaming everyone else but themselves for the mess that is now the Middle East. It has really come fully circle when even US Generals are suggesting that the US should support Al Qaeda or when other Generals say that there are only 4 or 5 “moderates” left in Syria. Frankly I wonder if the US did not attempt a coup against Assad (7 countries in 5 years) which failed and then erupted into a civil war and has now morphed into some other monster at this point with foreign fighters from all over the map. At this point, I think that Assad is the best game in town and if the US can take off the ruby slippers and stop saying “there is no place like home” or rather “there is nothing better then regime change” then we might be able to bring this conflict to an end. I have also read that China also might start to get involved in Syria but I have not seen anything concrete yet. Maybe if China gets involved then it would force the US to step back unless “Official Washington” wants WW3.

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